Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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Sirena Baer
English 100
Essay 3: Out-of-Class
February 4, 2001

A Glimpse in the Mirror

In our society, we place so much importance on beauty. We like everything around us to be beautiful—our living areas, nature, our clothing, the vehicles we drive, the people we are associated with, and the list goes on. It is our natural instinct to want to be surrounded by objects that are pleasing to the eye, including ourselves. We all come to a point in our lives where we have questioned whether or not our outward appearance is acceptable to others. We stare at our image in the mirror critiquing it, wondering if perhaps we should change it, or make it look better. In time, though, we do learn that there is more to life than beauty—that it is only skin deep. Somehow we realize that we were already beautiful from the beginning, and the only reason we were unhappy with our appearance was because we wanted to gain the acceptance of others.

In the essay "Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self," Alice Walker reflects on her ideas of beauty as a child. Walker, at age eight, was shot with a BB gun in the eye, causing her to lose not only her vision in her right eye, but also her self esteem as well. Before this accident, there was not a doubt in her mind that when people looked at her they saw an adorable little girl. She says, "It was great fun being cute." Afterwards, she believed that all they saw was "a glob of whitish tissue, a hideous cataract." In reality the scar was causing her to see a distorted image of herself that nobody else could see. For six years after that incident, Walker hated her eye. There was once a time when she would stare back at those who marveled over her looks, but now it was different: she did not look up. At night before she would go to sleep she would stare in the mirror, despising what she saw. Walker prayed for beauty—not for sight.

"You did not change," her family members said when Walker asked them a few years later if she had seemed different after the accident. For a long time after her eye was flawed, Walker believed that beauty was only determined by other people accepting her looks and not by how she felt about herself. She strongly believed that removing her scar would be the only way that she or anyone else for that matter would see her as beautiful or "normal" again.

When I read this piece by Alice Walker, I felt that I could almost completely identify with her. The only difference was that Walker’s physical difference was caused by an accident; I was born with mine. These perceived "flaws" in our physical appearances caused us both to have a false perception of beauty. Growing up, I learned that I was a little bit different than most kids. I was born with a rare condition called Hemifacial Microsomia. It is a condition in which one side of the face does not develop completely, causing the facial features of that one side to be smaller than the other side. For the most part, I didn’t think of my difference very often when I was younger. I just went about my daily business as any other normal kid. But once in a while, the questions and the stares reminded me of it. As Walker says, "All children are cruel about physical differences," so some would ask me, "Were you in a car accident?" "What happened to your face?" "Did you get burned?" Ignorant kids who probably didn’t know any better asked most of the questions. Fortunately this was a rare occurrence, and the questions dispersed after middle school.

My condition became more noticeable to me, however, in middle school. It was a time when kids are the least accepting toward differences, and my physical "imperfection" caused me to be more reserved than I would have normally been. Throughout school—up until my senior year of high school, I was shy and unsure of myself. Almost every time I came in contact with someone new, I wondered if they were looking at my difference, and analyzing me to pieces. Later on, I came to realize that the only person doing the analyzing was myself. I believed for a long time that an attractive physical appearance was what determined beauty. I was so caught up in what everyone else thought of me when they looked at me, that I did not consider the fact that I was a healthy and normal girl who had all of the same capabilities as everyone else. I could only keep reminding myself that my face was asymmetrical, and as long as I looked that way, I would never be beautiful. Just as Walker did, I would stare at myself in front of the mirror before bed each night, longing to catch glimpse of someone who could be considered beautiful.

Several years after the incident, Walker was able to undergo an operation, which removed most of her scar. She remembers: "Almost immediately I become a different person from the girl who does not raise her head." Her perspective had changed after that. Now that she had raised her head, everything around her changed as well. It was all in the way she viewed herself: because she was able see herself as beautiful again, it was easier for her to see that others could look at her in the same way.

Even though Walker’s surgery did mark an important milestone in overcoming her "loss" of physical beauty, she did not come to terms with herself yet, until her daughter noticed her scar for the first time. It was the words that she had said, so unexpected, that "freed the other dancer within." After her daughter was done watching her favorite show called Big Blue Marble, which shows a beautiful picture of the earth from the moon, Walker put her inside her crib. Her daughter was standing inside the crib, when she looked into her mother’s eyes and held her face in her little hands, and asked, "Mommy where did you get that world in your eye?" Walker felt, almost instantaneously, that all the pain was gone. She did, in fact, have "a world in her eye" and she had learned to love it. This was when she had finally come to terms with herself—she had found "the other dancer." Walker says, "As I dance, whirling and joyous, happier than I’ve ever been in my life, another bright-faced dancer joins me.... The other dancer has obviously come through all right, as I have done. She is beautiful, whole and free. And she is also me."

Fortunately, over the last eighteen years of my life, I have had about seven surgeries—two of which were reconstructive jaw surgeries. Because I did not begin to have a skewed belief of where true beauty comes from until my middle school years, my first few surgeries really did nothing for me. They did not change the way I felt about myself, because I felt fine about myself at the time. I simply went though the motions, as if they were normal, everyday life. It wasn’t until my reconstructive jaw surgery, my junior year of high school, that I started to notice a change in the way I looked at myself.

I always had this thing about my chin. To me it seemed nonexistent (the underdevelopment of the right side my face caused my chin to be less prominent of those with facial symmetry), so when I heard that I was having a reconstructive jaw surgery I was thrilled. After a long period of having my mouth wired shut, and drinking pureed turkey and mashed potatoes through a straw for Thanksgiving dinner, and other various concoctions, the swelling went down, the braces came off and I started to change my mind about myself.

Why does it have to take something like a physical change to open our eyes? We think that if we can change the way we look, we can be happy, and when this doesn’t happen we are disappointed. The truth is that the physical change didn’t make others see us as more attractive. Our seeing ourselves as beautiful on the inside as well as the outside causes us to be attractive. The saying "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is very true. It really doesn’t matter what others think. I’ve been told a million times that I’m beautiful, but it didn’t mean a thing to me until I realized it for myself.

Reading this essay by Alice Walker has caused me to reexamine this issue, one that I have been dealing with my entire life. A "physical flaw" is what I had believed I had for a long time, but it would be more accurately said that I had a "perceptual flaw."

Realizing that my looks are a unique characteristic of me, that make me who I am, has been an ongoing process. When I read Walker’s point of view and how she found "the other dancer," it caused me to think about my own story and how her ideas and experiences have urged me along in this process in accepting myself. I believe now that when you change your perspective and realize for yourself, that this is what makes you you, you will find "the other dancer." My jaw surgery was not the cause of my accepting myself. It may have been a contributing factor, but it was not the main reason. I just grew tired of holding back because I was afraid of what my peers thought of me, so I let go of this person inside that was restricting me. I found that this other person was happy to be in her skin, she had a nice smile and pretty eyes—she was acceptable to herself.

Sometimes I still stare at myself in the mirror before I go to sleep at night hoping to catch a glimpse of someone who can be considered beautiful. The difference is that this time I can catch that glimpse, and hold on to it for a while.

 

Copyright 2001
Sirena Baer

 

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Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA
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