Monday, July 27, 2009

Slanted Eyes and Crooked Smile (Gay and Old)

I have never liked to have my picture taken. Whenever it's been taken, I've always harshly judged it according to specific criteria.

For example, when I was much younger, I'd always look at a picture of me and decide if it was any good based on whether my eyes were open or my mouth was straight. That's because I had a habit of blinking my eyes at the exact time the person taking the picture pressed the shutter. I can't tell you how many pictures I ruined because I had slanted eyes--ones that made me look like I was drunk, even though I didn't drink alcohol.

And about my mouth being straight? This consistently happened, picture after picture, because, before I had my teeth and jawline straightened when I was in my early thirties, my smile always looked crooked due to crooked teeth and a severe overbite. The harder I tried to smile naturally, the worse pictures I took, until I learned I couldn't take good pictures at all, resulting in me running away from cameras as soon as they came out. That's why there are so few pictures of me when I was growing up and well into my twenties and thirties.

I've always dreamed of having a perfect, beautiful smile. Some people can't take bad pictures. Cameras physically love them, they are that attractive, and their smiles are easy and natural. Their jawlines are straight, their teeth are a dentist's dream, and they look great in pictures no matter what. A celebrity example that comes readily to mind is Farrah Fawcett, who, before she got sick with anal cancer and passed away, always looked spectacular in photographs. In part, that's because she was at ease in front of photographers, and she was stunningly beautiful.

Some people are naturals in the presence of cameras. They love cameras, they love having their pictures taken, and it shows in their gorgeous pictures. They've had lots of reinforcement over the years. When, at an early age, you see yourself in pictures, and you like what you see, you develop a comfort level in front or cameras. You learn to move or pose in such a way that you know will come across great in pictures. Or, better yet, you learn not to pose at all. You just be yourself, engaging in whatever activities you do, and, if someone happens to snap your pictures, you look great. You can't help it. That's just the way it is.

But not in my case. So, in an effort to improve my smile, I decided to undergo nearly three years of orthodontics and jaw surgery in my early to mid thirties. After spending a lot of time and money, and enduring a lot of inconvenience, discomfort, and pain, I was so excited that I'd finally have the smile of my dreams. That I'd finally be able to stand in front of a camera and be as natural and as at ease as the next guy and, as a consequence, take one great picture after another. From that point forward, I was confident there wouldn't be another bad picture of me.

But that's one goal I never achieved. Yes, my jaw and teeth were straight, looking one hundred percent better than they had before all the work. But I've learned that they do not a great smile make. A great smile is a function of good bone structure in the face, particularly in the mouth area, that allows one to leave one's lower and upper teeth together while opening the lips and forming a smile. Ideally, the open mouth has a nice shape and is filled with teeth that are in alinement, filling the open lips from one end of the mouth to the other, while not showing too much gum line.

This is not me, and I knew it wasn't when one of the dentists who worked on correcting my smile asked me to keep my teeth together, then open my mouth in the formation of a smile. By his reaction, I knew right away that he didn't like what he saw, so, after work that day, I went home and, looking in the mirror, I followed his instructions from earlier that day. I completely understood why he reacted the way he did, because I hated what I saw too.

From that point forward, I knew that my straight jawline and teeth wouldn't guarantee an easy, natural smile. That I'd have to practice smiling in the mirror so that, when I was faced with the inevitable camera, I'd know how to form my mouth so that my smile would be, at the very least, decent.

Alas, taking good pictures is still hit and miss for me. Sometimes, I've taken pictures that stun me because I believe they are as good representations of how I think I project myself to the world as I've ever seen. But, most of the time, I'm still disappointed by how I appear in them, and I still do everything I can to avoid cameras, even though sometimes that can't be done.

I hasten to add here, too, that I know taking good pictures has everything to do with being relaxed in front of the camera. If you act naturally when a camera comes out, not going into great conniptions to avoid having your picture taken, you're more likely to look good in pictures. That's why, for many people, candid pictures are best--ones that are taken when their subjects have no idea the camera is there. In general, candid pictures are flattering and good representations of who the people in them are.


Last Friday, in preparation for meeting Chris for dinner after he returned home from work, I showered and shaved. My hair cut earlier in the week, I used a little moulding wax to style it up in front and close to the head on the sides (instead of wearing it down in front and putting no product in it at all, which is what I usually do now). Looking in the bathroom mirror after getting dressed, I thought I looked better than I usually do when I bum around the house all day, completing tasks and working on my writing. No, what I said to Chris when I saw him was that I thought I looked cute, if I'm even capable of that, and I told him that I wanted him to take pictures of me so I'd have something more current to use on my Facebook profile.

