A Matter of Perception
I wonder what they see
When they call me pretty
Is it really a reflection of me
Or is the kindness out of pity?
My complexion is never clear
I no longer wear 0 as my size
I’m awkward and filled with fear
Confidence, only my clever disguise
My nails are chipped
My feet are cracked
My face is nondescript
These are naught but fact
Anyway, tell me, what is pretty
I see models every day
They walk around the city
Flawless, no, but beauty conveyed
I’ve never forgot
So I don’t care for the party
I’ve really not done a lot
Except earn the name “Smarty”
But no matter how smart
Pretty is what I’d wish for
It’d do a lot for my heart
If it didn’t the mirror deplore
But God made me this way
Gave me the features I see
And this is the way I’ll stay
I can’t from myself flee
All blemishes I won’t compile
I won’t drown in self-pity
I’ll believe I’m worthwhile
And if I smile, I’ll be pretty.
Even when I may have been seeing them through blurry, tear-brightened eyes, I have seen quite a few beautiful things.
Earlier in the day, I’d walked along the cobbled, narrow streets, visited a park where I actually saw with my own eyes dozens of easels set up beneath red umbrellas, occupied with painters in black berets who were busy painting everyone and everything, I’d listened in awe at the language I was still trying to learn, trying to comprehend that to these people, I was the one who seemed strange. Now, I was so excited I could hardly stand it. My teacher and guide had made us wait til night fell before he’d allow us to see it. We had to walk to get there. Suddenly, I came over this hill, and I turned and I saw a truly beautiful sight: the Eiffel Tower rising high, all lit up in bright lights. Numbers were on it that counted down til the new century. I felt my breath catch, it was so beautiful.
Early one morning, I was awakened by my mom, who wanted to show me something. I walked outside and, standing in the front yard of our log cabin, which was nestled deep in the pines of Georgia, was a deer. Dew covered the ground and the air was thick and damp. The deer was totally unaware of me as I watched him eat. I don’t know what eventually spooked him off but, until the moment he ran, I felt as though I were in a trance, or part of a book that Henry David Thoreau might have written. I was sure that his pond was just behind my log cabin. It was beautiful.
And lest you think the only beautiful thing I’ve seen are places….
I’ve been in the presence of truly beautiful people, and experienced truly beautiful things. Wading in freezing water happens to be a particular favorite memory, once I sat smiling as I watched Shakespeare in the Park on a perfect Fall day. I went into this place of worship once that moved me like none other I’d ever been in. It felt as though I were close to God there and any time you’re close to God, whether the place your feet are standing is called a park or a synagogue or a church or behind the wheel of a car—-you’re in the presence of true beauty. Several of my teachers were, and still are, beautiful people who knew how to take the time to care. There is absolutely nothing more beautiful than Breathe’s face when she is truly excited: her eyes widen, her mouth opens and she has the most priceless expression that only is equal to seeing Alight’s scrunched up nose, eyes squished close, her head inevitably tipped backward as she laughs out loud. They are truly beautiful people. Lots of the people I speak of may not have ever won any beauty contest, but they were beautiful on the inside.
And, most of the time these days, they are the ones I remember. But…..lately…. I’ve been remembering other people who were also beautiful, beautiful on the outside.
There are tons of them.
I’ve never really been one to care about appearances, frankly. I only use foundation to cover up blemishes. If God ever wants to give me a huge, huge surprise, He will take these blemishes away forevermore. Until that day, I’ll use foundation to do it myself. All other forms of make-up intimidate me and make me feel like I’m a doll. I hate the feel of lipstick and could count on one hand the number of times I’ve worn it longer than five minutes. I have no idea why you would want to put artificial color on your face. The idea of trying to make your eyelashes look thicker by putting black stuff on them, stuff that will only come off to smear lines down your face when you cry, is totally outside the realm of my comprehension. If I happen to be near them, and if I happen to remember I’m supposed to care, I’ll stick in a pair of earrings. Other than that, jewelry is an almost mystical thing that must have been invented by Hollywood. I hate shoes. Consider yourself blessed if, when we meet, I am wearing them. I abandon them the minute I get into my class at church, or in the car, or anywhere else I don’t absolutely have to wear them. When I do wear them, they’re not always compatible with the Season: as long as there is not snow on the ground, sandals work fine and are much faster to ditch, in Winter than boots. My psychology training is suggesting that maybe these are at least some of the reasons I always feel like a clumsy, inept teenager pretending to be a woman whenever I’m in the presence of other females who somehow always appear to be Hollywood-beautiful. The trouble is….down deep, I don’t really believe that suggestion.
