Sudden onset unattractiveness

By Lenore Skenazy

When you go to the periodontist for oral surgery and all you’re worried about is the potential pain, you may forget to ask whether you will spend the next couple of weeks looking like a chipmunk beaten up by a gang of biker squirrels.

Or at least I forgot to ask.

So now when I look in the mirror, I see a face with golf ball bulges turning purple, lips stretched wide like taffy and my jaw the shape of a juice box.

On the subway, I wrap my scarf as high as I can and try to ignore the fact that now when I breathe, I fog up my glasses. When I dared to venture out to the bakery (perhaps the source of this whole problem), I ran into an acquaintance and had to act like I wasn’t melting from shame (and the boiling scarf). “It’s, uh, great to see you too! Bye!” Even at home I am surprised to feel sickeningly self-conscious around those nearest and dearest. Surely, beauty is not purplish-skin deep?

Or is it? Being suddenly disfigured, even temporarily, made me wonder how other people — the gashed, pocked and bloated — face the world. So I asked around.

My Upper East Side friend Mandy recalled the time she went to a fancy restaurant for lunch and ate something that made her feel like her throat was closing up. “Then I looked at my arm and there were all these blotches on it and I was starting to panic,” she said. “So I staggered across the street and bought a big bottle of Benadryl and the pharmacist told me to take a double dose right now, and I was like, ‘OK.’”

The problem was that night she was meeting a new guy. They had tickets to “An American in Paris.” So she ran home, changed into clothes that covered as much of her as possible, and met her date at the theater. The show, as far as she can recall, was delightful. “But I fell asleep and the guy kept elbowing me gently to wake me up, till my head lolled back on the seat again.” Each time she fell back asleep, she snored. “And every time I would wake up I was furiously itching myself all over.”

It may not come as a huge surprise that they did not date again. But for Mandy, at least, the sudden onset unattractiveness was short-lived.

Marisa Christina Steffers, a grant writer in Manhattan, went through chemo 12 years ago, just a year after her husband died. Their son was in second grade. Today she is the proud mom of a college freshman, but the permanent loss of her eyelashes and eyebrows still smarts. “I get called ‘sir’ a lot, then they look and go, ‘Oh, sorry.’” What surprised Marisa most was how hard it has been to adjust. “I can be as vain as the next person, right?”

Of course, right! It’s not just you, Marisa! It’s all of us. When entrepreneur Kathryn Booth Trainor picked up MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant illness, the disease manifested itself in black holes on her face the diameter of a pencil eraser. As she noted matter-of-factly, even when psychological researchers show very young kids pictures of people with some kind of physical imperfection, the kids “attribute that they’re stupid, lazy, dishonest, evil — things that are all truly NOT indicated by how somebody looks.” We are a culture hard wired, it seems, to distrust the imperfect, no matter how dumb and cruel that is.

Genevieve Gearity fainted at the Herald Square subway station last August, breaking all her front teeth. “Luckily for all the other passengers, I was off the train before it happened.” Yes, she’s a comedian — for real. But going out in public wasn’t funny. That first week, “Even with the check-out person at Duane Reade, I was talking with as little space between my lips as possible, trying to hide these jagged teeth.”

Gone was the perk that non-celebrities and the non-disfigured take for granted: the ability to be invisible. Genevieve stopped going out, “until I woke up one day and realized: I don’t see people anymore!”

She decided to bite the bullet (as well as she could) and go back onstage. “After six months of hiding from the public, I told the audience that I had broken all of my front teeth. Then I immediately covered my mouth.”

THAT got their attention. So she told them, “That’s a fun trick you can use on first dates. Mention you have a terribly unattractive physical impediment, and then hide it. You will hold their attention the rest of the night.”

And then, if they can see beyond whatever it is, you’ve got a winner.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker, founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and a contributor at Reason.com.

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