“Congrats, Jennifer! You won! You won!” The outburst came as soon as the vote was counted by my fellow Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sister who then turned to me with a sympathetic face. “Hey, no worries–congrats on the Public Relations chair Meg!” I turned around and saw a room filled with girls that mainly looked nothing like me, even before a count of fingers and toes entered the mix.
For the prior couple of weeks, I had campaigned very hard to become President of KKG. I was a dedicated student who had just completed a year as Scholarship Chairperson. A senior majoring in History, within a few months I would learn of my acceptance to NYU School of Law. However, before leaving Madison for good, I had one more ambition, to serve as the President of my sorority.
My opponent was beautiful and popular, charismatic and fun. Whereas I certainly was well-liked and ran on a strong record, she tapped into something I didn’t prioritize—the needs and interests of our sisters. Meanwhile, my new designation as PR chair was part consolation prize, part necessity for the house, as the position needed filling and there were barely enough candidates for all of the positions. It would have to do.
I turned for support to my two best friends in the house, Jessica and Lia. Both women were brunettes, like me, and we formed an atypical subset of the mostly blonde legion of Kappa’s that had paraded through our school. Both were also from close-knit Italian families. When I had first met Jessica at the beginning of school, we made immediate assumptions about each other based on our first names. She assumed that I, as “Margaret”, was Italian and I thought “Jessica” was Jewish. The fact that we had gotten it backwards was always a little part of our bond to each other. Meanwhile I had met Lia previously by introduction from the Kappa President herself, Jennifer.
And so that election night, while many of our Kappa sisters went out together to celebrate, Lia and I quietly slipped away to a nearby restaurant called the White Horse. Lia had similarly run for an officer role, but ended up with a default position, too. Over a big chocolate mud pie mud (er, or two….) we talked for hours to make sense out of events. Trying to console ourselves, our mouths filled with oozing chocolate, I opened mine and came across quite petty. “Why in the world would anyone vote for Jennifer? I clearly have so much more going for me….She’s not that nice and I don’t think she is even that bright.” I was years away from dealing with the fact that I still hid my hands in public amidst strangers and in photos. The loss not only stung, but left us pondering what our future might look like during our senior year with our plans unexpectedly foiled. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Lia, Jessica and I would remain the best of friends for decades.
Recently I went to the mall and ran into the MAC make-up store to get a few items. I had plans that evening to attend a bar mitzvah party and wanted to look my best. When I strolled in, I noticed a few women all dressed in black attentively giving makeovers to willing recipients. Feeling indulgent, I asked an employee if she could squeeze me in. After all, I rationalized to myself, the makeover was free with a purchase and I had planned to buy anyway. Already into a busy season, the woman told me that if I came back in an hour, “Jessica” could have time for me. As I provided my first name, I glanced over at a pretty woman who appeared to be in her early thirties, also in black, bending down, oogling over a young girl and boy. I presumed the children were hers and their escort was the grandmother –paying a visit to their mother’s job.
An hour later, I returned excited for my makeover. The woman who had made my appointment smiled at me and pointed to a nearby chair. Within seconds, the same pretty woman I had noticed before approached. “Hi I’m Jessica,” as she offered her hand with a friendly smile. Never shy to shake a hand, I proffered my one-fingered hand which she awkwardly shook. I didn’t mind her reaction though, I’m used to it Noting she seemed a bit anxious, I decided to try and change our focus, talking about my husband John and my own three kids. I then added, “I think I saw you with your beautiful two kids earlier.” Her reaction was swift and immediate. “Oh no, those are my niece and nephew….” Her face had fallen and voice became soft. I once more proceeded to change the subject and described the dress I was planning to wear and wondered what colors on my eyes would look best.
Within a few minutes, Jessica explained she needed to get a few things for our session. But instead of coming right back, I watched as she offered her services to some girls looking for mascara. I began to feel a bit impatient as she even took the time to check them out personally. Almost ten minutes later, when I figured she’d finally come back, Jessica glanced over at me but then walked up to another customer and asked if she could assist. I looked around at the other make-up artists who hadn’t left the chairs of their customers. I felt something was wrong.
After almost 15 minutes, I was beyond frustrated, got up and walked up to her, and said. “Jessica, I’m leaving. I don’t understand you. That just wasn’t cool. You and I both know it.” I left irate, choosing to interpret the incident as Jessica having a bizarre reaction to my physical difference. It seemed a bit far-fetched at first, but then I couldn’t figure out why else I would’ve been so neglected?
Pausing before leaving the Mall parking lot, I decided the treatment I received was unacceptable and I dialed the help desk for that cosmetics chain. After wading through a sea of phone menus, I was relieved to speak with someone live. I carefully described the experience, and she was more than willing to listen. I decided to add that I believed I was treated this way because of my physical difference, for I couldn’t figure out why else I would’ve been ignored and mistreated. The customer service person replied that she was horrified, and that of course this would not be something her company would support. But then, when I awaited some type of further satisfaction that would end up impacting Jessica, the MAC rep said, “Well, thank you for your call. I’m actually not the right person to help you, since I only handle online cosmetics, but I figured it is always cathartic to be able to vent to someone. I hope you feel better. I can now give you the right corporate complaint number.” At that, I collected my thoughts, thanked her for being a listening ear and told her I was driving and couldn’t write the number down anyway.
By the time I arrived home, my mood had somewhat softened but I still shared with John the events at the Mall. Without speaking, he wrapped his arms around me as if to say, “It’s not worth your while, Meg.” Just having him to come home to helped assuage my anger toward Jessica. I moved closer to feeling at peace. It occurred to me in that moment, that as much as I dislike the feeling of being judged by others based on my physical appearance, I was undeniably guilty of the same. Although my suspicions about Jessica’s motives were possibly correct, it was also possible that I summed her up without the empathy that I try to encourage from others. It occurred to me that she might have been at a rough point in her life and was focused on what she didn’t have, compared to others – or me -, rather than on what she did have. Serving over-privileged customers from that perspective can be pretty hard.
Fast forward to today. As I prepare a Thanksgiving Day feast for two dozen assorted people, I’m hoping for peace and tranquility to reign despite the still very raw feelings of the recent election. These past months I’ve witnessed with great distress a breakdown in civil discourse and a descent by so many to the darker places our minds can go. Gone, it seems, is a willingness to empathize with and understand opposing viewpoints or walk in each other’s shoes. The worst assumptions about each other have become the default.
I am reminded of why Thanksgiving has always been my favorite of all holidays: It is intended not only to be an expression of gratitude but also to gather us in unity -in celebration of a common purpose. It is my hope that, at least during Thanksgiving, family and friends can put aside any pettiness and negative assumptions that have recently emerged.
Ultimately, I believe that the best way to engage this year is no different than always– unconditional acceptance and understanding of one another, period.
Little did I know that by being PR Chair I was eligible to be interviewed by UW-Madison alumni and to be on the University’s Homecoming Court. It did not escape me, one-fingered handshake after the next, that my physical difference had become an asset and certainly made me memorable. When, in fact, I was selected, the opportunity was better than anything I’d ever experienced. Not only did the Homecoming Court get to meet Tommy Thompson, the Wisconsin governor, we also dined with the University’s chancellor, Donna Shalala, who in years to come would be the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. We also went to a local hospital where we visited very sick children. None cared at all that I looked different—they were just happy to have us spend time with them. And at the end of the Homecoming week, as I stood with the other members of the Court at our stadium’s 50 yard line, waving to more than 50,000 students, I felt more fulfilled than I had ever expected.