Nearly fourteen years ago on an early fall day, I was standing in front of Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. I was on an impromptu weekend trip with my mom and two sisters, taking in the sights and sounds of the bustling city. We often took these family expeditions on long holiday weekends (or on a much-needed day skipped from school, ahem), most often to visit important landmarks or historically informative exhibits.**
**This particular trip’s claim to fame was that we were staying in the hotel where Jennifer Lopez filmed the movie Maid In Manhattan, just to prove that our outings could be as fun as they were educational.
The reason we were standing in front of this department store landmark instead of tracking down J.Lo was because my mom promised each of us a memento from the weekend. No way was I settling for an “I LOVE NEW YORK" t-shirt from a sidewalk vendor. I knew exactly what I wanted. On the cusp of my teenage years, I wanted a makeover at a fancy cosmetics counter in an upscale department store. Knee deep in body glitter, stacks of fashion magazines and candy flavored lip glosses, I was ready to take on a brand new look, a buyable cure that would inevitably improve my awkwardness and lack of confidence.
Upon passing through the heavy rotating doors, I was met with counters upon counters filled with jewel-tone colors, shellacked cases and shiny bottles of expensive potions and perfumes. I was immediately unsure of where to begin. My mom gently guided my sisters and I over to one of the less flashy displays where we were greeted less-than-warmly by a saleswoman. My mother explained to her the reason for our visit, gesturing toward me, the one who wanted to be made new. The woman cast an expressionless, single glance and my direction and said, “Oh, no. You’d be better off getting her something from our skincare line.”
"Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word, or deep empathy." - Jonathan Safran FoerTweet It!
I should explain that when the saleswoman looked my way, she didn’t see me. Instead, she saw my expectant face, riddled with painful, cystic acne. It had been that way since I was twelve years old and would stubbornly see me through the majority of my college years. All I ever wanted to do was hide. I had recently reached the age where my parents reluctantly allowed me access to makeup and I bought bottle after bottle, hoping to transform my pockmarked complexion. I felt hideous and embarrassed all the time. I declined sleepovers so that my friends wouldn’t see me without makeup or know how laying down at night literally hurt my face. I was consumed by the worry that my acne was all people would notice about me, a fear that my friends and family mercifully denied. They assured me that it felt worse to me than it looked to anyone else. But standing in this swank department store, the floors and walls gleaming my imperfect reflection back at me, I knew that I’d been right all along: my skin was all anyone ever saw.
This isn’t about having bad skin, of course. Plenty of teenagers (and adults, present) struggle with acne or other conditions that can crush their confidence or inhibit their feelings of self-worth. Nobody wants to be looked at and immediately assessed in a single, judgemental glance, especially for something as trivial as their appearance. And the reason I remember this particularly low moment of my life so well is not because I want to or because I’m certain that this woman remembers me (I am sure that she doesn’t). It is because it reminds me now that I am more than my flaws, the ones that are visible and the ones that are not. It took me awhile to get there from that moment, which was immediately followed by my retreating to the overpriced handbag section to cry. And I admit that I’m not always able to think of it that way. But when I reflect back on it, I try to see how easy it was for a woman twice my age to zero in on my insecurities. And how easy it’s been for me to do the same thing to others, even though I know firsthand how bad it feels. And as much as I wanted to hide my flaws from the world and from myself, covering them up wouldn’t necessarily have been the best way to find healing.
Many years later, I still find myself looking in the mirror and seeing that version of my younger self. Cowering behind layers of makeup, never leaving the house without my protective shield, never making prolonged eye contact with anyone. The only difference now is that if I could, I would tell that scared little girl from fourteen years ago that she’s more than what meets the eye. That not only would it get better, but dealing with this would teach her a little resilience and a lot of compassion. Not just for other kids with a tough skin condition, but for those who are vulnerable without choosing. You don’t always know what’s going on with the person standing right in front of you. But other times, what makes them weak is staring right back into your face, begging, “Please don’t notice me. Please don’t look at what I’m trying to keep you from seeing.” There is the vulnerability that we can bring out of ourselves when we feel ready to reveal it and then there is the vulnerability that follows us, that kind that shows just how fragile we are without our consent.
It hurts to be judged or teased for things about us that are uncontrollably true. It’s only a small example, of course, and there are a million other ways that my life could have been more difficult. But what I mean to say is this: before we jump to judge each other, we should let our hearts break a little for the flaws we see in others, visible or not. We’re all looking to hide something about ourselves. But if we’re met with compassion and understanding instead of disgust or lack of support, we’ll give each other a little more hope that our shortcomings and fears don't define us. We’ll remind each other, in this simple act of kindness, that we aren’t irreparably broken, that our scars aren't all we carry, that our imperfections don’t reveal who we really are.
In this small first step, real healing is possible.
Helen Williams is the Community Love Director at Holstee. She is passionate about cooking and writing which pair well together on her vegetarian food blog, green girl eats. She's strives, every day, to be less sorry.
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