“Sometimes the briefest moments capture us, force us to take them in, and demand that we live the rest of our lives in reference to them.” – Lucy Grealy, Author “Autobiography of a Face”
I was 11 years old when my best friend told me, “You’d be pretty if it weren’t for your face.” How was I supposed to respond to that? “uh, thanks?” In reality, I didn’t know what to say because I thought I was already pretty.
That tiny moment ultimately helped define the person that I am today.
I didn’t have a self esteem problem. I had a perception problem. People didn’t see me the way I saw me. I didn’t fit into the standard of beauty but I had the confidence of someone who did.
Where did I get that confidence? I blame Judy Blume.
If you don’t know who Judy Blume is, I implore you to relive your childhood and find out. Her most famous books include: Are you there God? It’s me Margaret, Forever…, Blubber, Deenie and Tiger Eyes. My mom bought me her books and they were the bridge that showed me how to embrace myself and my beauty.
I had been a beautiful child. I had eyelashes a mile long and a personality to go along with it. Strangers would stop my mom to tell her they thought I was beautiful.
At 3 years old, I would give beauty advice to the cashiers at the grocery store, explaining that Vaseline was the secret trick that helped me achieve my long dark lashes.
I was instantly likeable because I had an attractive cover. I felt valued for being “me” but I definitely felt that people liked my beauty. But I wasn’t normal. My beauty didn’t last.
Somewhere around the age of 8, people stopped telling me I was beautiful.
My birth defect wasn’t very noticeable as a young child but became progressively more so as I grew. I had an underbite caused by the lack of growth of my maxilla, the upper jaw. My mandible, the lower jaw, was perfectly fine. The upper jaw simply didn’t grow enough to protrude in all the right spots.
My top lip was set back into my face and my nose was set inward. When you looked at me head on it wasn’t terribly noticeable but when you saw my profile, it was obvious.
My defect was more of a problem for other people than it was for me; it created a perception problem. I viewed myself differently from how other people saw me.
Kids at school said I looked like a bulldog but that didn’t really bother me because everyone got picked on for one thing or another. I got very good at not listening to the “noise” and simply chose to believe in the reflection that I saw of myself.
I had, without knowing what I’d been doing, figured out who I was and embraced my beauty. It was because I read Judy Blume. Her books were filled with girls who had issues: puberty, weight, deformity, loss, first love and so much more. Unique stories with universal themes of inner value and beauty that crossed the lines of gender and culture.
The girls in Judy Blume books were special and relatable. And I took my strength by having known them.
At 11 years old I had figured out that I could create my own self esteem and self worth. I stopped asking people “what do you think” and started asking myself “what do I think.” I began seeing myself as an individual.
I wasn’t interested in being part of a crowd. There was value in being unique. Judy Blume taught me that.
Time marched on and I kept reading and believing in myself. I purposefully only kept photos of myself that showed me as how I felt on the inside. If it was unflattering, I’d toss it into the garbage.
If I thought I looked pretty, I would simply believe other people could see me as that same reflection. Occasionally, I felt beautiful. That’s actually pretty good for any teenage girl.
But the time I was 15, my orthodontist had determined that I needed corrective jaw surgery. My surgery was done for one simple reason; I wanted to keep chewing solid food past the age of 30.
I still remember the exquisite quality and unique brand of pain that comes from having your face peeled off your skull and being “Frankensteined” back together.
- My maxilla was spit in half, detached from my face and then reattached with bone fill.
- I had 2 steel plates and 12 screws drilled into face.
- A metal clip held my split palate together.
- I wasn’t able to open my mouth for 8 weeks and had to suck my 16th birthday cake through my teeth (It was a mud pie… in hindsight a very very bad idea.)
In the end, I wound up with a new and improved jaw, a fear of facial pain and the unexpected result of the return of my beauty. Then everything changed.
I didn’t change but my face changed.
Immediately after surgery, people started to treat me differently. Even when my face was still swollen and bruised, people started telling me I was beautiful again.
I had visitors at the hospital and at my house stop dead in their tracks thinking I was someone else. They would say to me, “Excuse me. Do you know where Dia is?” When they figured out it was me, they would go on and on about how “different” and “beautiful” I looked.
I became someone that fit into the standard of beauty. The perception problem I was having wasn’t a problem anymore. People started seeing me as the whole person I knew I already was because I looked attractive. I remembered it from when I was a child.
Suddenly I had more people being nice to me for no reason. More eye contact and more smiles. More attention from boys and men.
I had to get used to being judged positively at first glance.
It started to bother me that strangers, my family, my friends were responding so enthusiastically to my outward appearance. I knew my ability to simply be beautiful didn’t give me value. I knew I had a good story and I had Judy Blume to thank for that. And then it hit me.
I was my own, real life, Judy Blume story! I had all the key elements of one of her novels:
- A main character with at least one flaw… I got that covered.
- A totally relatable setting… “Childhood.”
- A conflict… The struggle between internal perception and external beauty.
- A unique plot… Girl with a jaw deformity thinks she’s beautiful because books taught her how to value herself and embrace her beauty.
- And of course, a theme… Beauty doesn’t give you value. You give yourself value.
Now all I needed was a good title. Maybe I’ll go with something tough and mysterious like “Dia, the Dog-Faced Girl.” I probably should just consult Judy for this one.
Another element of good storytelling is closure. Everyone loves an epilogue.
I broke up with my best friend right after she told me I was “almost pretty.” I would bet a million dollars that she doesn’t even remember saying that to me. She never got a handle on her own issues and has spent most of her adult life in and out of prison.
As an adult, I have grown to love sideshow performers. I understand the reality of not looking like the you that’s on the inside. “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn is the novel I repeatedly turn to as an adult with its underlying themes of beauty, uniqueness and value. I wonder if Judy Blume has read it. Now that would be a fun book group discussion!
Judy Blume is 80 years old and still writing. Her books have sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. If I ever meet her, I’ll probably just cry. (It’s what I did when I met Jane Goodall so the odds are good.)
My mom is the one that got the real happy ending. After I spent 10 years in and out of braces and right after I left for college, she ended up with my orthodontist. I never even knew they were dating. They are still living happily ever after.