In the summer of 1997, when I was eleven years old, my mom and grandmother and I made a road-trip pilgrimage to the suburbs of Chicago to visit my late second cousin and her husband. For the most part, this was a pleasant visit; I idolized my second cousin, an extremely sophisticated ad exec with effortless fashion sense who would later give me my first New Yorker subscription. At that time I was at peak adolescent awkwardness, a too-tall babyfaced half Asian tomboy still too uncomfortable with my physicality to deviate much from a uniform of oversized tees and baggy boys shorts. In other words, I was self-conscious in a way most anyone is at that age.
But Chicago was fun; my dad, who also lived in the city, bought me my first pair of Doc Martens, I'd lounge around my cousin's unimaginably luxurious suburban home reading and scratching at the mosquito bites that kept cropping up on my sun-brown hairy legs. My cousin had two Australian shepherds, beautiful, energetic dogs that became my buddies during my stay (I loved dogs in a way that only girls who haven't yet fully discovered boys can.) One of them, Sam, had bright, white eyes, making him always look inordinately thrilled to see me.
One day I was waiting for my dad to pick me up for another afternoon in the city. He must have been running a little late, because I found myself in the foyer killing time however an 11 year old killed time in the smartphone-free nineties. I was wearing my new Docs and one of my favorite tee-shirts, which featured the classic Apple "Dogcow" icon and his trademark slogan, "Moof!" I was feeling pretty jaunty and cool.
At one point, Sam found his way into the foyer, poking his black and white head around aimlessly, apparently just stopping by to see what was up. (In retrospect, come to think of it, he looked a lot like the Dogcow.) I went over to him automatically to pet him, but unlike all the times before, he flinched and backed up with a low growl. Confused, but not deterred, I leaned forward again to try to scratch his ears. And that's when he leapt forward and lunged for my eye.
Don't worry, he didn't get it — which I am grateful for every single day. I enjoy seeing, especially with depth perception. But he did take out a large chunk of my eyebrow and forehead, and the next 12 hours were a blur. As my cousin sped my mom and I to the emergency room, I looked down and realized my blood-spattered Moof shirt had been ripped in places, so apparently he kept going after the initial jump. I had my first reconstructive surgery later that day.
Even if people didn't think they notice something, they do
That was followed a year later with a second surgery, but in the meantime my mom and I moved from Washington State to Iowa, where I began eighth grade the worst way to begin eighth grade: at a brand new school in a new place with a jarringly asymmetrical face. Following that, in an effort to relax the parts of my eyebrow that still wanted to creep up my forehead, I got a round of a new cosmetic beauty treatment called Botox, at the wizened old age of thirteen.
Eventually it seemed wise to give up. The second surgery had been pretty successful, my eyebrow was still at a definite arch but it was not something most people noticed in casual encounters. (The Botox had been ineffective at doing anything other than causing the right side of my deadened face to sag ever-so-slightly for a week.) I continued my teenage years and the rest of my life with this face; I had my first kiss with this face, graduated high school, moved to Los Angeles, went through several jobs and boyfriends. I was still, of course, hyperaware of my eyebrow (especially in photos, in which I see a reversed image of myself that I'm not used to seeing in the mirror,) but several times, after months of dating someone, I'd tell him this whole story and get a reply of "Wait ... there's something wrong with your face?"
But even if people didn't think they noticed something, they did. I started to realize this after getting my first driver's permit: when I went into the booth to get my photo taken, I gave what I recall being a perfectly good-natured, bland smile (chin down, of course; I'd been reading Vogue.) But when I showed it off to friends, the reaction wasn't congratulations, or even the good-natured ribbing most of my classmates got for their horrible photos. "So much attitude!" they said. "You look pissed!" I looked at it again; I suppose there was something snarky lurking behind my dark-rimmed glasses, but I certainly didn't remember trying to affect that — whatever that was.
And variations of that would continue for years; usually in the context of looking at photos; invariably if anyone got a look at my driver's license. In my most recent ID, I purposefully parted my hair so that it fell down over my right eyebrow, I still invariably am met with a "whoa there, sassypants!" In my previous job at Grantland, my byline photo at the bottom of every article I wrote was often met with comments about what a smug know-it-all I looked like, even on posts that were effusive and harmless. (Until we turned the comments off!)
Like so many people, the internet has stunted me into a socially inept robot person who doesn't know how to make friends in the real world, but it doesn't help that when I meet a new acquaintance, my natural RBF (resting bitch face, as seen in fancy newspaper The New York Times,) is coupled with an unnatural RRE (resting raised eyebrow.) I've sometimes come away from social interactions and wondered why things I said with sincerity were met with a hard, knowing laugh, why people often defaulted to irony and snark with me after I just saw them have a far less guarded conversation with someone else across the bar. Most of the time I don't even get the "smile, honey" so many RBF sufferers are met with on a daily basis, I'm guessing because most construction workers (or colleagues, or publicists, or bartenders) get one look at me and figure I already hate them.
I realize I have very little to complain about
I sometimes wonder about the degree to which I've internalized these subtle reactions, in the same way garden-variety RBFers do as well. To walk through the world not automatically fulfilling an unspoken quota of female cheer is one thing; I actually find parts of that to be liberating. (Don't talk to me about this "Resting Dick Face," GQ, everyone knows grumpy men are automatically more interesting and valued in society than grumpy women and cheerful men. Kidding! That was the eyebrow talking.) But to walk through the world being perceived as actively disdainful is to experience much of it at a disingenuous arm's length, like being stuck in permanent IRL Oscars Twitter.
My injury didn't leave me disfigured, there is no systematic discrimination against people with RBF or RRE, and it hasn't stopped me from getting jobs (except in the service industry, which I found it confoundingly difficult to break into in college.) I realize I have very little to complain about. But no matter how much we move our lives and social interactions online, faces are still very important realities — we'll never know how many terabytes of subtle information we're broadcasting from the god- or dog-given way our eyebrows sit on our face or our mouths curve upward or downward. And even given the opportunity to hide behind an avatar, there's probably a reason I still choose Boo, hiding his (suuuuper bitchy) face from the world.