So along with Frank Lloyd Wright, Kanye West, and Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran, it’s my birthday today.
I’m 49, which is pretty dang old when you think about it.
I have never minded getting older. It doesn’t really bother me, I’m sure because I was always the youngest kid in the class and even worse I always looked way younger than I was – which as a teenager, even a 20-something-er, is intolerable. As I’ve gotten older I feel I’m treated with a new courtesy, given an unquestioned respect I never had before. I positively love being able to strut into a grocery store and regally demand the butcher chop meat for me and have them respond without an eye roll and an impatient sigh.
But at 49 ya gotta admit, the bloom is off the rose.
I suppose because of this penultimate birthday I’ve been thinking a lot about female beauty these days. I have a pretty unique perspective on attractiveness because I was born with a totally deformed skull (according to the surgeon who later fixed my face – well, ok maybe he didn’t say “totally”, but he did say deformed) and lived the first 15 years of my life as what I believed to be a hideously ugly person who didn’t deserve to exist. Then, they cut open my face from the inside out, broke my jaw in two places, removed bones from my skull that were apparently cluttering up the works, inserted a piece of coral into my chin, held it all together with screws, and stitched me back up again.
I look at old pictures of myself now and I look relatively normal.
I don’t think there is anything unforgivably off about the face I was born with, but what I do know is that I was teased for it ruthlessly. I was called “Chinless” for years. One day a girl was trying to express something that was highly unlikely and she gestured my way and said so, so, so very loudly, “Yeah, and she’s Miss America!” The entire class laughed at the very notion. I got through it in no small part because I knew I’d be having the surgery eventually. But much to my dismay I quickly learned that the only thing worse than being a hideously ugly person who doesn’t deserve to exist is coming back to school in the fall after having your face completely rearranged.
A few people were complimentary, told me I looked “like, way better” which to my surprise still hurt but at least I could tell myself things were on the upswing. One girl told me I looked like my much prettier sister, which was nice. My best friend told me that while I looked ok, she had thought I was pretty before – that was probably the best thing. But most people reacted very negatively. Most people needed to make sure I remembered I was still a hideous person who didn’t deserve to exist even if I wasn’t quite as ugly as I was before. I wasn’t just an ugly freak any more, I was an ugly freak so desperate to be liked I had my face cut open. People stared and laughed. People came up to me and told me I was still ugly. People came up and told me that no one liked me anyway. Some told me I looked even worse and that I should put it back. One guy yelled out in a crowded hall “My God, it’s a woman!” as if I hadn’t been one before.
With 30 years of perspective I understand how weird it must have seemed to a group of 15 year olds to have a girl looking one way at the end of one school year and come back looking different at the beginning of the next school year. I understand it now. But at the time all I knew was that I’d gone through the pain and violation of being cut and poked and prodded and the pain and violation I was still going through every 2 weeks at the orthodontist when they’d ratched up my braces even tighter, shoving spikes of metal into the few tender places in my mouth that hadn’t already built up calluses, was that I’d done it for nothing. I’d done it for nothing because I was still a monstrous unlovable freak and I hated myself even more than I had to begin with because it meant I was unfixable. I believed I was broken, wrong, and worthless on a subatomic level. The popularity I had dreamed of, even that much more meager a dream of a normal existence, that idealized vision of reality that had sustained me across years of bullying and self-loathing, never materialized.
I sold my soul to the devil only to find out I never got the payout I was promised. I had to stay in that hell which is high school and I never even got to collect my reward. I transformed myself into the Bride of Frankenstein, dismembered and reassembled, only to find out that the monster himself didn’t even want me.
I lurched through the halls nursing those wounds on the inside, convinced that it was no less than I deserved. The truth about torment that I learned to my dismay was very much like Tim Robbins’ character Dave says after experiencing a torment much, much worse in Mystic River. “You see, it’s like vampires. Once it’s in you, it stays.” Within a couple weeks people stopped actively humiliating me, mostly, but the damage, if it hadn’t been done before already, was irreversible.
The first inkling I had that things might not be as they appeared was Halloween, 2 years later. Some girlfriends and I were “cruising Riverside” which means driving up and down this road in our hometown, a custom that’s sadly gone now, destroyed by a small city chasing a big city dream of mass transit. But back then you could drive down this strip and turn around and drive back the other way without empty buses and bike lanes no one uses gumming up the works. As there always were on weekend nights, but especially on Halloween, there were several dozen pedestrians milling around on the sidewalks, watching the cars pass by. There was a guy in an Alf mask who apparently spotted me in a car and it was love at first sight – for him anyway. (Alf never really did a whole lot for me.) The entire night every time our car passed his group, he waved and tried to get my attention and one time he even fluttered his hand over his heart as if my great beauty was giving him palpitations or something. He probably did it to all the girls in every car that passed, but for the first time I wondered, “Gee, I wonder if the surgery actually worked?”
