I knew something wasn’t quite right as soon as I woke up. My lip felt stiff, and it was sore to touch. I heaved my tired body out of bed and shuffled to the bathroom to have a look in the mirror. The left side of my upper lip was swollen, and a quick look inside my mouth gave me an explanation: mouth ulcers. Annoying and mildly painful but nothing that wouldn’t resolve itself in a few days’ time.
I returned to the bedroom where my husband had just woken up.
“Look,” I said, “look at my lip!”
Still groggy from sleep, it took him a few seconds to focus his gaze where I was pointing my finger.
“You look like you’ve had Botox…bad Botox,” he said.
“Botox!” I repeated, horrified, and opened the wardrobe door to look in the mirror again. My husband was right. I looked like I’d had an injection in the left side of my upper lip to match the slightly thicker right side where my cleft is.
“I can’t leave the house today,” I moaned. “I’ve got a trout pout, a tell-tale sign of bad Botox.”
Just then, our 8-year old daughter came into the room.
“You look funny,” she said as soon as she saw me. “What did you do to your face?”
I’m used to the right side of my face being the ‘funny,’ side, with its uneven shape and unfortunate tendency to become puffy and sore when I have a cold. But my left side – that’s the ‘normal’ part of my face, except now it looked anything but.
“I’d rather look as if I’d taken a beating and been left with a fat lip, than as if I’d deliberately injected myself with Botox,” I said.
‘Fat lip’ – I couldn’t quite believe I was using that term now. When I was a child, bullies used to call me ‘fat lip’ and ever since, it remains a loaded term, full of negative connotations, and childhood memories I’d rather forget.
For much of that day, I stayed indoors and now and then I’d look in the mirror to see if the lip was showing any signs of returning to its usual shape. Inspecting my face thoroughly, I was struck by how much more symmetrical my lip looked, with both sides swollen. Ironically, I once turned down a plastic surgeon’s suggestion of doing just that – fattening up the slimmer side of my lip to create more symmetry.
As expected, with a bit of patience and a hefty dose of Bonjela, the mouth ulcer healed, and my face went back to normal.
What was otherwise a rather banal incident, got me thinking about all the times I’ve been tempted to have more surgery to ‘improve’ my looks. In hindsight, I’m glad I left my face alone. I don’t judge those who choose to go under the knife time and again in a bid to minimise the appearance of an old cleft or other appearance-related condition. Each to their own, but if there’s something I’ve learned over the years, it is that no amount of surgery will make me whole, because I – and everyone else – was always whole.
As the Irish-American poet Lucy Grealy, who had part of her jaw removed when she was diagnosed with cancer at the age of nine, writes in her memoirs, Autobiography of a Face:
Without another operation to hang all my hopes on, I was completely on my own. And now something inside me started to miss me. A part of me, one that had always been there, organically knew I was whole. It was as if this part had known it was necessary to wait so long, to wait until the impatient din around it had quieted down, until the other internal voices had grown exhausted and hoarse before it could begin to speak, before I would begin to listen.