It is my studied opinion that there is nothing more boring than listening to a person complain about their physical flaws. At best, it ends in the feeling that the person thus afflicted with a long nose or shitty hair is not-so-subtly begging you to tell them what is acceptably attractive about them. At worst, it devolves into an echo-chamber of self-flagellation, where the listener can’t help but chime in with their own appearance-based neuroses, and so both members of this damned conversation drown themselves in a sea of ridiculous self-pity.
But … Since I have this special opportunity to engage in this “conversation” without either:
A) the immediate assurance from my listener that “But, Julie….you are BEEEE-YOOOO-TIFUL in so many ways!”,
B) fearing that my listener will delve into their own “issues” and focus will be diffused away from MY problems………….
Well ……. let’s just say I hope you brought a life vest, because it is about to get reeeeeal deep up in here.
When friends used to come over to my house for dinner when I was in middle and high school, at the dinner table I would always warn them, don’t look down. Our family dog was a master manipulator by that time, having lived with my family for over fourteen years. She would softly rest her chin on your knee and position her head just so. The overhead light would catch her cataracts and the unlucky victim would be completely sapped of will, laying their plate on the floor so it would be easier for her to eat. That dog knew how to serve face.
My family lived in Hawaii before I was born. Assholes. They got the aforementioned dog there, and they named her Poio, after ‘poi,’ the indigenous mashed taro root dish. She was a beautiful collie mix. A few years later, my family relocated to Arkansas and I was born. Once again, assholes. Poio did not take kindly to my arrival. Or maybe Arkansas itself pissed her off. Understood, Poi. While never overtly aggressive, she was suspicious of the little pink naked mole rat that was dividing the family’s attention. We reached an uneasy truce throughout my toddler years, and she came to tolerate me, even like me, by the time I was three years old. I adored her, and spent countless hours sitting next to her and petting her soft strawberry blond and white coat. That is, until she bit my nose off.
Just the tip, as the joke goes.
One day my mother called the teenage girl across the street to come babysit me while she took a shower. Looking back on this now, I’m sure that “taking a shower” also included “smoking a joint,” but who am I to judge? The neighbor girl, Sheila, was my hero so I was happy to spend time with her. We settled into my family’s living room and Sheila stood up with that week’s issue of TV Guide, and walked ACROSS THE ROOM to go change channels until we found something to watch. I was sitting on the floor next to Poi, and I leaned over and gave her a hug. I must have squeezed her too tightly or surprised her because she turned and snapped at me like a flash. She just caught the tip of my nose and part of my upper lip. I remember looking up, seeing Sheila turn around in slow motion, and the TV Guide fluttering to the floor. Sheila scooped me up into her arms and raced back to the bathroom where my Mom was, surprisingly, actually taking a shower. Sheila banged on the door and was screaming - I had no idea why she was so upset. My mother, sopping wet and wrapped in a towel, threw open the door, took one look at me and went as white as a sheet. She tried to pull jeans on over her wet skin. Sheila ran across the street to get her Dad to help get me to the hospital. My mom must have been quite wild-eyed, because when he got there he jokingly asked who needed to be taken to the hospital - me or my Mom. It was me - I was the three year old with blood pouring out of my face. My mother did not find that question amusing and from that moment on harbored a deep mistrust of Mr. Krajewski.
I have only one distinct memory from the hospital - they had to restrain me because I was not going down without a fight. I couldn’t move my arms. But there was a nice nurse who kept bringing me lollipops to console me. First red, then purple..then my favorite - green. Which of course she dropped on the floor just before reaching me. I was having my best day.
If it sounds like I remember all this stuff remarkably well for being only three when it happened, the memories I have shared with you so far are nothing compared to the next one. I got home. And I don’t know who wasn’t watching me or whatever, but I made my way into the bathroom. And I looked in a mirror.
They had wrapped most my whole head in gauze. I was purple and swollen around the mouth. There was blood seeping through the bandages on the tip of my nose I looked like the Mummy. I was a monster. I didn’t cry. I just stared into my own eyes and let that feeling sink down into the part of me that will never hear different. I stood there for what felt like forever, just staring at my poor, bandaged little face. I started becoming me.
