Kate Fox: I recognise your name, but your face escapes me

Journal columnist Kate Fox muses about Renee Zellweger's new face - and admits her own memory for faces is atrocious

AP Photo/Chris Pizzello Actress Renee Zellweger
Actress Renee Zellweger

I didn’t recognise Renee Zellwegger in her most recent photos, but then that’s not unusual for me.

I’m so bad at recognising faces that there have been occasions where someone I’ve just met has left the room and I haven’t realised they ware the same person when they come back in a few minutes later.

Between our first date and second date my now-husband shaved his beard off but when he mentioned it I said “What beard?”.

I can generally manage to recognise the school children I work with by their hairstyles. Uniforms can add a level of challenge though and at the moment the difficulty level has been stepped up in a all girl Muslim school where I run a writing group.

The girls wear both uniforms and headscarves. I keep saying that I’m bad with faces and have resorted to getting them to always sit in the same places every week.

I am now very used to the hurt expression that comes over somebody’s face when you’ve met them before but fail to recognise them. My rudeness has an actual neurological root though, honest.

There’s a condition called “Prosopagnosia” which comes from the Greek word “Proso” meaning face and “Agnosia” meaning to forget, though in my experience, going on about an obscure quirk in which your brain’s facial recognition software is badly wired, doesn’t make them the people you forget feel any better!

Faces are such a key marker of our identity that, of course, changing our face changes the way that people relate to us.

When the change happens practically overnight, as Zellwegger’s plumped up cheeks, widened eyes and smooth forehead appear to have done, then of course people are going to comment on it.

It is disconcerting. It probably triggers some primeval instinct stemming from the need to know who people are in case they’re enemies and we need to flee, or allies and we need to cement social bonds.

However, the comments have tended to either mock her for so obviously having had work done to her 45-year-old face, or to point out that women in the public eye are under such pressure to look young that she’s bowed to the inevitable.

They note that the consequences of her not undergoing cosmetic surgery would have been comments about the unflattering effect of her ageing when she reappeared in public after some time out of publicity’s glare.

The reaction to her new face demonstrates that we are in new territory for future social interactions at a time when cosmetic surgery is becoming more common. I defy anybody not to bite back a comment like “But you have a completely new face!” if they happen to encounter a massively Botoxed, facelifted acquaintance.

Except me and my fellow Prosopagnosiacs of course. In the new world of new fizzogs we’re going to be more socially sought after than a lottery winner with tickets to a secret Sting gig at Wallsend Working Men’s Club.

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Trainee teacher Charlotte Tumilty turned up to a Hartlepool Catholic school this week with visible tattoos on her neck and fingers.

She was ejected when she failed to agree to cover them up. They’re banned in school and other teachers keep theirs under wraps. It was suggested that she could return if she used plasters or bandages to hide the ones that were sticking out. She rightly thought this would look ridiculous.

I’d prefer a society in which it’s okay for teachers to have visible tattoos. But I’d probably also prefer future teachers who are savvy enough to realise that having ones that are hard to disguise may limit their future employment prospects.

How much more powerful to be able to tell a student that you’re hiding a big inking of Michael Gove being dipped in a vat of school dinner custard on your back and that not all rebellions need to be overt, than not to be able to get through the doors in the first place.

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