When I go to church or to take the girls somewhere, I can’t help but see how beautiful everyone is. The women are dressed in sophisticated and cool clothes, have hair that’s always perfect and just…..something about them that I don’t have. For a long time I thought it was confidence. But I know too much psychology, and have seen interviews with too many women, and know too many statistics, to really believe that all the women I see are confident creatures. So, I don’t think it’s that they all have a security blanket of confidence wrapped around themselves. No. Now, I think they’re just pretty.
Of course I know that that has nothing to do with the kind of person they are. Most of the time, the really, really pretty ones are the ones that are not very nice. I know all about how the important thing is how you treat others, and how your attitude can make you shine. In the movie Hunchback of Notre Dame, there’s a song with the line, “Who is the monster and who is the man?”. Naturally, the hunchback was the beautiful man, and the King, the monster. I already know all this. And I know it sounds petty and juvenile, I know it makes me seem as though I’m wanting attention (even though I’ll protest to kingdom come that I’m not: I blog to express my feelings, and this is what I’m feeling), and, all that aside, I know it ultimately doesn’t really matter because in the grand scheme of things…..well, who cares? Of course I care more about being a mom. Today I crawled up in the McDonalds’ play area with my three year old: it was our castle, our secret castle, and she was guarding the door to it when, out of nowhere, this heathen, this KID, comes barging in OUR castle, just breaking down the barrier that he couldn’t even see. Alight and I thought it was hysterical. As we slid down the slide, I emerged happy. Being a mother makes this whole piece sound ridiculous. Yes. I already know all of it.
Well, despite all that….. lately…..instead of aspiring to be the genius others seem to think I am, instead of aspiring to be the most creative; instead of all that, what I’ve really been wishing on is that I was…well….pretty.
That sounds really sad.
There’s this experiment where you have to stand in front of a mirror and look at every part of your body, beginning with your hair, then onto your eyebrows, then onto your eyes, your nose, your cheeks, your ears, your mouth, your neck….. all the way to your toes. The object is to clearly state what is wrong with each body part. “Ugly” is cheating, doesn’t cut it. It has to be specific: “It’s got a wart” is sufficient or, “They’re as big as Dumbo’s” would suffice. If you’ve never tried it, I —highly— recommend it. I think all teenage girls should be required by somebody to do it, at least once. Because, the truth is, of course, most of our body parts are perfectly fine. There is really not a lot I can say about my ears except that they work. And I never thought about my eyes before until I really looked at them: they’re not too far apart, or too close together. They’re a decent color, and they work, too. That means they must be okay. Same goes for most of the rest of me.
That’s good…. but not really. Indeed, actually, for me, that’s the problem.
You see, nothing about me sticks out like a sore thumb. I don’t have warts, I don’t have big ears or a long nose. I don’t have “baby cheeks”. I don’t have strange birthmarks. I don’t have too many freckles. The bad stuff: the ever present blemishes on my face, well, they can be easily hidden. The biggest bane of a woman’s existence, weight, has always been a tricky spot for me. But, if push came to shove, I don’t want to be where I once was in that arena; sneaking bare-handed to vending machines to look at food I wouldn’t allow myself to buy. I’d rather be the weight I am now than to be back at that. So—I just don’t let myself go there anymore, because I know that if I did, I’d wind up in trouble. I just intellectually remind myself that all the charts say I’m fine, and move on, before I get stuck. The bottoms of my feet are ugly and cracked but no one but me ever sees the bottoms of my feet so…that’s not too bad. I have a scar from the girls being born and my heart surgery, yes. But, tell you the truth, I’m kind of proud of my C-Section scar because it is the way I got to hold my babies and that’s besides the fact that my doctor did SUCH an amazing job that, even after having been opened twice, you can barely see it. The heart surgery scar makes me uncomfortable sometimes in swimsuits but it was unavoidable and reminds me that my heart is beating now so, I guess I can live with it and, besides, again, no one ever sees either of those marks.
So, that takes me back to square one: there’s nothing extraordinarily terrible about me. But there’s also nothing extraordinarily beautiful about me either. My eyes see, they’re not diamonds. While there is nothing overtly awful about my skin, there’s nothing great about it either. Actually, it alternates: sometimes it looks so yellow a doctor might think I’d need to be under special jaundice lights again and sometimes it looks so white I could pass for Casper. I haven’t decided which state I like the best yet. I’m just….ordinary.
