(cross-published in "Crow's Feet" on Medium)
6 September 2023. A couple of friends made cracks about my hair. Didn’t I want to brighten up the dull gray? Didn’t I want the cute pixie cut I sported pre-Covid? A look in the mirror revealed my sagging eyes. Had I let myself go?
I took some selfies. I still had my smile, but my face in repose was bony and sad. Should I simply adopt a big-smile policy? Should I banish all hope of ever having a dramatic, serious portrait of myself without lots of Photoshop glamour glow?
An observation: all my prompts for “old woman” on July 2023 versions of Bing Image Creator and Adobe Firefly generated witchy hags, cartoonish women with splayed boobs, or silver-haired forty-year-olds fresh from their Boniva ads.
I am closing in on 75. Undeniably old, but not yet a granny caricature.
I moved from Bing and Firefly to Midjourney, a more mature image generator, good at mimicking the styles of known artists. I discovered that, with a plug-in, it could do face swaps. That is, it could layer my aging face onto an artist-inspired portrait.
Let the experiments begin!
First of all, “woman in the style of [artist or era]” produced a modern Caucasian American face with big smoky eyes and full pouty lips. When I superimposed my plain, thin-lipped face, the results were jarring by comparison.
Before moving on, I spent a little time doctoring up my reference photo in Photoshop. Didn’t erase any wrinkles or sags. Just put on a bit of red lipstick and a hint of eye shadow–the least I could do!
The text prompt I used to generate an image was “woman holding a large antique fashion doll, by [artist/style].” I browsed Midlibrary’s catalog of reference photos for interesting artists and styles. These prompts produced the typical full-lipped, wide-eyed young women, holding some very strange dolls.
I swapped in my face.
The results were disturbing. They were me, all right, wearing elaborate costumes and glorious wigs, looking dour as an aging actress auditioning for a horror movie. (The weird dolls didn’t help.)
I decided that I better own this new me. Get used to it. Lean in. If Frida Kahlo could paint in her little mustache, I could own my sagging eyes and thin lips. I posted a set of nine results to Facebook (the image above). The response was immediate and unnerving. Younger friends were into the goth of it. Older friends were, like, “bring back the smiling selfies! These are creepy!”
I was rattled. This was me. All the pixie cuts and hair dye in the world wouldn’t change that. Short of “having work” by a plastic surgeon, I was stuck with my old face.
A fix! New prompt: “Woman with a big warm smile holding a large fashion doll, by [artist].” The results were indeed smiley (see image below). Smiley to the point of making my stomach ache.
Now I was creeped out. These sunny Susans looked insane, cuddling ugly dolls like substitutes for the children I never had. I halted the experiment. Enough.
After a few days, I came up with a new idea and prompted “beautiful old woman.” Voilà, a beautiful old woman appeared, in portraits that didn’t look like they were lifted from pharmaceutical ads. And when I swapped in my face… it fit.
Tweaking: The dolls continued to be strange, so I tried “holding books” and “holding flowers,” but the results came back as weird as the dolls. Finally, I tried “wearing beads” (since I have an enormous collection of beaded necklaces).
That was it.
The final set of simulacra looked older than me, with deeper crevices and white hair. But nearly all of them looked like someone I wouldn’t mind growing into. They luxuriated in their beads and scarves and silky wraps. They looked like they had seen plenty of the world, but still had places to go, projects to complete. And they gave me glimpses of my beautiful mother as she entered her 90s.
These experiments were a kind of therapy. Young faces are undoubtedly beautiful. It takes a deliberate change in perspective to recognize old faces as beautiful too. I don’t want to hang on to the saucy hairstyles and coloring that got me through my 60s. I want to advance and keep growing, keep discovering myself. So, I’m playing with the balance between nature and artifice — myself as a character of my own creation, the person I want to spend the rest of my life with.
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Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.