“You’re so cute and adorable, mummy,” my 7-year old tells me as we lie curled up in bed. “Even with your scar and funny-looking nose,” she adds after a brief pause.
When I first started writing and speaking publicly about my experience with cleft lip and palate, I hadn’t thought about the license it would give my kids to talk freely about my appearance, and as open as I want to be about it to them, it does get to me sometimes. Often, I find them inspecting my face as we hug at bedtime, and I know they’re thinking about the scar on my upper lip and my wonky nose. In my bid to normalise facial differences such as cleft lip and palate, I’ve unwittingly made my kids sit up and take notice of something they didn’t use to pay any particular attention to before: the fact that my face is different.
“That’s something you’ll just have to accept,” my mother says when I complain to her about my children’s fascination with my disfigurement. She’s right of course; having chosen to write and speak about my life experiences as a ‘cleftie’, I’ve opened the door to others’ responses, comments and even criticisms. Most of the time, I am ok with that, but sometimes that little girl inside me still feels hurt by the attention, because all she wants is to be pretty and normal.
The grown-up me isn’t too bothered about being pretty, but she would love to be cool. In an alternative universe, I’m a Thelma & Louise – type of woman who doesn’t give a damn about conventions, rules and expectations. I’m a biker chick in black leather, riding into the sunset whenever I feel like it, roaming the world on my Harley Davidson. I’m fearless, confident and effortlessly cool. It’s my natural state of being.
The truth is I’ll never be cool, and it’s got nothing to do with my face. I simply lack the je ne sais quoi required. As a child, I was always geeky, even when I tried dressing more fashionably. But somehow jeans and tops that looked cool on other girls my age failed to transform me. There’s a hideous school photo from when I was fourteen, which shows what a gargantuan effort I’d made to look like an it-girl and how spectacularly I’d failed. I’m pictured wearing a purple cardigan over a purple t-shirt, with purple eyeshadow to match and a backcombed fringe that makes my hair look frizzier than it already is. In my defence, 1980s fashions were always questionable.
My daughters, in contrast, have a natural sense of style and individuality that isn’t guided by how others think they should look, but by what their instincts tell them. They probably inherited their style sense from their grandmother who’s always smartly dressed, but unfortunately, that gene must have skipped a generation.
Being a geek has its upside though; it’s liberating, since there’s little pressure to be stylish, cool and popular, and it’s effortless because all you’re doing is being you. And no matter what, in the eyes of those who truly matter to me, I’m still cute and adorable…at least for the time being.
Come to think of it; being geeky is pretty cool.