Saturday, 6 April 2013

Face training

Can you make your face do what you want it to, and give yourself (for instance) a relaxed default expression that makes you seem pleasant and interesting and approachable to other people? Or do you think you are stuck with a perpetually sad or worried look - or something positively offputting, such as a permanent frown? Or even worse, a male-type smile or gurn or grimmace, when you want to be taken for a natal girl?

Unwanted or inappropriate expressions can be dealt with, by training the muscles of your face to do something different. I've been working on this for four years, ever since the start of my transition.

This is not an exercise in vanity, or in being narcissistic, or in merely learning how to look coquettish or seductive. It's an essential part of one's interpersonal skills. And, from the point of view of passing, I believe it's as important as hair or clothes or voice. Maybe more so. Your face will always be the first thing people fix on when they notice you. It's got to wear the right expression. Some people I know seem to be relying wholly on facial surgery and makeup to make their faces look right. I think that's an error. I think one should learn to control the muscles of the face too, and I'd like to explain what I've been doing and the thinking behind it.

I recognised a long time ago that a face suiting a male way of life wouldn't do at all for a female way of life. Just as a male way of speaking, or walking, or eating, or blowing one's nose wouldn't do. Male expressions were too po-faced and ponderous, lacking fluidity and subtlety, and were in any case intended to project and support the premise (false or not) that a man had to be assertive, serious, and a strong leader. So the typical man's face was a bluff, confident, 'can-do' one, a face that said 'I have knowledge and know-how; I am equal to any situation, and I will persuade you to my correct point of view'.

It was a conventional ideal. But when I thought of the men I'd encountered at work in the Revenue, it was an ideal that was rigidly upheld. No man of senior status, no man with any aspirations at all, had a face that reflected their true emotions, their passing moments of doubt or indecision. Some men must have been upset or piqued or made angry from time to time, but you'd never know. Revenue life inured you to insults and crossness anyway, and the culture encouraged a cool and carefully-considered approach to every situation. Losing your temper or dissolving into tears of frustration during a stress-loaded face-to-face meeting was a disaster that would probably kill the enquiry, with ongoing consequences for your career. So no man would ever risk showing emotion, unless they did it as a managerial ploy at the office. And their female colleagues, in similar situations, did exactly the same.

But that was at work. What about ordinary social life? In particular, the face of a woman in ordinary circumstances?

Although it may seem pretty obvious that one needs to retrain the face when plunged into a new milieu, nothing much about this topic comes up on the Internet if you do a search. And nobody I've ever met during transition has sat me down and shown me how they acquired their own convincing female facial expressions. Make-up is much discussed, yes, but not how to change the shape of the underlying flesh from moment to moment, by this or that facial movement. So it's clearly got to be a do-it-yourself project.

What do you need? A prior study of women's faces. Mirrors. Variable lighting. Time. Commitment and lots of practice. Plenty of real-life experimentation, and careful noting of the results.

Studying women's faces isn't hard to do. It can be done from the TV. But not from dramas or news broadcasts. You need to watch programmes where women can be relaxed and expressive. Frivolous game or chat shows, perhaps. Better still, women chatting in real-life situations - coffee shops maybe. However, the advantage with TV is that you can stare at them in privacy, to your heart's content.

Mirrors. One mirror is useful, but two or more are much better. The old-fashioned dressing-table, with a main mirror in front of you and two angled mirrors at either side, was excellent for studying your face from two or more directions at the same time. It can be simulated by standing at an angle in front of a wall mirror, and holding a large hand mirror in one hand. You can then see two reflections at the same time. Varying the angle of the hand mirror lets you see your face in various ways, so that if you are developing an engaging smile, or a look of sympathetic concern, you can see how it appears and make corrections. You can practice speaking, remembering that most women keep their upper row of teeth constantly exposed as they speak, which is something men don't do as a rule. (It must be some primeval signal of reassurance, that says 'I am friendly and mean no harm') You can practice a blank expression that still looks intelligent and alert, or at least pleasant. You can play with your eyes, making them wide, slitty, poppy, lazy. It's interesting how using two mirrors at an angle can show you how your eyes appear when you look sideways at something - it's often rather flattering. You can play with your eyebrows to suggest irony or surprise; wrinkle your nose; pout; tilt your head; cup or hold your face with your free hand, or twirl a strand of hair around a finger. And so on. Whatever the movement or expression, you keep on practicing it until it becomes natural and habitual. So that your face gets into the right shape without thinking, as the occasion, or emotion, or concern for another, demands.

Mirror work with a variable light will show you how you look in different types of lighting. In strong daylight, or lamplight in the evening; and in particular how shadow alters your appearance. The hormones gradually give you fuller cheeks, and it's a good idea to know when a strong light will show them off best.

None of this can be done in a day. I've found I have to train my face as often as possible. It takes time and commitment, and practice, practice, practice, just like training one's voice. And like the voice, one must get out there and see whether it's right. And if not, then corrections must be made. But I'm convinced that the effort is worthwhile.


  1. Great blog, thank you! I use the camera on my computer to practice a whole range of expressions. There is a delete button when it goes horribly wrong and great selection of photos I'm happy with when it doesn't :o)

  2. I haven't myself created a set of self-portraits dedicated to facial expressions, but it's an idea! Whatever best works. I'm just surprised that so little exists on the Internet on this topic, and that it's not a hot topic when trans women get together.


  3. Blowing nose, when I need to do it I always forget to be delicate!

    Good topic Lucy, few probably give it too much conscious thought...

  4. Forget taking pictures Lucy, just sit in front of a mirror, that way you can see the immediate affect. I can understand to a point what you are saying here but I feel there are limits to what you can achieve after so long a lifetime. What I mean by that is all your facial expressions and mannerisms reflect who you are and that is what is difficult to change. You are still you even though you've transitioned. However there will be some things you can do but it is keeping them up until they become a natural part of you. I found this to be the case with my voice and after many months training my voice to be softer I found I couldn't revert to my old one, it hurt to do so. One thing I have noticed, and I see this in my mirror, is that when I smile I feel it improves vastly my feminine appearance. I try therefore to keep a smile on my face. It doesn't have to be a great big wide smile, just a subtle one does the trick. When meeting anyone I immediately smile. Best wishes with the experiment..

    Shirley Anne x

  5. Oh, I'm sticking to mirrors. I've been practicing for four years, and mirrors work for me.

    I agree that gross changes are probably too hard to bring about, but more subtle ones are certainly possible. And you need to keep up with what the hormones are doing to your face: I'm told the shape of my mouth and eyes altered within months of beginning hormone treatment, making it easier to develop a more female look when speaking and laughing. Even the big agricultural conk has become slightly daintier, although I despair of ever having a retroussée nose!



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