Robert Hoge: Own Your Face

You’re all ever so pretty. Most of us don’t own our faces. They might see that the front of our heads and go everywhere we travel but we don’t actually really own them and sure the usual suspects are to blame: Hollywood, advertisers, our peers, our lovers but you know who is most to blame? Me, you, us — the biggest obstacle to us owning our faces is us designing them. When we ogle a Photoshop magazine cover, when we click on the link promising celebrity photos without makeup, when we look away from the mirror that little bit too quickly, we are the Red Queen running, racing faster and faster, just to stand still.

Take my story, for example. You might see that I’ve got some facial deformities, and they’ve been around quite a while. When I was developing in my mother’s womb, I had a massive tumor formed at the front of my head, about my face, it was at the top of my forehead and went all the way down to where the tip of my nose should have been, it was about the size of my newborn baby’s fist, and it formed early in my development and pushed my eyes to the side of my head, like a fish.

Now back in the dark ages of the 1970s, there was no pre-natal scans. So my parents didn’t know this was coming. So my mother, when I was born, realized something was wrong. So her first question to the doctors and nurses wasn’t: is it a boy or a girl? Her first question was: is my baby OK?

“No, Mrs. Hoge”, the doctor said, “he is not OK. There is something wrong with his head and something wrong with his legs.” Now my mother didn’t see me before I was born — and when I was born. I was taken away to the nursery and she went back to the mothers’ ward, and she stayed there about a week, refusing to see me. She had visitors. Other than my father, I had none. She had people coming and asking her if she’d go and see her newborn baby, and she refused.

But eventually, she changed her mind, and she’s found herself standing at the side of my cart, looking down at this. And she rejected me. She decided then and there that she couldn’t connect with this face. She didn’t want to own it. She didn’t want to own me.

So she went back to the mothers’ ward and a week later, she went home. And I stayed in hospital.

So she was home and she was home for about another month, and she started talking to my father and her friends and her family and her doctors and her priest and having a discussion about me. And she was worried about the impact of bringing me home would have on my brothers and sisters. And over a month or so, her view started to soften a bit. And so she thought if she’s so worried about the impact of bringing me home will have on my brothers and sisters, she better actually give them a bit of a say.

So one Saturday morning they sat down at our kitchen table and had a family discussion. And they talked about my face and about my legs, and talked about whether they should bring me home. And my parents gave my brothers and sisters a vote and they asked: should we bring Robert home? And one by one, my brothers and sisters said yes. My younger sister Catherine was only four at the time, reckoned she only said yes, because everyone else said yes before her. So maybe peer pressure is OK, sometimes.

And home, I came and after I came home, my parents had to actually then take me out into the big wide world. And when they did, they started to notice people’s reactions and it’s quite funny. In terms of participation in society, it’s probably the fact that I have no legs that has more of an impact than my face. But people who meet me for the first time often don’t even realize I have prosthetics, we are judged on our faces.

So my mother would take me shopping and she’d see people staring. My dad would take me swimming and he’d listen to other kids ask about my squish nose and my funny face.

So by the time, I got to about four, doctors had spoken to my parents, and they said, “Look, we want to fix this. We want to do some pretty major surgery on Robert’s face to make it look a little bit more normal, so he can socialize when he gets to school.” Now I’d had a couple of operations before then, one to remove the tumor on the front of my face, so I was left with a flat face, and a few other minor things but this was going to be a pretty major operation.

And the doctors told my parents, they’re going to do about 40 different surgical procedures. First of all, they’re going to slice open my face, cut a V-shaped chunk out of my skull, push my eyes back to the front of my face. And then because I had no nose, they were going to use one of the deformed toes they were amputating to build me a new one. Simple, right? We’ll give it a go outside and afternoon tea.

So that all sounded pretty interesting to my parents, and then the doctors started talking about the risks. And look, there could be excessive bleeding, there could be an infection, we might stuff it up the operation, might not work. Oh and by the way they said, there’s a one in four chance your son may die on the operating table. 1 in 4!

Now my dad was a gambling man and he did not like those odds. He started arguing with my mom and my doctors and said: Why would we risk our son dying? Why would we risk him dying at that higher chance just for pride of appearance as he called it.

Now my mom I think understood better the importance of appearance and at least having something a bit more normal of an appearance when you’re growing up. And so they argued back and forth, back and forth for months and went back and forth to the doctors with questions about the risks and could it be mitigated and getting a sense of what it would mean. And it got to the point where my mother threatened to leave my father and go away and sign off permission for the operation to go ahead on her own. Luckily it didn’t come to that, my father eventually agreed and I survived.

After that I looked a little bit more human, I had a less than perfect nose, but I had eyes at the front of my head and I got on with life.

Skip ahead ten years. I’m 14, kids are pretty much guided missiles when it comes to finding every bump, every scar, every nose made out of an old toe that they can find. And they did. So by the time I was 14, I had accumulated a pretty strong playing roster of nicknames: Jake the pig, Pinocchio which didn’t make any sense because he’s known to grow and stumpy, retard and a quite specific and actually pretty awful toe nose.

