Crooked Smile

We've all listened to a friend or family member talk negatively about a physical trait, only to try gently to reassure them that we're not seeing the same reflection in the mirror as they are. It's astounding how the grass is always greener and the mirror is always slightly bent towards self-judgment when you're taking stock of your own looks. From another's eyes, though, that same quality or physical quirk is not horrendous. As a matter of fact, it usually doesn't even stick out.  I'll share a story on this matter that many of you already know.

About five years ago I had a pretty nasty accident when I was living in LA. Long story short, I moved there after a very dark time in my life, replete with a string of Toxic with a capital T relationships, horrible depression, emotional abuse, broken friendships, and a host of really great abandonment issues. So I thought, why not use that bullshit to pursue a lifelong dream of acting, right? (The good decisions keep on coming!) Things were actually going well until the night of my accident when I took quite the, er, fall. My bottom teeth pierced through my lower lip and my upper lip was cut in half in two places. I had tons of stitches and an emergency minor reconstruction out there (in the land of plastic surgery, I suppose) and then more surgery once I was back home to get everything back into place.

The ordeal left me with some thick scars and bumps that I couldn't ignore. In the following years, whenever I felt down on myself, they became the reason I wasn't good enough. My crooked smile became my identity; the ugly events leading up to its development became my "story." Both made me feel disfigured, broken and unlovable. 

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My friends and family would constantly tell me it wasn't that big of a deal; that they never saw anything crooked and that I was beautiful regardless of a few minor scars. One therapist even put it bluntly (which I needed) by describing a car accident victim's reconstructive surgery. What happened to me was NOT that bad, but the story I was telling myself about it made me feel that way. I was completely in my own world of self-pity and self-loathing. I couldn't see how lucky I was, how grateful I should be that I could get back up (both physically and emotionally) afterwards. Instead of understanding this, every time I looked in the mirror all I would see were the ugly events leading up to the accident, the unworthiness I felt and the negative image of myself I had been holding on to.

Last summer, I tried to get one of my scars resurfaced by lasering part of it off. It was costly, uncomfortable, and I walked around with a bandage on my chin for about two weeks. Not only that, but it did nothing to change my scar (which I knew was a possible outcome of the elective procedure.) What's more, as if the universe knew my unfounded insecurity was driving me insane, I had sort of a freak allergic reaction a few months later where part of my lip swelled up inexplicably. I never figured out why, and it left another very small bump that hasn't gone away.

Now, I'm not saying there's a reason for everything or that these incidents are cosmically linked. However, I did see the irony in trying so desperately to fix myself and having it (literally) blow up in my face. The more I fixated on something so minor, the larger it became. It overtook my life, unjustifiably so, when I thought I had already worked through the emotional pain that accompanied it. The truth is, I realized my fixation on the physical reminder of a painful situation was still caused by that same old unworthy feeling I had held on to. Once I realized this, I started to let it go. I started to see how my poor self-perception was not only unfounded, but ungrateful. I was not serving any higher purpose by repeating the ugly story to myself or making it my identity. I also began to understand-- through work with EMDR and Qigong--that emotional experiences often get stored or trapped in our bodies. The pain we experience emotionally (and physically) is connected, and until we deal with it, it will affect the stories we tell ourselves about who we really are.

Now, when I look in the mirror, I don't think I'm flawless or perfect--but I don't see "damaged" or "ugly" or "unworthy" or "lost." And on the occasion when my crooked smile or hard-won scars do catch my eye, they scream beautiful. They scream of the getting-back-up-again and the work I've put into learning to love and accept myself. Resilience is the most beautiful quality. The women in the magazines don't even look like the women in the magazines, you know that, don't you? Makeup, contouring, lighting, photoshop, airbrushing--it's all being put into place to create these "perfect" or "ideal" images, but none of it is real. The girl behind the photo may have more interesting stories hidden under that makeup than any ad will ever tell. If she's human, she's probably fallen too. And if she's gotten back up, that's the most beautiful thing about her. 

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How we see ourselves can be so intrinsically linked to what other people think of us; sometimes it can seem impossible to unearth our own opinion. A book I would recommend to anyone who wants to better understand healthy self-image and unlearning past behaviors is Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody. While our job in this life is not to place blame on others, it's important to understand how the actions and environments we've been faced with have influenced our own self-image. We all have the power to create a better, healthier self-dialogue and start treating ourselves more kindly--to start seeing resilience as true beauty. In fact, it's our obligation to do so.

-claire