The Loss of Beauty

Growing up  I used to hear people say, “inner beauty is what counts”.  It was one of those things that looked great on paper, but in real life usually panned out to be bullshit.  If it counted, then why didn’t it count?  Why was inner beauty more like the snickering consolation prize handed out to ugly people who didn’t get the invite.  People like me.

In the real world, especially the one girls had to live in, the surface mattered.  A lot.  In fact, despite a lot of lip service to the contrary, it was everything.  Pretty faces and attractive body parts were the sum total of our human worth.  Even God, who was supposed to see only our hearts, ironically chose only the comeliest maidens for the Bible’s best supporting roles.  Despite what anyone said, the mirror always laid out the bottom line.  The mirror reflected back Who You Really Were.  And your placement on the sliding scale of hotness was the Decider between life as a Role Model or life as a Joke.  Inner beauty? It didn’t even have a seat at the table.  It couldn’t even get into the club.

Somewhere along the way, someone told me I was ugly.  And then I realized – or decided – that it was true.  After all, ugly explained why I didn’t fit in, why other kids thought I was weird.  But ugly also became the battle cry that divided me against me, served up my first taste of hate, cast a miserable spell of self-conscious panic over every face to face interaction.  Back then, there was never any hope of appreciating the magnitude of the extraordinary gifts I’d been given as a human being.  What gifts. And who would notice them anyway, and what did it matter, since I was ugly.

Last week, I went to the mall.  I walked into a store where headless mannequins strutted with attitude and  oversized photos of young models loomed. Like plastic fruit, their faces had been cleared of anything real.  Their long, silky hair had been cut from the heads of plain-faced girls, sold and reattached to their model scalps, strand by strand, tousled with precision, and placed around skin that would be airbrushed to a supple pool of lifeless cream.

The greeter at the front of the store said hello to me, and I nodded back. She resembled the models too, only much shorter, and with acne that she’d tried to powder over.

I browsed the racks of clothes and took a few pairs of shorts into the dressing room, where a panel of mirrors awaited.  I undressed sheepishly, shrinking under the raw glare of the overhead lighting, averting my eyes as I kicked off my jeans.  I slipped on the shorts, buttoned the top snap, and then, without breathing, glimpsed myself.  My legs.  They’d been hidden all winter under pants, below the counter, beyond the reach of my bathroom mirror.  But here they were, revealed to the twisting cringe of the judges table at America’s Next Top Model.

On the inside of my right thigh, there was an angry looking, bruise-colored cluster of varicose veins.  On the back of my left leg, there were more.  Another vein ran down the front of my shin bone.  As I stared, they seemed to double, triple, quadruple – too many to count.  I’d had surgeries in the past to remove the worst ones, but I’d lost my insurance before the rest could be fixed.  It looked like I’d been beaten with a pipe, and was sprouting leaks all over.

Disfigured, my thoughts whispered. It knocked the wind right out of me, a fist to the gut.

“Don’t worry,” Tyra Banks assured me, “you still have your inner beauty.”

I tried to focus on the shorts, just the shorts, with their cute little sparkly embroidered back pockets, price tags still dangling, but all I could picture was girls whispering about me when I was 14, my guts exposed through my pale, translucent skin, a force-fed bariatric cocktail of pure shame.  The air itself was burning the backs of my calves, millions of blinding reflected angles, each one a judgment, a pink slip, a failure.

I dressed, not bothering to button properly, grabbed my purse, shoved my hangers into the arms of the attendant and hightailed it the hell out of there.  Above my disheveled shirt collar, the sphere of the mall gleamed and glistened in a carousel of beauty, all of it digitally, surgically, chemically, financially enhanced.  I alone was real, my tender and freakish body caught in the grinding metal gears of the machine.  I hurtled toward the safety of my car, where I could regroup in stillness, drive away from my problems, and never be free of them.

I went to the gym to seek absolution, hoping, as usual, to change how I felt.  I stood in the back of an exercise class with fifteen women of varying shapes and sizes, trying to follow along.  Looking around, I couldn’t help but feel like we were all caricatures of the fitness instructor at the front, whose body was the template, having been repeatedly shaped by the singeing edges of her own vicious will power, and also a hot metal cookie cutter.  She reminded me of the unforgiving tyrant who lived in me, in all of us, and who never saw enough improvement, no matter which mountains we moved.

Improvement.  I was always trying to improve my body so that I would end up liking it.  Only, I never quite reached the promised land of “like.”  I barely crossed the town line of “despise slightly less.” What was improvement anyway, what was fixing the thing I hated, without learning how to love it first?  Exercising when I was feeling bad was like worshiping  a parking meter: it only loved you while you were feeding it coins.

