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When I was a teenager, I used to look in the mirror searching for something beautiful. The longer I stared, the longer I noticed the flaws. My slightly uneven eyes. My crooked nose. The scars. I cried a lot.
Cried, because I in no way looked like the shiny, happy girls in teen magazines. And I never would. This realization killed me. I was born with a rare condition called craniosynostosis, which caused one of the sutures (soft spots) of my skull to close early.
According to Johns Hopkins, "Craniosynostosis occurs in one out of 2,200 live births and affects males slightly more often than females." The condition can affect one or more of the sutures and the degree of deformity can vary. In my case, only the coronal suture on the right side of my skull closed early. But as my skull grew during infancy, the closure of that one spot threw everything out of whack. As is with many children diagnosed with craniosynostois, my skull grew in a lop-sided fashion.
Doctors told my parents that, without surgery, I could go blind. And, of course, the deformity would be severe.
In 1980, at 18-months of age, I underwent reconstructive head surgery. Mine was only the second surgery of its kind performed in the U.S. The first surgery had been on a young boy, but while doctors were able to save his physical appearance, they could not save his vision. He had been too old. The damage had already been done.
My surgery was a massive endeavor that lasted hours. The surgeons cut an incision from ear to ear. A second incision was made under my right breast. This is where doctors removed one of my ribs. They used the rib to fill in the cranial indention that had been created from the lop-sided growth. The rib was pieced to my skull with wire mesh. Yes, that’s right, I have a rib in my head.
In all respects, the surgery was deemed a tremendous success. The surgeons managed to correct the skull deformity to create a rounded, more uniform appearance. My eyesight was saved (although, my vision is still pretty bad). But the surgery couldn’t fix everything.
The uneven growth from the craniosynostosis caused one of my eyes to be set deeper in the socket, giving my eyes an uneven appearance. The doctors tried their best to make my face symmetrical, but there were still flaws. And, as the years passed, it was the flaws that haunted me in the mirror.
I wore glasses from the age of 5 until I was 17. The glasses hid the flaws better than contacts. But I hated the glasses. I hated feeling as though I needed a mask. That I needed to hide. Mostly, though, I hated that when I looked in the mirror.
I felt like my face resembled a Picasso painting. Uneven eyes. Crookedness. Abstract ugliness. I never went anywhere without make-up. I felt like I needed all the help I could get. And, judging from the mirror, it was my opinion that I needed a lot of help.
I don’t think I ever felt pretty in my early teens. I don’t think I knew how to feel pretty. I hated my face. And I hated that when I undressed, the scars were another obvious reminder of my defects. The doctors had cut the incision under my breast so that, when I hit puberty, my breast would hide the scar. But my scar was still visible even with my post-puberty breast tissue.
The scar under my breast is long -- about 7 inches. There is really no hiding it. No way to mask it when clothes are off. I didn’t like being naked. The idea of ever having sex scared me. How could I undress and show any boy my age a body that was so scarred? I felt like a freak.
My peers didn’t help with the self-esteem suicide. Kids can be cruel. At all ages. High school wasn’t fun. I’ll never forget biology in 10th grade. We were sitting with our lab groups. One girl used me as a means to make a point of the unlikelihood of some event to occur, saying “Yeah, and Julie will be a supermodel.”
I was depressed a lot as a teenager. I prayed many nights to just disappear into my pillow. The self-hate was immeasurable. The mental anguish was constant.
I can’t tell you when it turned around, when it all got better. Although, I’m fairly certain my first job during the summer of ’95 had something to do with it. I worked at a theme park. And, for the first time, I wasn’t only around the same group of kids that resided in my small town. There were boys there that didn’t know me. I could be me…whoever that even was.
I made the decision to ditch the glasses. I didn’t want them anymore. I’d rather squint than hide. My parents weren’t thrilled. But taking off those glasses felt like freedom. I smiled more that summer than I had in years. Confidence does wonderful things for beauty. Or maybe confidence is beauty. For the first time in my life, I had a boyfriend. And, while he knew about the scar (I told him), he wasn’t at all horrified with my scarred nudity. I was the only one who gave my scarred flaw a second thought. I was the only one who gave the flaws a destructive power.
My face is never going to be perfect. I suppose I could pay a plastic surgeon to fix the flaws, but why? The pain wouldn’t be worth the result. I don’t feel ugly anymore. I don’t look in the mirror and see an ugly girl. Of course, I still see my flaws. But I don’t hate them like I once did.
The flaws are me. The scars are me. And the imperfections make me beautiful.