Photo: Getty Images
From the beginning, people had negative reactions to my face. My mom remembers a time she went to the grocery store when I was only a few weeks old. A man was out front taking holiday photos of mothers and their babies. He approached my mom, but turned away as soon as he saw my face—as though he were afraid it was a lost cause to try to sell a picture of such an ugly baby to her mother.
Why, you ask? I was born with a cleft lip and palate, which means my face has never looked like most people’s. I have a large scar from my upper lip to the bottom of my nose, and one of the teeth near the front of my mouth never grew in because there was nowhere for it to anchor. By the time I was 15 years old, I had undergone 15 surgeries to address the medical problems that arose from my birth defect. My team even included a plastic surgeon who helped correct the anatomical problems that made it difficult for me to eat or drink.
As I got older, the lines blurred between medically necessary procedures and cosmetic ones. Insurance was willing to cover anything cleft-related, and several surgeries served a dual purpose. And there was no shortage of people who found something wrong with my appearance. Doctors talked about how much they could do to help me be beautiful; meanwhile, my peers teased me about my “ugly” face. It was so bad that in junior high, an eighth grader I didn’t know approached me just to tell me that he wouldn’t date me until I “fixed my face.”
With this much rejection because of my physical appearance, it’s no wonder that I had a hard time liking who I saw in the mirror by the time I was in high school. But that moment in junior high was defining; I could not let that random boy win by changing me.
Most of the remaining surgeries were almost purely cosmetic. By the time I turned eighteen, I’d undergone two failed bone grafts, still had a wonky nose, and would never be completely rid of my scar. My doctors were pushing for a nose job, but I didn’t want to endure any more pain for the sake of vanity. More importantly, I had reached a point where I was proud of my scars, my missing tooth, and even my wonky nose because they were all part of my story. Having a cleft is integral to who I am because it influenced every aspect of my childhood. I still didn’t think I was beautiful, but I was happy with myself and the way I looked, so I turned down every purely cosmetic surgery the doctors suggested.
Related: Are you “pretty enough”?
The more I chose to ignore the unkind comments, the fewer comments were made in the first place; bullies thrive on knowing their comments have power, so not reacting disarms them. Now I look in the mirror most days and am actually happy with what I see. My life story and the person that it has made me into are beautiful because my face is an expression of the person I hope to become—not perfect, but not boring or the same as everybody else. My story is unique, and the challenges have made me a much stronger person. I learned at a very young age that I would never be able to make everyone happy with me, so I focused on making myself happy with myself as a person. Today I am proud of my imperfect face because without those flaws, I would not be the strong, independent person I am today.
I used to think that being beautiful meant looking just like the girls in magazines, but now I think that beauty is about a lot more than perfect appearances. For me, it’s about being happy with who I am and the story my body tells, flaws and all. I love my uniqueness, and even though I sometimes look in the mirror and can’t help but have those same emotions that made my teenage years so challenging, I am happy with the way I look most days. I’m proud of what my scars represent—because without my scars, I would not be me.