At home, I ate dinner and watched a TV show where a fat person was made to confront his shirtless body in a mirror.  He cried and confessed his shame.  I stared at the enormous folds in his exposed skin, the unfixable stretch mark scars, and recoiled as they intended me too, the same way I recoiled at my own reflection.  Then I pushed my plate away and cried.   These  bodies were supposed to tell strangers everything they needed to know about us.  Instead, they told absolutely fucking nothing. They told lies.  And the world pressed sticky notes onto me, onto him, scribbled with comments and fear and paranoia and untreated mental illness.

My whole life I’d envied playboy bunnies and acrobatic strippers and fitness instructors and gorgeous actresses and lingerie models, because their parking meters never seemed to run out of love.  But  I was tired of bleeding on a gurney.  I was tired of feeling ashamed.

That evening, I  scanned through the news of the day, checked the weather, then finally, half-asleep, I clicked on an article about a 25 year-old man who had received a face transplant that day.

His name was Dallas, and in the margin was a snapshot of the way he looked back in 2008, before he accidentally touched a high-voltage power line that burned off all the flesh from the crown of his head to the tip of his chin.

The last thing he remembered, the article read, was standing inside a cherry picker, making repairs on a church window.  Three months later, he woke up in a burn unit, faceless.   Without eyes or nose.  His upper lip, roof and insides of his mouth were gone, as were his teeth. His face was a numb, expressionless graft of skin.

I looked at his before and after pictures, and beheld the unimaginable.

How normal I suddenly was, how functional my body, how perfect it seemed, how socially acceptable.  Suffering?  Clearly I didn’t know the meaning of the word.

I imagined myself in his place, left to navigate the world in darkness, where networks would advise viewer discretion before revealing my face, and onlookers would shield their eyes from the sight of me.  I imagined lying in the hospital bed as he had, coming to terms with the pain, the loss of my control, of my pre-planned place in the world. How could I survive such grief, only to face a doomed life?  I tried to imagine summoning the will to stand upright, but could not.

I clicked on the video of him speaking.  It was prior to the transplant. He faced the camera, without lips, with the empty sockets of his skull plainly visible beneath the skin graft, and he said, “The accident was a gift.”

“When you stare death in the face,” he said, “everything about life seems that much more precious.  Every breath is a gift.”

I’d heard that cliché before too, how a brush with death makes you appreciate life. But as I took in his horrifying scars, and then the sound of his voice brimming with gratitude — and not suffering — the magnitude of his spirit settled on me, and opened me.  In a flash, I saw what it might be like to have my own body decimated, my own life in question.  I saw how everything that confused and pressured me now would evaporate, all the illusions would be stripped bare, all the relationships pared down to their essences, and all the little, overlooked things would emerge in their true glory.  At the brink, I realized, you could see what was lasting, and what was false.  You came back understanding the difference.

They filmed Dallas at the playground, crouching to catch his three year-old daughter at the bottom of the slide.  He told the interviewer that the face transplant wasn’t about fixing his face.  He was proud of his scars.

“But I can’t feel my daughter’s kisses,” he said, “and I can’t truly kiss her back.”

She descended the slide, tumbled into his hands and threw her arms instinctively around his neck.

“Daddy got me,” she said, and looked right at him, without the slightest flicker of hesitation.  She didn’t even notice the complete absence of his face.  Only his presence mattered to her.  Only him.

“She doesn’t care and she never has since day one that I was disfigured,” Dallas continued. “She says, ‘Daddy has a boo-boo.’”

Then he steadied himself, resting one hand on the slide as he struggled to stand up. Something about him spellbound me.  Even with no features, he was intensely, brilliantly beautiful.  How could that be? I wasn’t sure exactly, but this, I realized, was what I wanted.  This was what was missing from my life, from the way I saw others, from the way I experienced myself.  It was the overriding influence of someone whose spirit was so powerful it transcended everything you could see with your eyes. It annihilated ugliness.  It was more tactile than anything I had ever felt in my hands.  It was bravery.  Massive, larger than life bravery.  Up to then, I didn’t know it was possible in such heroic portion.

Perfection is the world’s eternal obsession, its constant misery.  But at least now I could rest my attention on a different map entirely, one with a path out of darkness.  I could put my finger on the pulse of what was true and did not hurt.  It wasn’t outer beauty, or inner.  It was what Dallas did when fate conspired to destroy him.  He rose from the ashes with no face at all, and shone like the sun.

copyright © Dawn Goodwin 2010-2011

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