The trauma we wear on our faces
The room in a three-story house I moved into in the beginning of fall was half the size of my old one. I did not mind having to sort through my belongings and throwing away useless knick-knacks. I have been a mild hoarder all my life, and it was becoming unsustainable. I vowed to not buy fewer things in the next few months, since I’m planning to, once again, uproot my life halfway across the globe. The only hard exceptions are mirrors. I go to the same thrift store on Mondays to look for one or two to put on a particular wall in my room. So far there are four rectangular mirrors of various sizes on that wall. Lately, I find myself spending a lot of time staring into my reflection, not necessarily out of enjoyment but deep curiosity.
The face holds a lot, I have realized.
In the summer, months after experiencing rape, I was in the middle of my lazy Sunday makeup routine when my then-roommate proclaimed, “You know, your face looks different now.” She explained that though my face still had its natural round shape, it looked tougher. The edges a little sharper. She said no more than this, and I understood her. I had gained some weight after the incident, as well as after graduating college, yet I felt like I was shedding the babyface look I had sworn I would have to bear until the day I die. But there it was, my face: still unmistakably me, yet layered with a very real, physical manifestation of physical abuse which translated itself into fine wrinkles, dark circles, and tough lines. I had noticed that my eyes looked more vigilant, if not meaner.
The traces of my trauma existed everywhere on my body, from my growing belly fat to my heavy upper back. But the changed face is the most public of them all. I remember coming across a series that a photographer did on how differently American soldiers looked before, during, and after a war. Another time, a woman I had a documentary photography class with brought pictures of her grandmother and mother taken when they were around the same age. The grandmother looked a lot youthful and conventionally beautiful. That picture was taken decades before the mother had to go through the rotting ordeal of escaping a war and emigrating to the U.S. from the Middle East. She too, was beautiful, yet in a different way. I saw the face of a woman aged by pain and helplessness, while simultaneously saw a woman whose features reflect her strength and proof of survival.
In my worst days when I stare into my mirrors I see a face that longed for yesterday, when life was relatively tough but without the first-hand encounter of betrayal in the form of sexual assault. I still think often, somewhat jokingly (though seriously), that my face “peaked” in January of this year. But in my best days I wear my face as a proud woman, because my experiences belong, if nowhere else, on the surface of my physical being the world sees first.
From my days in university and through my own leisurely research, I have come across different studies theorizing and elaborating historical trauma, or the cumulative psychological wounding in the span of one’s lifetime and across generations of that person’s family. Since I went to university in the US, I’ve read a little bit about historical trauma among Native Americans because of genocide and more; African Americans because of slavery and beyond; as well as Japanese Americans because of their incarceration after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I’ve also looked at materials concerning the Aboriginals in Australia. What did their ancestors’ faces look like before the last ~500 years happened? What did those faces long for? What kinds of memories did those faces belong to?
What kind of face did my grandfathers and grandmothers, who was born in 1920s to 1930s Indonesia, have when they were a young adult like me? What about their grandfathers and grandmothers? Even before I experienced rape, sometimes I feel a specific pain that comes from being a descendant of a colonized group of people. My body cringed at the thought of figurative rape of the indigenous lands of what would then be Indonesia and the literal rape of who would then be Indonesian women.
As I stare into my mirrors every morning, I ask myself, what kind of face will my descendants have? I wonder: if and when I have a daughter, and if and when she has a daughter, would their faces bear traces of my worry and pain, as well as the cumulative trauma the women in our lineage have collected in our DNA, and not to forget the longing desire of faraway, better days? Would they wear all of these on their faces brave and strong like a warrior I try to be?