We shall not attempt to give the reader an idea of that tetrahedron nose – that horse-shoe mouth – that small left eye over-shadowed by a red bushy brow, while the right eye disappeared entirely under an enormous wart – of those straggling teeth with breaches here and there like the battlements of a fortress – of that horny lip, over which one of those teeth projected like the tusk of an elephant – of that forked chin –
– Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1833)
I woke up this morning with two red, saucer-sized welts under my left eye. Swollen and sore to the touch, I grabbed the nearest reflective surface in alarm.
After ten minutes of microscopic self-inspection before the mirror, the first thought that crossed my mind was:
I might as well go back to bed.
If I sleep for long enough, maybe there’s a chance that I could sleep these Welts Brothers away.
Uh, fat chance, more like.
Had it not been for my regular breakfast craving, I would have hit the hay pronto. But because I chose bread over bed, I kick-started today by thinking about why I (over)reacted to the two bumps on my face the way I did.
FOMLO: Fear Of Looking Odd – What it feels like to fear people & crowds
Growing up, I was never one of those girls who could pull off the Colgate on a pimple look with pomp (although acne chic has yet to catch on), but my kind of self-consciousness was chronic, crippling, and often straight-up clinical: I’d walk out into the street on an average day and immediately start imagining that everyone is looking at me and judging me and secretly making comments about the way I look or walk or talk:
“Mom, why do people keep staring at me like that?!”
“No one’s staring at you, Missus.”
“But they are though! I saw them looking my way!”
“Well how would you know if you weren’t staring at them in the first place? Maybe they’re thinking the same thing of you – ‘Why is that weird girl over there staring at—”
“OMG Mom did you see – the person that just walked past was staring at me AGAIN!! I want to go home now.”
And on days when she’s not in the mood to mollycoddle my paranoiac kvetching:
“Mom, why do people keep looking at me like there’s something wr—”
“Don’t worry, honey – they’re looking at me.”
“Huh… but, why would they?”
“Well, why shouldn’t they? I’m tall and beautiful. So of course they would. Anyone would.”
Bam. Bull’s eye. Hit the nail right on the head. The difference between a self-conscious teen and a self-confident woman – right there and then in the flesh.
For the longest time, I lived like your poster agoraphobe; detours were my best friend, and I made a habit out of avoiding main streets for back alleys (good luck traversing the streets of Hong Kong that way, I know). Where there were crowds, I’d bow myself out. I’m better these days, but I suspect that circumstance has forced me to accept the flotsam and jetsam of commuters rubbing shoulders and torsos against fellow commuters.
Otherwise, I would have stabbed myself left right and centre trying to navigate the pavements in this high density city on a daily basis.
The real genesis of my agoraphobia, though, lies in a more inward source – a constant, deep-seated concern about how I should look to the world, how the world would receive me, and whether the world would receive me on days when I’m just not feeling/looking 100%.
Hence my reflex of ducking back under the covers upon waking up with a wonky eye this morning, or of concealing any imperfections with my NARS Radiant Creamy Custard Concealer that should mar my face on any given day.
Exactly a month from now, I will have turned 22.
And if 21 going on 22 is a watershed stage in the offing, then I’d like to think that I’ve finally been able to leave my self-consciousness by the door of my adolescent era, but who am I kidding, put two red splotches on my face and ask me to parade around in the Central Business District sans makeup and hell, you might as well have me rock up to work in my fluffy bunny slippers and bunny onesie PJs (and my bunny-eared nightcaps).
At the heart of all this, I reckon, is a fear of sticking out (like a sore thumb), of not just being different, but being perceived as different.
What fascinates me most, though, is how I’m able to spell my self-consciousness out in writing but unable to overcome much of it in real life.
Case study: Having a real eye sore vs. Imagining myself to be an eye sore
In my sophomore year at high school, I came down with a nasty case of shingles after an especially stressful period of debate training. This manifested as an unsightly rash in my left eye.
By the time I was well enough to return to school, my schoolmates were bemused to find a pair of black, thick-rimmed spectacles perched on my nose bridge.
Mind you, I had never worn glasses before then (and I still don’t), so naturally, my mates were puzzled and concerned:
What happened to your eyes, Jen? Did you, um, get prescriptions while on sick leave?
Ehh, nothing, I’m just supposed to limit their exposure to outside contact while they recover. Doc’s orders. End of. Can we please stop scrutising my eyes and talk about something else now.
Truth be told, the docs gave no such order; the specs were cosmetic and non-prescription, and I had bought them for 70 bucks from a Japanese trinket boutique because I wanted to hide my shingle-induced scars, because I was afraid that people around me would give me weird looks if I didn’t hide them, if I didn’t somehow distract everyone from the CRATER-LIKE MONSTROSITY on my face.