But it didn’t matter, because once it gets in you, it stays.
At the first available opportunity, age 18, I entered into a very serious relationship with a man 11 years my senior with all the ickiness that entailed. Immediately after that, age 20, I married the first guy who would have me and I’ve stayed married ever since. And (even though I love my husband and would marry him all over again, perhaps not quite so quickly and much more so on my terms rather than from gratitude that he was doing me a massive favor by tolerating my repulsiveness) I did those things entirely because I knew that I was a hideously ugly person who didn’t deserve to exist and I had to take whatever scraps of affection I could get.
Over the course of time, in glacial terms anyway, I was able to logic and reason my way out of my conviction that I was grossly unattractive. I’ve come to realize that I was not grossly unattractive even before my surgery. I was put into an unfortunate situation that skewed my body image so badly it took me literally decades to overcome it, but my warped perception was never reality. As I approach 50 I finally, finally feel comfortable in my own skin, for all the good it does me. It’s a bitter irony that I finally feel attractive at an age at which I am probably not.
The worrying thing about this is that once it gets in you, it stays.
I learned a lot of dysfunctional lessons as a girl but one of the dysfunctional-iest ones was that people who are ugly are rightfully despised; that people who are ugly have no reason to exist. This is a lesson I have struggled to unlearn, even though the very concept is anathema to me. That lesson is against everything I hope to stand for as a human being. It is a lesson I actively fight to destroy for others, yet I can’t let go of it for myself. Despite my nobler impulses, it is a lesson that on some level I fear I still believe. I am not proud of this, but sometimes I see a person at the grocery store or walking down the street and when I try to imagine myself in their position I cannot imagine what reason I would have to get up in the morning. I suspect that when I lose my looks beyond these gray hairs and laugh lines that don’t bother me much, I will happily die, because I would bring no value to the world if people don’t think I’m at least a little attractive, and if I don’t bring value to the world, I don’t deserve to exist.
I hate this thing that I believe, it goes against everything I stand for, and yet I can’t unbelieve it in the deepest little parts of me. If I get ugly, I am worthless. And I’m going to get ugly, and soon; the process is already well underway. What does that mean? Where does it leave me?
Sometimes I wonder the reason why I feel so driven to accomplish – having children, then building a career out of nothing, and now with writing – is to convince myself eventually that there’s something to me beyond looks that matters to people. But I don’t honestly think I’ll ever really get there. Because my entire young life from the first time I had braces put onto me at the age of 7 (I actually had braces twice, the first time due to an overzealous and possibly criminal dentist who experimented on his patients and was eventually drummed out of business) every message I received was that my appearance was an unignorable problem that needed to be fixed. People spent only a fraction of the time worrying about my school achievement, and next to no time at all concerned with my happiness – but my face? That was a massive problem that required the input of numerous experts and tens of thousands of dollars and massive amounts of pain inflicted upon me to correct. And that’s all entirely beside the experience of being mocked and humiliated by my peers, entirely beside the toxic messages I received from the media. The adults, even the ones who were supposed to love me or something, clearly thought my face was a divine mistake that needed to be improved upon no matter how much it cost us all.
It cost a lot.
And once it gets in you, it stays.
Despite all this, I look forward to 50. As I mentioned, I like getting older and I’ve found every decade has given me more insight into the world that I value far beyond smooth skin and perky tits. Sally O’Malley is a joke, of course…
…but the reason why women brag about being 35 or 40 or 50 is because you’re fricking PROUD of it. You’re proud of everything you survived to get to where you end up and you don’t care who knows it because it is admirable to have held on that long and still be happy to be here. I’m damn near 50 and I don’t care who knows it. I’m proud to be 50. But I am going to have to find a way to move past this hang up I have about attractiveness being intrinsic to my self worth. And I don’t know how to do that. I’ve never not known how to do something the way I don’t know how to do that.
Anybody got a map?
And many thanks to Tod Kelly whose piece “Swimming Like Frankenstein’s Monster” was an inspiration to this one.
Photo by Fuzzy Gerdes