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Own your face | Robert Hoge | TEDxSouthBank

Own your face | Robert Hoge | TEDxSouthBank

Translator: Ella McIntosh
Reviewer: Denise RQ You’re all ever so pretty. Most of us don’t own our faces. They might sit at 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 do you know who’s most to blame? Me, you, us. The biggest obstacle to us
owning our faces is us disowning them when we ogle a photoshopped
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 and 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
form at the front of 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 prenatal 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’s 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 found herself
standing at the side of my cot, 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 priests, and having a discussion about me, and she was worried about the impact 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 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, Katherine,
who was only four at the time, reckoned she only said yes
because everyone else said yes before her. (Laughter) 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 squished 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 – 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 are 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
at afternoon tea. (Laughter) So that all sounded
pretty interesting to my parents, and then the doctors
started talking about the risks, “Look, there could be excessive bleeding,
there could be an infection, we might stuff it up,
the operation might not work,” and by the way, they said, “There’s a one in four chance
your son may die on the operating table” – one in four. Now, my dad was a gambling man,
and he did not like those odds. He started arguing
with my mum and my doctors, and said, “Why would we risk
our son dying? Why would we risk him dying
at that high a chance just for pride of appearance?”
as he called it. Now, my mum, 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. They 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 am 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 (Laughter) and they did. So by the time I was 14, I’d accumulated a pretty strong
playing roster of nicknames: Jake the peg, Pinocchio – which didn’t make any sense
because his nose grew – (Laughter) stumpy, retard, and a quite specific
and actually pretty awful: toe-nose. And those were the sort of things that stopped me
being comfortable with my own face, those were the sort of things
that stopped me owning my face. It’s hard to 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 had started to notice girls and I’d started to notice girls
noticing my face, and doctors had started to notice
me noticing girls noticing my face. (Laughter) So they said, “Well, we better
get stuck into Robert again,” so what they said was OK,
we’re going to do another big operation. And by then, I’d had
about two dozen operations, some minor, some like the remaking
of Robert Hoge when I was 4 – quite substantial – and they said, “OK, we’re
going to do another one.” So what they told my parents was, “Look. We’ll fill in the bumps at the side
of his head, where his eyes were, we’ll get rid of some scars, we’ll 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 them again
just about a centimeter closer, and I’d look wonderfully perfect,
perhaps like David Hasslehoff, who knows? (Laughter) And so, my parents started
talking to me about that, and then we started
talking about the risks, the same risks were there:
infection, bleeding, they could undo the good work
they did when I was four, and they said, “Oh, by the way, because we’re moving
the orbit of your eyes, there’s a one in four chance
you might go blind.” So, we discussed it a bit, and then my parents did the worst possible thing
they have ever done to me, ever. They said, “Now, 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-9 boy,
the worst possible form of humanity (Laughter) 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 where my brothers and sisters had voted
to bring me home 14 years earlier and talked to my parents about it. And my brother was there listening in, and we talked about
the opportunities and 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’d 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 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’ve looked like
if I had 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 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. 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 looked
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 of those kinds of things. And those sort of things are what give us
entry to the tribes who we 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, 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 in to 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 that 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 as if 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 brushstrokes
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? (Applause)

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