What happened to Poio, you might ask? Nothing. My family shunned her for a few days and it was obvious that she knew she fucked up. I know it was my fault and that she probably didn’t mean to hurt and only to warn. When we finally got over all the hullabaloo, she kept right on being a spoiled Cowden dog and continued down that path for fourteen more years before finally dying in her sleep. The feeling I got while looking in the mirror that day still lives. And that beast has been fed plenty a delicious morsel since then.
Choice tidbits include being on Accutane so long I experienced suicidal ideation. “No, really,” I thought to myself, “if I just looped some a belt over one of those beams in the ceiling I could do it.” Or once hearing that someone whose opinion I didn’t give two shits about would only fuck me if I wore a bag over my head. I didn’t care about this person!! Why did that still feel like a punch in the gut? Or, at least two times a year since I’ve been married to my husband, some stranger congratulating me. For locking that down. Every time I see a picture of myself I am reminded that that’s a picture of me.
Blah blah boring. This shit has happened to every person on the planet at one point or another.
I was still pretty young when I decided the only way around it is to be amazing in Every. Other. Way.
I didn’t know that emotional triage was happening in my tiny little mind as I looked at myself after the bite. But my coping strategies took root soon thereafter. First - be the funniest person in any given room. Second - get smart, because that crafty little brain is all you’ve got. And third, and this was perhaps the most important if also the most difficult - cultivate a definite air of not giving a fuck. I was lucky in the first strategy in that my family is pretty funny, so I had a leg up. I worked really hard in school because I knew that was an arena in which I could excel, even dominate, most of my peers. As far as not giving a fuck...I’m still working on that one.
I grew up as a girl in the South, where there is an early expectation of physical perfection. I started wearing a full face of makeup in seventh grade. Until I smoked pot for the first time, I would get up every morning and spend thirty minutes painting a more “acceptable” face over my own. Then, miraculously one morning toward the end of ninth grade, I looked in the mirror and let myself catch a glimpse of my bandaged face from so long ago. I realized that life is short and fucked up, so who gives a shit? I also figured I could get an extra thirty minutes of sleep if I cut this time out of my routine. Boom. It was gone. I had made a choice that would separate me from the majority of girls I went to school with - that is - I would never wear makeup regularly again. Now that I’m older, I realize that sometimes the ritual of makeup is worth it in itself, even fun. But I also realize that it is not a necessity as I was taught to believe. The almost defiant act of wearing a bare face daily is a definite pillar of the zero fucks to give strategy.
Another pillar of not giving a fuck is not listening to my grandmother, who was in turn brainwashed by her own mother to vocally judge other women on their appearance. The last time I went home, the first thing my grandmother said to me when I went to see her was “You cut your hair! I don’t like it.” She really thinks I care! I used to. I used to let comments like that sink right down into me in silence. Now I respond “Well, it’s a good thing that you didn’t get this haircut then, so you don’t have to live with the horror.” When I’m on the phone with her and she starts loudly declaring that “so and so would be so much happier if she would just lose weight,” or “so and so is so pretty,” or “why doesn’t so and so just put a little more effort into it,” I roll my eyes and let her talk it out without responding or egging her on. Hopefully soon I’ll get to the stage where I can ask why she feels the need to say such things. Still working on it.
So I move through the world as a straight, white woman born in the United States. With all the privilege and disadvantage that come along with that fact - a fact in which I had no choice. The choices that remain to me now are how I navigate this reality. I lift heavy weights, I wear perfume. I play a man onstage, I paint my toenails. I am grateful for the knowledge that there is more to life than the narrow ideals that our culture defines as “beauty.” An idea that has taken me a lifetime to internalize. As I move into middle age, I look forward to settling into myself even more and maybe letting that little face off the hook. She did what she had to do.
Poio was a beautiful dog that lived the final years of her life nearly blind and stinking to high heaven with mange, her beautiful strawberry blonde coat patchy and coarse. But she remained happy to get a scratch behind the ears or trick you out of your dinner until the very end. No one ever told her any different.