Kelly Davio’s previous Waiting Room columns can be found here.
Many years ago, when I was a student studying in England, a young woman stopped a friend and me while we walked through London’s Covent Garden neighborhood. She told us that she was a fashion student and asked if she could photograph us for a street-style spread she was working on. We obliged, standing somewhat awkwardly in the middle of a busy sidewalk, perplexed that she was taking pictures of us rather than of the hundreds of more well dressed locals streaming by. He and I did our best to look fashionable and smiled for the camera.
At the time, I found the whole situation amusing. It was laundry day, and my friend and I were on our way back to the laundromat to change out a few machines full of clothes. We were wearing whatever was clean enough, which for me, if memory serves, involved a skirt too light for the late fall weather, compensated for by a pair of striped pink leg warmers slouched over red sneakers. I wasn’t exactly runway ready. For all I know, the spread we appeared in might have been called “Street Style Failures.”
Still—I admit it—I stored the experience up in a little chamber of my heart that I cracked open when low-self-esteem moments left me feeling dumpy and frumpy.
There was that one time, I’d think.
This past March, on my last day in London, I puttered around some old haunts in the city, looking at how much had changed and what little remained the same. I was so wrapped in my thoughts that I just about leapt out of my shoes when a strange woman approached me, stuffing a business card into my hand. It was difficult for me, between my jet lag and the street noise, to entirely make out what this woman was trying to tell me.
It could be the fact that I was only a few blocks from my old laundry spot—or it could simply be some absurd and lingering vanity—but I thought about the fashion student and her big clacking camera.
As the woman prodded her card at me, I caught the words “makeover,” and “free.” She gestured at my eyes.
“No, thanks,” I said, and shuffled away as quickly as I could.
Some days, my eyes look the way I remember them—the way I still picture myself in my mind. Other days, I look uncannily like Phineas Gage: when my muscular weakness takes aim at my face, my eyes change shape drastically. My eyebrows slouch down and my lower lids sag onto my cheeks. My right eye sometimes completely closes without my wanting it to.
What I ought to care about is the fact that my weak eye muscles give me blurry vision. It’s discombobulating at best, disruptive to daily living at worst. But what I often find that I care about is the fact that my face is totally asymmetrical.
We’ve all heard that symmetry is the basis of beauty; we’ve read the articles that tell us that the more symmetrical the face, the more biologically attractive the partner. Symmetry runs deeper, it seems, than cultural taste or fashion—it’s hardwired into us.
Failing to meet the obtuse beauty standards of a particular cultural moment is one thing. It’s another thing entirely to feel excluded from the most innate standards of the species.
It’s not worth questioning whether I can change the way my face falls in on itself. It’s also pointless to question whether I can change others’ perceptions of me (look, this is actually really cute!).
The question I find myself gnawing on is this: how does a person quit minding? How does a person quit feeling excluded? How does she quit reminding herself that there was that one time?
The answer, speaking for myself anyway, is that I can’t. I would like to one day achieve a state of radical self-acceptance (perhaps it shows how far I have to go that I originally wrote the word “love,” then replaced it with “acceptance”), but I don’t have any idea how to grow self-acceptance other than by a program of long patience and of getting older.
Perhaps a better question than the one I’ve been asking myself is how I can quit making other women feel excluded. I suspect that I’m as complicit in the business of exclusion as anybody. We women learn from a young age that there’s a payoff to making off-handed remarks about someone else’s appearance, someone’s outfit, someone’s hair; we learn that this group monitoring of other people gives us a quick, cheap jolt of self-superiority. But that momentary boost is at the expense of another person who hears our under-the-breath comments. She sees us look a little too long or with a smirk, and she stores it up in an unhappy little chamber of her heart that cracks itself open when she doesn’t want it to. She may not be able to quit minding it, but what if the rest of us chose to stop doing it?
Kelly Davio is the co-publisher and poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013). She is the former managing editor of The Los Angeles Review and is a reviewer for Women’s Review of Books. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Verse Daily, The Rumpus, and others. She earned her MFA in poetry from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, and is a freelance writer in the Seattle area.