I walk down the airplane aisle, scanning the rows. My eyes finally fall on 15F. My seat.
This window seat means only one thing to me: someone to my left. A man, to be exact–middle-aged, reading the New York Times and snacking on a bag of peanuts. He doesn’t notice as I shove my purse under the seat and sit down. My only thoughts are of blending in–with the other passengers, with the chair, with the plane itself. Anything.
My objective on this five-hour flight is simple and clear. It’s the same one that I cling to almost every second of every day: to keep my left side hidden from the world.
Everyone has a good side–a more photogenic side, a certain way that they turn when taking pictures. I don’t have a good side, but rather a “less bad” side–a side whose mere completeness is what appeals to me.
My left side charts the history of my birth defect. My severe underbite is an orthodontic byproduct of my cleft lip and palate. The scar under my nose records the surgery that closed my cleft lip. The scar on my hip commemorates a bone-marrow transfer from hip to mouth in second grade.
After a moment of going unnoticed, I feel the man staring. His stare digs into me, and I squirm.
In his eyes, my body has suddenly disappeared. All that’s left is my profile, begging for scrutiny: nose, complete with scar; bottom lip jutting out farther than the top.
A damaged silhouette. Not like the beautiful black silhouettes you see framed in your grandmother’s house. Not even like Alfred Hitchcock’s portly outline–at least he is whole, unblemished.
The man to my left starts the airplane chat that everyone dreads. I don’t want to answer, but I know that if I don’t turn to him, he will end up staring directly at my left side.
If only I could show him a good side–present a better face to the world. But no matter which way I turn, someone is always to my left….
The paragraphs above capture a time in my life when my appearance dominated my thoughts.
I was born with a cleft lip. My very first operation, to close it, took place when I was three months old. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a scar under my left nostril.
The scar was never of much consequence to me when I was very young. Sure, I didn’t like having countless appointments with my orthodontist and surgeon, but I honestly thought that all kids had to do this.
My parents never made it seem unusual. To this day, my mom says that she counts herself lucky: although both of her children were born with minor birth defects, they didn’t have any life-threatening complications or truly debilitating health issues. I constantly strive to embrace that outlook.
Inevitably, school was where I learned that my scars made me different. Don’t get me wrong: even there, I was lucky. I always had friends, and I was never picked last for kickball. But children are honest to a fault.
I became a master of evasion: I spent my youth skirting questions about my cleft lip–“What is that under your nose?”–that no adult would have the audacity to ask. In second grade, when I starting wearing a retainer, a classmate incessantly asked, “What is that? Why do you have it? Can you take it out? Can I see it?” She meant no harm, but it brought me attention that I in no way wanted. In fifth grade, a boy notorious for bullying asked me if a dog had bitten me in the face. Even though I knew he was a jerk, his words stung. In high school, when one or two friends asked about the bone-graft scar on my hip, I made up a ridiculous story about getting scraped on a fence when I was little.
It would seem that after two decades of acquaintance, my scars and I should have worked out our differences–perhaps even become chummy. You know, like when women who used to hate their curly hair embrace it and stop the daily blow-dry; or when the formerly embarrassing gap between someone’s teeth becomes something “special” and “unique.”
But this magical transformation hasn’t been possible for me. My scars are a reminder of hard nights spent in the hospital. Of stitches being slowly, painstakingly pulled out by my surgeon. Of the six-week liquid diet I endured after my jaw surgery. So I still dislike my scars, and I certainly wish I didn’t have them.
The most I’ve been able to do is to work out a truce. I realize that, like it or not, we’re in a lifelong relationship, and after years of fighting, I want to make peace. So although I know that my scars will always be with me, I no longer let them monopolize my thoughts and actions.
Nowadays on my frequent trips from New York to California, I often sit in the window seat. I can go whole days without wondering, “Who’s looking at my scar?” If a good friend asks me about it, I tell the truth. I even got up in front of sixty people during a public-health presentation and told them how I’d been born with a cleft lip and palate. We talked about organizations like The Smile Train, whose medical teams train surgeons in developing countries to perform cleft surgery.
No longer am I a master of evasion. Now I look straight at myself–and I let others look, too.
And that is liberating.
About the author:
Anne Herbert is a graduating senior at Stanford University, where she majored in human biology. She will attend Bryn Mawr’s post-baccalaureate program in the fall in preparation for medical school. “I got interested in writing at Stanford while doing the creative writing assignments for Professor Lawrence Zaroff’s class Medicine Through Literature.”