Lip service

As a teacher, I see the daily teenage struggle for identity in all its painful iterations.

Watching some recent stories that are dominating the news cycle, I can’t help but ponder the impact on these impressionable minds. La Crosse, Wis., TV anchor Jennifer Livingston had to defend herself last week from a viewer disappointed that her extra weight makes her an inappropriate “example for this community’s young people,” while Lady GaGa took to Twitter to “explain” her recent weight gain. Like Britney Spears, Kirstie Alley and countless others before them, some of us seem all too eager to make otherwise complete strangers accountable to our ideals. What is it about our society that we fixate on the external? Just two months ago, 16-year-old gymnastics star Gabby Douglas’s hair was one of the hottest topics during the Olympic Games after many said the two-time gold medalist’s hair looked “unkempt.”

Surely she laughed this off, right? After all, this was an athletic competition, not a red carpet walk. She had just proven herself the best gymnast in the world at an age when my biggest achievement was getting my driver’s license. Shortly after the Games, however, she bowed to the pressure and reached out to celebrity hair stylist Ted Gibson (he’s worked with Angelina Jolie and Anne Hathaway). If someone at the very height of her accomplishments like Gabby is so influenced by the petty whims of society’s snarkiest, what chance does the typical teenager have?

I certainly wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Growing up with a double-cleft palate was an albatross that hobbled my entire adolescence. My “harelip” was my most distinguishing characteristic — and God knows, kids don’t want “distinguishing characteristics.” I just wanted to be like everyone else. At each new school or practice, it was every kid’s first question: “What’s wrong with your lip?” When you’re constantly asked this question year after year, it becomes easy to obsess about it. What was wrong with my lip? Why did this happen to me?

While it’s natural that kids seize on differences as a way of defining the world around them, this eventually hijacked my self-esteem. I became insecure, a social chameleon; I tried to overcompensate for my “uniqueness” by doing whatever the kids around me did. It wasn’t until late in high school that I realized how much I had sublimated my own identity in search of acceptance. While my parents always claimed my cleft palate gave me “character,” I allowed it to rob me of any trace of it in my attempts to fit in. Over the years, each, “What’s wrong with your lip?” became proof that these attempts were hopeless.

When subsequent plastic surgery failed to hide the evidence of my genetic abnormalities, I was finally forced to come to grips with being different. The scars began to fade, both literally and figuratively, as I learned to develop a sense of humor about it. Unfortunately, those scars never completely disappear. Even now I wear a beard to conceal it to some extent, still wary of my middle school students asking that dreaded question. Therein lies the power of focusing on the external: It can dominate one’s life for decades regardless of whether it’s justified. As an adult, I know that I was far more obsessed with my appearance than anyone else was. Worse, I took the results of this genetic lottery as a personal shortcoming, something of which I was to be ashamed. I lived in the shadow of a monster of my own making, but that didn’t help me back then.

I guess that’s what worries me about our fixation on the external: I’ve learned that the labels we put on ourselves last. We should be going out of our way to avoid adding any others to those around us, especially if they’re young enough to believe us. It took me about 40 years to learn how to answer the question that always seemed to point out my shortcomings. What’s wrong with my lip? (Nothing, actually. Do you see something wrong?)

Hopefully, when we talk about how important it is to protect our children, we’ll pay it more than lip service.

 

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him a [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.

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