“I’m so ugly,” I stammered in front of my oversized bathroom mirror one morning.
“Oh, honey, you’re so cute,” said my mother, trying to reassure me. But her words brushed against my ears like the kiss of death, like telling someone they have a good personality – which she proceeded to do two minutes later when she found me still in the bathroom analyzing my features. The mirror, coupled with three high-watt light bulbs overhead, illuminated every tiny flaw. My downward slanting nose. My small mouth. My deformed hands and feet. And my electric wheelchair that seemed to eat me alive, taking center stage in the story of my life.
It was the day I learned to fear the mirror – the day I began my feud with myself.
I’d been envisioning my wedding day since I was 4. My flowing white gown. The paisley pink dresses for my bridesmaids. And a handsome man waiting to take me in his arms at the end of that long aisle, lined with dimly lit scented candles and rose petals.
Growing up, I always envied my younger sister, Janelle. She was the pretty one of the family – Swedish, flowing blonde hair, crystal blue eyes, straight and slender arms and legs and a body that was completely disability-free. Like a Greek goddess, she possessed an air of poise and perfection, and everyone commented on how beautiful she was.
They followed up their praise with compliments for me, but they always somehow fell flat – a hollow, empty cry into the dark, void night. I graciously accepted, forcing the beginning of a faint smile across my face, but I felt an arrow pierce the heart of my burgeoning young womanhood.
Like any young girl, I’d had my fair share of crushes. There was the blonde boy in my second-grade class who I used to daydream about on a daily basis, and my red cheeks matched the color of my hair any time he’d walk by.
There was the boy on my high school newspaper. We were co-editors, and I spent meetings thinking not about the upcoming story assignments or proofing a new layout, but studying intensely his piercing eyes, wavy brown hair I desperately wanted to tousle and the way his orange shirt brought out his smile.
And then there was Him. My first love. It started innocently when I was 13, when I referred to him as “a major babe” in my journal and then grew to deeper feelings of envisioning myself growing old with him. I found myself falling for him. Hard. I analyzed every chance meeting we had in my journal. What did his body language mean? What was he wearing? How long did we talk? What did he say? How did he say it?
But for some reason, I could never muster the courage to tell him – or any of these other crushes – how I felt, not because our differing personalities may have gotten in the way, but because I could feel my disability already had. And I was crushed.
“Why am I 20 and never had a boyfriend?” I wrote in my journal in 2001. “No boy has ever been interested in me. Am I deficient in some department? Do I turn guys off with my disability? I really want to experience true love, but I wonder if that could ever happen to someone as ugly and undesirable as me? I want guys to take me for who I am and look past my disability. Can’t they find someone to love in this invalid body?
In my world, where all the twentysomethings around me could easily couple up, I stood somewhat on the outside, peering through the window of a life I desperately wanted but would never have. I even started to feel like an invisible ghost that no man could ever see “in that way.”
Maybe I was afraid to admit that I’d grown disgusted with my body, or maybe part of me just didn’t want to think about it anymore, but from that moment, I shifted my focus to my mind. I excelled at all things academic, and by my junior year of college, I had a shelf of shiny accolades. A 3.9 GPA. A plaque for the Best Reporter on my college’s newspaper. A certificate for being an outstanding women student. But I still felt alone. Empty.
I had a beautiful mind. But the little girl in me – the one who sat on her bed and dreamed so long ago of the flowing white dress – still wanted so desperately to feel pretty on the outside.
There’s a large lagoon in the heart of NIU’s campus. I must have walked around it hundreds of times, feeling the gnaw of nostalgia when I passed a group of preschoolers leaning into the water to feed bread crumbs to the squawking ducks. The ducks. I finally saw them for the first time one day. I stopped on the grassy banks for a moment to observe those winged birds flapping and fluttering in the shallow water. There was always one duck the flock seemed to leave behind as they paddled toward the majestic geese. The poor duck looked all alone and lost, like he was somehow desperately searching for his place in the world. I felt an instant connection with that lonely duck. We were both ugly ducklings in a sea of beautiful, graceful swans.
I’d spent so many years feeling ugly on the outside. When men never seemed to take an interest, I assumed it must be me. And my feeble attempts at focusing on my mind had merely been a way to avoid my body, something I’d come to view as an “ugly mess.”
For so long, I’d tried to run away from my disability. After all, my disability had become a wall that got in the way of everything. But it’s not that men were uncomfortable with my disability. I was. And I had been afraid to admit it to myself.
All I wanted was for a man to look past my disability and see the real me – she was tucked in there just waiting to come out of her shell – but it had to start with me. The next time I looked in the mirror, I started to notice my wavy red hair, my freckles and my piercing green eyes. But what stood out most were my surgical scars, not as a hopeless reminder of my differences, but as a badge of honor. A symbol of all I’ve overcome – even a symbol of what makes me beautiful. My swan had finally blossomed.
[Photos via We Heart It]