“Vanity is the quicksand of reason.” -George Sand (1804-1876)
“I want a face that my husband doesn’t feel the need to Photoshop,” I told my dermatologist, a licensed aesthetician recommended by a girlfriend.
It was the summer of 2005 and my first visit ever to such a doctor. She explained that my thin skin, the result of my natural, dull blonde coloring, made a chemical peel dangerous, especially the strong type needed to attack large areas of sun damage, the result of years at the beach growing up on Okaloosa Island.
She asked me about my vanity, suggesting cautiously that I allow her to freeze the darkest, largest areas from my skin before looking at other options.
“You’ll have scabs on your face for up to six weeks,” she explained. “Once they’re fully healed, we’ll treat your skin as a whole.”
I swallowed hard and closed my eyes as she blow-torched my cheeks and forehead in eight or ten places, leaving as many sores, some as large as a dime.
My husband and I traveled much of that summer. Make-up was pointless, and so I ventured out with nothing but sunscreen and a hat, refusing to let him take my picture.
By August, the sores were gone; I abandoned ideas of any further treatment; and George Rodrigue minimized, or at least hid well, his use of Photoshop on my visage.
Then Katrina hit, and I really forgot about it.
I’ve written before that we were the lucky ones, George and I. Not only did we not lose our home, but also we had another place to go, a house in the country in central California, far from reality. In the summer of 2006, we made our escape, spending six months in Carmel Valley, where George painted, creating something other than relief prints for the first time since the storm. Meanwhile, I tackled a catalogue raisonné of more than six hundred Cajun posters and Blue Dog silkscreens.
Like many, we faced feelings that we hadn’t suffered enough. It was the perfect time to attack my face. With a doctor’s supervision, I began an Obagi program, seven steps both morning and night.
“Whatever you do,” she warned, “don’t quit.”
It was awful —- and very humbling. I bled, peeled, whimpered-in-pain, and generally endured vanity torture for six months. Make-up and powder were impossible. My own husband jumped in alarm as I brought him his coffee one morning, claiming he mistook me, my chin and jaw peeling profusely, for Obi-Wan Kenobi.
According to my doctor, I shed seven layers of skin in those six months. It was expensive, about fifteen hundred dollars in all, but in my mind I offset that cost against the money I saved on make-up, dinners out, and travel. And, most important, I was paying for a life’s lesson, perhaps better than any therapy.
“You look good in the dark,” said George one evening. We both laughed, as I applied a bit of lip-gloss and a cool rag to my face before going to a friend’s house for dinner.
Eventually the holidays arrived, we returned to New Orleans, and I took a break. It was then, as my skin heeled, that I saw the changes. I switched to a minimal maintenance program, the same one I use today, visiting the doctor twice a year. I never, ever leave my house without sunscreen.
Astonished by my new face, my family and friends asked me about the program.
“Six months of bleeding and peeling! No way!” was the general response. I can’t say that I blame them. My face was my post-Katrina torture — the outward reflection of my inner shame.
Despite a new face, I can’t say that running the gauntlet cured anything beneath the surface. This very article is the case in point. I returned quickly to the makeup, highlights and dinner parties. For a while, however, the treatments were a strange form of purification, a way of facing the guilt.
And George? He’s back to taking pictures…
...and he hasn’t Photoshopped me since.
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
Also this week: “White Linen Night, the Unexpected” from Musings of an Artist’s Wife