“I knew it!” I turned to my fiancé John’s first cousin Jamie, who I completely adored from the moment we were introduced. “What are you talking about?” As a producer at the NBC show Dateline, Jamie would travel periodically from her home near Philadelphia while on assignment in New York City and stay at our apartment. John and I had been engaged for about six months and were in wedding-planning mode. I was always thrilled when Jamie visited to get her insights into everything from music, to flower arrangements and dress colors for bridesmaids (including her).
That evening John was working late, so the two of us were sitting together, giggling, looking at old photos of me growing up. “Look at your nose! It looks bigger in that photo of you at camp! I knew your nose was too perfect to be yours!” When I realized she was serious, I had to set the record straight. “Jam(e), I am not sure what angle that photo was taken at that makes you think otherwise, but I promise you, I’ve never had any type of surgery….well, with the exception when I was a baby and my parents had a mole removed from my cheek.” I paused, and then added, “Let’s face it anyway, I grew up in Central Illinois and the Middle East—not exactly a mecca for young girls getting nose jobs!” Instantly, she apologized. “Oh gosh I’m so sorry, but you just have the perfect little nose!” As I washed my face that night before bed, I reflected on the conversation, both tickled that anyone would ever use the word “perfect” when it came to my body, and also knowing that the last thing I would ever think to do was to mess with the one part of my body that I viewed as normal.
“I’m so sorry, you are simply not eligible.” My heart sank instantaneously at the news. I had been waiting in a plain, white office of the New York Eye & Ear Infirmary on 14th street for the technician to review the results of my eye exam and confirm I could be eligible for LASIK surgery. Refusing to hear no, I began to plead. “Are you absolutely sure? All of my friends, co-workers and even my father-in-law have had it done. I’ve never heard of anyone being refused!” Again, she repeated the news. “I am so sorry Mrs. Zucker, but your corneal flap is simply too thin. LASIK surgery is a fantastic option for the majority of people interested, but not for you.” Watching my face, she purposefully added, “Hey I actually like you in glasses.” She didn’t understand. I had gotten glasses while in college and was thrilled at being able to once again see details surrounding me I hadn’t realized I was missing. My interest in getting LASIK surgery was mainly practical, as our one-year—old, Ethan, was often grabbing my glasses with his one–fingered hands. My body was already the definition of imperfection.
“My favorite day is Halloween!” I can count on my (er, husband’s) hands alone how many times just this past week I have heard people, young and not so young, tell me how much they enjoy this holiday. Personally, Halloween and I have sort of had a love-hate relationship. Growing up, I adored the holiday. It wasn’t necessarily the chance to become someone different that attracted me as much as it gave me the opportunity to wear costume after costume that would hide my hands, at least for one joyous night. Whether it was the very long white sleeves in my ‘angel’ costume or the long black drapery of witch sleeves, I was in ‘hider heaven,’ at least as I see it now. However, something happened to me once I became a ‘flaunter,’ not only willing to show my hands publically, but purposefully. When cousin Jamie and her husband (both serious Halloween fanatics) happened to be visiting from Philly recently, I asked if I could borrow a costume for this year. “Sure, Meg, anything!”
While we scanned their laptop complete with scores of photos of their costumes at parties from years past, our nine-year-old, Charlie, walked past and happily announced, “Hey Aunt Jamie! Did you hear…? I’m getting glasses soon!” There was practically a twinkle in his eye as he shared his special update. Typically such news is received with anxiety and even fear, on both the part of parents and children. The phrase “four eyes” pretty much sums that up. But for Charlie, it was clear that when a two-fingered kid has spent the greater part of his life adjusting to scrutiny about his physicality, the chance to be able to see more clearly at school and while playing sports was a big plus. The fact that his father wears glasses didn’t hurt, either. Later that week in response to a ‘Kids Flaunt’ program I had set up at his school for 4th and 5th graders, Charlie asked, “Mom, what should I write about? I mean, my fingers are totally awesome and everything but I’ve already written about that.” I. of course, burst with pride at that particular comment. As I watched Charlie draft his new Kid Flaunt, it occurred to me that although it took me ages to not care what people were thinking, Charlie at nine was already thriving on that front.
It was in this context that I read the massive media coverage about the actress Renee Zellweger’s plastic surgery. Countless articles and TV stories ran for a week about Zellweger’s decision to eliminate her unique squinty and almost hooded eyes for traits that well….were essentially unrecognizable. No longer looking like “herself,” Zellweger, at age 45, was now an attractive, but somehow indistinct, woman. Her own reaction to the hysteria was particularly intriguing. “I am glad folks think I look different!” she said. “I am living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I’m thrilled that it shows.” I confess I was saddened to see her have to defend herself to harsh critics and equally sad that so many actresses of a certain age feel the pressure to chase youth surgically. In Zellweger’s case, however, she gave up those characteristics that helped her stand out. She clearly valued those squinty eyes less than her audiences did.
I then read an article by Australian journalist and author, Julia Baird, “How We Misread Renee’s Face.” Out of the gate, Baird notes about herself, “I never realized that I had a reasonably big nose until someone made a joke about it at dinner.” The thought provoked Baird to discuss Zellweger’s surgery, quickly noting that the “attempted hysterical public humiliation of Ms. Zellweger was disgraceful.” But Baird went on to take the conversation to a deeper level that resonated with me. “Perhaps it is time for us all to trumpet—or at least not try to mask—our imperfections. The magnificent Eleanor Roosevelt had buck teeth. The brilliant Jane Addams had a ‘lumpy’ nose. Frida Kahlo had a monobrow and a moutache. Dorothea Lange had a limp,” and so on. But my favorite example of Baird’s was her last: “And what of the famed Egyptian seductress Cleopatra? The French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that, “…if her hooked nose had been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.” Toward the end of her piece, Baird then quoted Plutarch: “Cleopatra’s beauty was not in itself remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being stuck by it. Instead, the contact of her presence if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching.”
From my vantage, when life delivers you an imperfect physical body, and you come to a place of peace and acceptance, then the appreciation for what you have trumps everything. You are not longing for some memory of perfection that never existed. I am tickled that Charlie can see that already, even well before receiving his first pair of new glasses.
Ironically, five days before I read Baird’s article, I had already chosen a Cleopatra costume from Jamie’s collection to wear to a friend’s party. I made certain to flaunt my bare arms and hands. And of course, as always, I would rely on my charm and humor as my greatest asset.