What? I wanted someone to take pictures of me? Was I ill? I think Chris thought I was, but he was game for it. After all, I've ruined many a picture in the past when he's wanted to take some of me, and I've refused to have that device in my face on many occasions. Chris pretty much knows that getting a good picture of me at that point is hopeless. Isn't going to happen.

When we returned home after being out for dinner early Friday evening, the sun was low in the sky, shining directly in our back yard. Chris got the idea to take my picture sitting there, sun illuminating everything in the area of our deck. He asked me to sit in a lawn chair on the deck and be natural while he snapped my pic. Be natural. Yeah, okay. I can do that.

But Chris and I have a very different idea of when I look good in pictures. He looks at me all the time, so, when he takes a picture of me that he knows represents what I look like according to what he sees, he thinks it's a good one, and he's pleased with himself for having taken it.

On the other hand, I guess I want to look like something I'm not, because, when I see the pictures he's taken of me on the camera display, I become progressively disappointed in how I look. Most of the time, my eyes are open now, and I don't have to worry so much about appearing with them slanted.

My mouth is still problematic for me. As I said before, despite having a straight jawline and teeth, I don't have a strong, handsome smile, one that looks natural and easy. I still have to work at it, and, sometimes, my smile looks good (usually when I don't try so hard and I'm not smiling full out), and sometimes it doesn't look so good (when I'm intent on taking a good picture, or when Chris wants me to smile and tries to make me laugh before the picture is taken).

I hate when Chris tries to make me laugh before snapped my picture. I think he realizes, as I do, that smiles are better when they're natural, not when they're produced through enthusiastic laughter, but, in an effort to help me relax, he works on helping me feel more at ease in front of the camera by saying something funny, which often has the opposite effect. I sometimes yell at him for making me laugh--for insisting that I have a full out smile every time he pushes the shutter--but he thinks that's how I look best in pictures. I couldn't disagree more.

The bottom line is, I think all of us have a certain vision of ourselves, how we think we look, and we want pictures taken of us to reflect that vision. That is, we want to appear in pictures the way we imagine we appear to people in real life, but that vision and reality are two different things altogether.

And what I learned, after downloading the pictures Chris took of me last Friday, is that I have even more to worry about now, in terms of how I appear in pictures, than I did in the past, when I paid most attention to whether my eyes were slanted or my smile was crooked. I discovered two other issues are far worse than those.

The first is if I look gay. What? I'm worried about whether or not I look gay in pictures. Hello? I am gay, so how can I think I won't look gay?

Oh, this is a sneaky little one. As I've alluded before, homophobia manifests itself in so many different ways, not just in straight people towards gay people, but in gay people toward other gay people, and, even worse, in a gay person toward himself. And, clearly, one of the ways, for me, is how I appear in pictures.

I'm gay, and I know that. I've been gay my entire life, even though I resisted it for many years. That part of me won't change any time soon. I've been openly out, more or less, since I was in my mid-twenties, which is roughly half my life, and I've been fortunate enough to be in a thoroughly satisfying, monogamous relationship for over seventeen years. So you'd think that I'd be completely comfortable with being gay.

But, obviously, I'm not. When I had a look at some of the pictures Chris took of me last Friday, there were some in which I thought I looked gay. And I hated them. On top of everything else that can go wrong with pictures of me, I don't want to look gay. I don't want people to see pictures of me and to think "gay" automatically, even though that's exactly what I am. It's just like gay men emphasizing they are straight looking and straight acting. For them, as well as for me, straight is still preferable to being gay in our world, and we need to change that. I wonder what it will take before we drop the charade and accept ourselves unconditionally once and for all.

The other characteristic of the pictures that concerned me, in a way that I haven't been concerned before, is that I look older than I thought I did. Yes, I see myself in the bathroom mirror in the morning, so I know about the lines around my eyes, across my forehead, and around my mouth. But do I really look that old to people who see me in real life--many have said that I don't look my age at all, that I look up to ten years younger--or are pictures more stark and harsh when it comes to details around age, weight, and the like?