It’s like that hilarious moment in Margaret Atwood’s speculative sci-fi Oryx & Crake (2003), when ‘Snowman’, a human-turned-bird in a post-apocalyptic world, tries to explain why he looks the way he does to a group of kids who have never seen a bird before:
[The children] are gazing at Snowman expectantly. They must be hoping he’ll talk to them, but he isn’t in the mood for it today. At the very most he might let them see his sunglasses, up close, or… his baseball cap. They like the cap, but don’t understand his need for such a thing – removable hair that isn’t hair – and he hasn’t yet invented a fiction for it.
They’re quiet for a bit, staring, ruminating, but then the oldest one starts up. “Oh Snowman, please tell us – what is that moss growing out of your face?” The others chime in. “Please tell us, please tell us!” No nudging, no giggling: the question is serious.
“Feathers,” he says.
“Yes. We see. But what are feathers?”
Oh, right. They’d never seen any.
(p. 9 and 408, Virago edition)
Ironically, like the shades and cap that Snowman dons, my specs only served to invite more attention and questions around myself. What I projected to the world as a protective device for my eyes, then, was really just a makeshift prop for me to scaffold my ego.
In the week right after my shingles attack, my self-consciousness radar was off the charts: at every moment I felt like a million eyes were looking into my 360 degree-sensitive eyes; into every room I walked I imagined it was teeming with telepathic messages of ‘What’s wrong with her eye?’, ‘What happened to her face?’, ‘What’s that on her cheek?’ etc.
The eyes I had so desperately tried to protect from being ‘exposed’, it seemed, had in turn exposed the rawest part of me for all the world to see. It was, to say the least, an education in feeling vulnerable.
“Standing out”: Identifying with Oscar Wao’s momma in her golden days
This experience recalls a moment in a brilliant novel I had just read – Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), when Belicia Cabral, the mother of the title character, is portrayed in her younger days as a spunky, characterful but deeply insecure student at El Redentor, a private school in Santo Domingo where she “stood out” for being “a darkskinned media-campesina1 ass [among] a majority of whiteskinned pupils” who were “children of the regime’s top ladronazos2”:
[Beli] never would admit it (even to herself), but she felt utterly exposed at El Redentor, all those pale eyes gnawing at her duskiness like locusts – and she didn’t know how to handle such vulnerability. Did what had always saved her in the past. Was defensive and aggressive and mad overreactive. You said something slightly off-color about her shoes and she brought up the fact that you had a slow eye and danced like a goat with a rock stuck in its ass. Ouch. You would just be playing and homegirl would be coming down on you off the top rope. (p.83)
1: media-campesina means ‘average peasant’ in Spanish
2: ladronazos means ‘huge thieves’, a term that refers to the military autocrats who ruled the Dominican Republic back in the 1940s
Before we talk about Beli and me, could we please take a minute to marvel at Diaz’s stylistic ingenuity? The diasporic virtuoso with which he marries the literary with the colloquial blows my mind; in 100 words, there’s simile (“pale eyes gnawing… like locusts”) and polysyndenton (“defensive and aggressive and mad ovverractive”) and patois (“media-campesina”, “homegirl”) and syntactical variation (note how long sentences are end-stopped with a monosyllabic remark – “Ouch.”)
The. Stuff. Of. Genius.
Homie didn’t win the 2012 MacArthur Grant for nuffin’, that’s fo sho. It’s safe to say that I’m now an official Diaz fan, and I highly recommend Oscar Wao to anyone who’s looking for the next ‘Great American Novel’.
It’s superb. I cried and laughed so many times while reading it. Please read it too.
But yes, back to Beli and me: To a certain extent, she reminds me of, well, me, albeit a wilder, amplified, more unrestrained version of me, probably when I was still in my primary school days. By junior high, I had already developed a level of maturity that allowed me to not sweat the small stuff, or in Diaz’s words, to not be “mad overreactive” about minor remarks from others.
Still, the vulnerability captured here is on point, and quite reminiscent of how helplessly irate I felt during that week when I might as well have been walking around as Jack Griffin from H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man:
I lost the specs soon afterwards. But as a symbol of my teenage self-consciousness and an ‘ally’ in a rite of passage interval, I figured that they deserved a shout out here.
On a less sentimental note, the two red welts have become puffier since I first started writing this post – EFF. Better go and slab some herbal cream/remedy/thing on them, because Miss Jen does not want to show up to class looking like Quasimodo tomorrow.
It’s one thing to be laughed at by my colleagues and random people on the street; it’s a universally acknowledged truth, however, that being laughed at by students is the death knell for any teacher.
And I’m still way too self-conscious to be okay with that.
[Photo credits: remezcla, delcampe]