And those were the sorts of things that stopped me being comfortable with my face. Those were the things that stopped me owning my face. It’s hard to sort of deal with pimples and bad haircuts when you don’t look like everyone else and you look so different from everyone else.

So doctors then started talking to my parents about another operation, because at that stage I’d started to notice girls, and I’d started to notice girls noticing my face. And doctors had started to notice me noticing girls knows my face. So they said, well, we better get stuck into Robert again.

So what they said is, OK, we’re going to do another big operation. And by then I had about two dozen operations, some minor, some like the re-making of Robert Hoge when I was four, quite substantial. And they said, OK, we’re going to do another one.

So what they told my parents, they said, look, we’ll fill in the bumps at the side f his head where his eyes were and we’ll get rid of some scars, we will remake him a new and much better nose for the second time. And because making me a new nose would emphasize that my eyes were still a little bit too far apart, they’d move him again just about a centimeter close up, and I’d look wonderfully perfect, perhaps like David Hasselhoff, who knows.

And so my parents started talking to me about that and then we started talking about the risks, and you know, the same risks of infection, bleeding, they could undo the good work they did when I was four and the scar, by the way because we’re moving the orbit of your eyes, there’s a one in four chance you might go blind.

OK, so we discussed it a bit and then my parents did the worst possible thing they have ever done to me, ever. They said, ‘Robert, you’re 14; you’re almost an adult, it’s your choice. It’s entirely your choice, it’s up to you. If you want to have this, great; if you don’t want to have this, great.’

Now I was a grade nine boy, the worst possible form of humanity, I didn’t know how to make this decision. So we talked for a while about the risks and eventually it came to decision time. So I sat down with my parents at the same kitchen table when my brothers and sisters had voted to bring me home 14 years earlier.

And I talked to my parents about it and my brother was there listening in. And we talked about the opportunities and the risks and he stayed silent the entire time, until we brought up the fact: the operation could cost me my eyesight. And he then piped up and said, “What use is it being pretty if he can’t even see himself?” In that instant, I owned my face, until then my life had been governed by my appearance but I’d never had much say in that. Decisions were made about the fate of my face by my parents, by my doctors, by social workers, by kids teasing me.

And the comment from my brother made me realize that I had a choice and I could actually own my face by exercising that choice. I didn’t figure I’d necessarily ever be worth painting but I was done with being the doctors’ canvas. I think it was the right decision. I’m pretty sure it was, I kind of think that if they made me look a bit more normal, I’m never going to look perfectly normal and there’s always that bit of dissonance. And there’s this thing — this idea called the uncanny valley in robotics and computer animation and it refers to this idea that as artificial faces become more normal looking and more realistic they become that little bit more off-putting, because we can tell the difference between Daffy Duck and a CGI creation and that CGI creation just looks that little bit wrong. And there’s an uncanny valley of ugliness too, and that’s where I would have been.

But it got me thinking about what I might have looked like if I hadn’t had the operation, and I think it might have been something like this. Now that’s a pretty deep uncanny valley right there. I don’t know anyone who thinks that looks better than this. I’m happy to hear we can have an argument and you can tell me about it. But it’s quite off-putting looking at that face.

And I think there’s an uncanny valley of ugliness too, and it relates perfectly to notions of ideal beauty. We try to define ideal beauty like it’s Mount Everest and that everyone needs to climb it. That’s actually wrong. Ideal beauty is much better when we think about it as a million different points on the map. Sure, if you want to go to Mount Everest, go. Walk up to base camp, wave at the summit. But then choose your own point on the map and walk away from it.

Because it’s the choices that matter and my — funnily enough, my ugliness made it easier for me to own my face than many of you. But we all face choices every day. I had one choice when I was 14, about one aspect of my face and I exercised that choice and it has governed how I look for the rest of my life. But we all make choices every day to shave, to wear makeup and if so, how much, to wear piercings, to bleach our lip hair, all those kinds of things.

And those sorts of things are what give us entry to the tribes who want to enter. Choosing to dress like a Goth is exactly the same choice as looking like a bearded hipster. It’s just a different decision.

So a year or so ago, a friend of mine, an artist friend of mine Nick Stathopoulos asked me to make a decision. He asked if he could paint my portrait. And I said, OK sure, no worries. I figured at worst case it would mean I had to sit still for a while. So I went and sat for Nick and he did some sketches and talked about some of his ideas and then I went away and he invited me back a couple of months later to see progress on the work. And I went into his studio and looked at this massive portrait of my face and just stood silent for two whole minutes. And this is what I saw.

Now until then I thought owning my face meant no one else could own it. But I looked at this portrait, disturbed, voiceless, silent, crying because it seemed to me that Nick had gone and owned my face for me. It seemed like this portrait captured every piece of pain, every bit of life I had felt since I was 14. And I think the important thing there is plenty of other people will try to own our faces, but have they put a million brush strokes into owning our faces.

You can own your face, too. Owning is choosing. Choose to accept your face. Choose to appreciate your face. Don’t look away from the mirror so quickly. Understand all the love and the life and the pain that is part of your face, that is the art of your face.

Tomorrow when you wake up, what will your choice be?