It seems to me that the days during which I might have taken good pictures are gone forever, if they ever arrived. I've gone from being worried about my slanted eyes and crooked smile in the past, to looking gay and old now. And, I suspect it won't get any better in the near or distant future.

The point is that, I've found something wrong with me my entire life. All pictures do is freeze a moment in time of whatever insecurities we have, particularly where our physical appearance is concerned. If pictures don't lie, and I now have to live with increasingly looking gay and older, then it appears I have a choice: either I can continue to hate the way I look, which is the route I've taken in the past, or I can learn to accept my appearance and to embrace it.

As I near my fiftieth birthday, I think one of the best gifts I could ever give myself would be to accept unconditionally who I am and how I look. If I can't do that by now, when will I ever have the courage to do it?


  1. Your eyes are fine, your smile looks great, we're all getting older...can't help you with the gay part :). You're too hard on yourself (say I who is just as critical of her own pics). Some of the shots we took at the Rec Centre were good. Some of the shots on your FB site are quite nice too.
    Personally I think you've grown into your looks, and they look good on you. We can't escape the aging, but I look at wrinkles as being notches in life's belt - we made it through another year, or decade! Maybe I'm strange, but I love people with craggy faces because the lines all tell stories.
    A great smile, to me, is one that comes from the heart. It lights up the face and makes the eyes glow. Even if it's crooked (which some people find sexy), showing too much gum, or contains bad teeth. I've seen some great toothless wonder smiles!
    I think you have a wonderful smile Rick. I always have.

  2. Jeanette, you are such a sweetheart, and I'm so grateful for your friendship and your wonderful words. You have a no-nonsense way of looking at things, and I love the different perspective you give me to consider. I'm sure you'll agree that it's easy to focus on the negative about oneself, pulling everything apart and never being happy. It's when someone from the outside, who doesn't live with us every day, takes another view and shows us a different way of looking at ourselves, that we perhaps see reality a little clearer.
    While I wrote this piece, I worried that it was self-indulgent. Yet, I knew it's how I feel--have always felt--so, in that sense, it was completely honest, and I knew other people would understand what I wrote because they feel the same way about themselves. All I want to do is put into words what I think and feel because I know I'll give a voice to someone else who thinks and feels the same way. Thanks for confirming that from your honest comments.
    I agree. There are all kinds of great smiles out there, some unconventional. And, true again, the smile is more than just the formation of the mouth and the quality of the teeth. Smiles really do come from the heart, and I so appreciate you pointing that out. You are absolutely right.
    Happy smiles, Jeanette. And thanks again so much for reading my long posts and being so helpful with your observations.

  3. Forgive me, Rick, but I did chuckle a couple of times as I read your blog - not because I was laughing at you, but because I could see myself in many of your comments! We are a vain bunch, aren't we? I didn't know you before your jaw work, so I can't speak for the long-ago past, but in the 12 years since we met I have never once thought about your smile being anything but genuinely pleasing and uplifting. Remember all those incredibly boring leadership meetings that went on and on? There were always two highlights for me - one was Derek's input (which was interesting, short, and informative), and the other was your smile (not many people smiled at those meetings). It was always a letdown when you weren't there. You greeted me like a long-lost friend and you really listened to what I had to say. I also remember the first time I had a real conversation with you. I was new to VPC and spent some time in every department to familiarize myself with the processes, and I was with you for an afternoon in ATM. I felt like I'd found a kindred spirit when I talked to you. I had not even considered the fact that you might be gay (hence, the not "looking" gay) - not that it made any difference - and I appreciated your friendly smile even then. You need to break out the ivories all the time!

  4. Wendy, you have just made my day. I had no idea you felt that way about me when we both worked at INTRIA. It's funny, isn't it, that we go through life completely unaware of the (hopefully) positive effect we have on other people.
    I have very fond memories of the afternoon we spent together in ATM, when you were new to the Centre. I felt like I really connected with you, that we understood each other in ways that I didn't feel with many other people on the leadership team. That afternoon was special for me, and I'll never forget it.
    Thanks so much for the kind words about my smile. You know from my post how much work it's been for me to come to terms with it--in other words, to come to terms with how I come across to other people. What you've shared tells me that my smile does just what I'd always hoped it would--not necessarily betray my sexual orientation, which I've always felt I had to downplay, but welcome people and make them feel warm and good about themselves. I can't ask for better than that.
    Thanks again for sharing and for your honesty. I really appreciate it.