Did you know that the face has a specific shape to it, that it can be put on a grid to match other faces? Well, psychologists did a study where they mapped the shape of a subject’s face, then showed that subject pictures of random people and asked the subject to identify the ones they thought were the most attractive. Nearly unanimously, the people who were marked as attractive had the same facial shape as the subject who identified them. Conclusion? We are drawn to people who look like us. Now, at first, I thought this was rather egotistical. Do we think that people who match our features are the prettiest? Upon reflection, though, I don’t think that’s it. Instead, I think that everyone has an innate desire to be pretty. We want to think we are. Even though, of course, my primary concern is not being attractive, but being understood, I also don’t want to feel like the Ugly Duckling. When you feel unattractive, everything else slides with it: your confidence, your energy, your out-goingness. Instead of being excited about the next stranger you meet, hiding behind the iPhone, the Blackberry, the Nook , the earphones…. hiding becomes much more doable.
No matter how much we’d sometimes like to believe otherwise, the truth is our appearance does impact the way we feel about ourselves. Walking out of a beauty salon, after getting a haircut makes me feel pretty, even if I’m really not. Making my nails look pretty, even if it only lasts for a day, does the same thing. When I like the clothes I’m wearing, I feel better about me. It’s just true. But even on my best days, even on the days when I feel super small, love my outfit, do my nails, have my hair fixed just right and have managed to hide all those stinking facial blemishes, even then I know I’m not really pretty. On those days, though, that one small truth doesn’t seem to matter. Because if I feel pretty, I’m usually happier, more energetic and less intimidated by the people I see every time I step outside.
I’ve been told I’m pretty lots of times. I know from experience that if you hear something enough times, sooner or later, you’re going to start believing it. But we have selective hearing. I tend to think that the nice things people say about and to me are because they’re being nice, or they’re part of my family and love me, or they don’t want to hurt my feelings because I’m helping them by teaching or by listening or by writing or by speaking about the past. As a result, people have to work to make me believe a compliment. Otherwise, I’ll just smile politely, say thank you, and have it promptly roll off my back. Negative things, on the other hand, tend to stick to me like glue because I can’t understand why someone might say something unkind unless it’s true. Even if I don’t like the person, even if the person has given me ample reason to distrust them…..it’s still easier for me to accept their opinions of me as true because I can’t understand why else they might say something unkind. The whole problem with this, though, is that the stuff I’m ultimately hearing time and time again is negative, since it is given more weight and attention than the compliments.
Who cares about whether or not people think you’re pretty? Who cares about the negative comments when you try so hard to help other people? Isn’t that more important? Do you think God cares about what you look like – and, furthermore, didn’t it say in His word that you were made in His image? Do you think He’s ugly? So — again, who cares about appearances?
Ultimately, I don’t. It’s why I go barefoot even though people stare at me funny. It’s why I don’t try super hard to fix the cracks on my feet. It’s why I am rather blase about the day’s outfits. It’s also why I nearly always, every day, get myself in the car and go places with my girls, voluntarily choosing to interact with strangers, most of whom are way more beautiful than me. There are lots of things that are too important for me to do for me to have time to care about appearances on a normal, day to day basis: I want to teach my girls so many things and, in order to do that, stupid things about being pretty don’t even make the Top 100 Priority List. A few months ago, I passed a homeless man. He was shaking, and it was raining, and he wasn’t even attempting to find shelter. Joey crossed my mind. I turned my car around, brought him a meal and, in the bag, left the name and phone number of my church, along with an un-signed note that encouraged him to call us if he needed “real help.” The entire rest of the day, I felt Joey smiling at me from somewhere and that kept my head up as I walked into stores to complete random errands. Reading Scripture nearly always makes me care less about whether or not others can see that I’m just putting on a charade, trying to appear to be all the things they are. I know that what we do is much more important than what we look like. That’s why volunteerism can be seriously addictive to me, and I have to consciously remember not to take on more than I can handle. More importantly, it’s why I’m the kind of mother I am.
As I look into the mirror and see my face, I roll my eyes, sigh heavily and verbally remind myself that I don’t care….. even though, deep down, maybe just a little bit…..I do. In my mind’s eye right now, I see Aria, my character. She dyed her hair purple once, just so others would have to look at her. And my teenage heroine just said something that is making me smile. Yes, maybe I do care, just a little. Maybe I do wish that, for a full 24 hours, I could believe that I was at least almost as pretty as other people. But then Aria asks: “And maybe that’s what makes you a woman.”