Beauty & the Beasts

I had first read Lucy Grealy’s Mirrorings prior to reading Nancy Mair’s On Being a Cripple, and I noticed a similar theme about acceptance, self-image, love, and being a woman in both of them. In Mirrorings, Grealy talks about her battle with cancer and chemotherapy and the disfigurement it left her. The struggles which she endured afterwards with regards to her self-esteem and self-worth, caused her to avoid looking at herself in mirrors. She had confused fixing her face with fixing who she was as a person; and as a woman. She also had been strongly told as a child to “be brave,” and to be a “good girl,” as the chemotherapy was about to take place; she equated “strength with silence” and it became a part of who she was. Anytime she did cry, she felt like a failure. She writes depressingly and honestly about being different (with half of her lower jaw removed) and what her experiences were growing up. The insight that she has now vs. when she was younger as to how people looked at her has only changed slightly. She still seems to hang onto her coping mechanisms and her “defensive egomania,” which eventually led to her isolation and depression because she was different in another kind of way. She displayed a stark awareness in the line on pg. 82 about her so-called superiority, “I’d had thoughts like this when I was younger, ten or twelve, but now my philosophy was haunted by desires so frightening I was unable to even to admit they existed.” I felt like I was reading into her soul. I then realized something about myself through that line. I had been teased and bullied incessantly as a child up until high school (thankfully not because of a horrible disfigurement), because I was different. I would like Grealy, eventually compensate in different ways; I delved into books and wrote poetry, wore a lot of dark makeup and clothing, changed my name to suit a version of what the standards of “normalcy” were, and had a few boyfriends who treated me like crap. I didn’t want to admit I wanted to be popular because it would’ve been an insult to my intellect. I didn’t want to admit I wanted the nice boyfriend that looked good and treated me with respect because I’m a “rebel.” I didn’t want to admit that I wanted a group of girlfriends to go to the mall with and have lunch with (I still do), but when through this reading, I was forced to confront myself with the philosophies I had when I was younger and that there is still a part of me that is unable to admit that some of those desires still run deep and still permeate my existence. She had so many operations on her face to look “normal” that she didn’t even recognize herself and continued to feel ugly. For some odd reason, this reminded me of the Twilight Zone episode where the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This woman is deemed “ugly” and goes through a series of operations to make herself “normal/beautiful.” It isn’t until the end (because the doctors and surgeons are all wearing masks) that it’s revealed the woman is a gorgeous blonde (by our standards) and the rest of her world is populated by ugly pig-nosed people, including the doctors. So I do believe that by the end of this essay, Grealy was trying to discover what this man saw in her when she had her epiphany about herself. When she stopped looking in the mirror, she stopped (to an exent) equating looks with her self-worth as a woman. The man in the café gave her a glimmer of hope in an otherwise self-deprecating and depressing existence.

Compared to Mairs’ essay On Being a Cripple, I felt her disposition in life didn’t automatically correlate to her self-worth. It’s possible that having a fullfilled childhood that didn’t involve being crippled gave her an extra boost than compared to Grealy’s physical disfigurement and the psychological damage that came from the chemo and multiple operations on her face. I love how Mairs specifies the word “cripple” for the reader and delineates the various terms that are ascribed to people like her, and why it doesn’t suit her. With her essay, I felt an honesty that was infused with her sense of humor, wit, and linguistic grace; she didn’t shy away from the fact that having MS sucks and makes your life difficult and changes your perception on how to proceed through life. She was able to understand how society views a woman in the context of beauty, and much like Grealy’s essay, she is aware of the fact that she will never be considered in that special way that “normal” women are. Albeit, Mairs puts it a little less bleakly, she still speaks the same truth that Grealy does about society’s standards of beauty. Mairs admits to her self-loathing in a way that is relatable to me personally, because the feelings that are associated with beauty and age occasionally creep up and cloud my mind, and like Mairs says, it is “neither physically nor intellectually substantial.” I love how at the end of the paragraph, she says “What I hate is not me but a disease.” “I am not a disease.” Therein, lies the marked difference between Mairs and Grealy’s essays. How we define ourselves in terms of looks, a disease, age, womanhood, or otherwise does not define the person that we are. The people who love us can see our radiating beauty in spite of our physical flaws and to me, that is what we should equate to our self-worth. Love instead of beauty.

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