They say you always want what you can’t have. I firmly believe no greater truth was ever spoken. As a child, the books and the A’s on my report card came rather easy to me. The correlation was strong and unrelenting – work diligently and the achievements (at least academically) would naturally follow. I think it was almost a self fulfilling prophecy for me. And so the harder I worked, the quicker and better the achievements landed and the more I believed that this would be the case.
My relationship with how I was perceived by people was the exact polar opposite. Initially, I tried ever so hard. I was willing to give up all of my individuality to be more like everyone else. To be liked, to be accepted and, perhaps, even to be loved. The more I let go of who I was, the further away from people I drifted. Eventually I gave up trying, resorting to the fact that there was something so deeply and inherently wrong in me that people simply could not rise above it. What a satire it was for a twelve year old girl to look in the mirror and realise the life ahead of her was going to be led, for the most part, alone. Looking back on it, I think that little girl even thought that her family only loved her because they sort of had to. Of course this realisation was quite a painful one, but after wallowing a while in sorrow it almost felt like a burden had lifted from my little shoulders and I felt a sense of relief to at least know who I truly was and gain a sort of acceptance of it.
And, as it often happens in life, suddenly everything changed. I remember the first day I climbed into the school bus without my thick rimmed, thick lensed glasses. My eyes were very sore and a little teary as my poor eyesight and eye construction meant my only option was to wear hard contact lenses. The optician compared the initial sensation to ‘putting rocks in your eyes’ and he wasn’t exaggerating. Apparently this feeling would ease over time. I relented, all too familiar with the feeling of suppression of something far stronger – my inherent loneliness – over time (at the age of 17, this had been in motion for a while). Rocks in my eyes nonwithstanding, I was greeted by a few surprised looks and even a few smiles as I ventured to the back of the bus where my acquaintances sat. ‘You look so different!’ some of them exclaimed. I wasn’t sure whether this was a compliment or not but trusted the smiling faces to take this as a kind gesture. Underneath the surface I felt a little cheated. I’m still very much the same girl you saw yesterday and the many days before that, I thought. I didn’t understand how such a seemingly small change in my appearance could change the way I was viewed so drastically. But it did. From the quiet nerdy girl in the shadows, I was now given a little spotlight. People saw me… Perhaps for the first time.
The few weeks following this change were surprising. In my usual manner, I would raise my hand during class debates and in wider student forums and voice my opinions. But now, people actually listened to me; peers and the teachers alike. The notion that I was simply book smart and the master of learning and remembering information fell away quickly… To my surprise, I started to hear comments like, ‘She comes across so well. She’s smart and sophisticated.’ And yet the content of what I was saying remained exactly the same. What may have changed was the way I delivered it – being perceived differently made it easier for me to say the things I really believed in with high conviction. After seventeen years of waiting, the floor was finally mine. The ugly duckling had finally blossomed into a normal member of the swan society.
This is, perhaps, one of the most bitter lessons I had to learn in life. No matter how hard we fight to unlearn it, we are biologically programmed to judge first by appearances, and only give a chance to what lies beneath the surface after that first test has been passed. The world is a shallow place. It is so positively biased towards beauty that no classroom training or religious sermons will seep deep enough to cover that engrained layer of shallow. But for all the girls, now women, who have been through a journey such as mine, I truly hope and wish that appearance does not become the motive of your existence.
Part of that little girl cast away by her peers wanted nothing more than to fit in. And initially, when she did, she lived a period of life devoted to gaining the love, acceptance and compliments of those around her. And what a shame that was, because she had so much more to give. She still does. But sometimes, the contact lenses become blurry again and even she fails to look within herself beyond what she sees in the mirror… To appreciate who she truly is and what she can achieve and offer to the world, beyond the layer of shallow.
And so, to say beauty is in the eye of the beholder may not be factually correct. And if it is, whose eyes matter most? Yours or theirs. And why?