Perceptions are not always what they appear to be

When I was a teenager, I lived with my grandparents, and two of their sons.   One, my Uncle Joey*, has Downs Syndrome and will always live with my grandmother or other family.  The other, my Uncle Daniel* is only six years older than me, and, as a young adult, was still living with his parents to save a bit, get ahead on the things he’d need in life.

One day, I was looking in the antique drum table for something Grandma wanted, and I found a picture of a younger girl.  The girl in the picture was probably ten or eleven, skinny, wearing a red vest and white peter pan collar shirt.  She was also skinny. 

I was curious about the girl, and took the picture into the kitchen, where Grandma and Uncle Daniel were, and asked Grandma who the girl was.  She looked at the picture, and said, “You know who that is!”  I insisted I did not, and asked again who the girl was.  Uncle Daniel wanted to see the picture, and when I showed him, he also insisted I knew who the girl was. 

I responded again that I did not know who the girl was.  Then I added that she must be a relative because they both thought I should know her, and I asked again who she was, and said something about her being pretty.  At this point, Grandma figured out I really didn’t know who that girl was.

Y’all probably have figured it out already, but I was pretty dense.  I had been completely brainwashed by my mother and her second husband (during the seven years I lived with them) how fat and ugly I was.   I was ugly because I was fat, and I was ugly just because I was ugly.  In their opinion, I pretty much had to settle for whatever man would accept me as a wife (when I was old enough to marry, that is) because I couldn’t be choosy.  Especially since I was constantly overeating, making myself fat.  (In their opinion, remember.)

Of course, the reality was nothing like their twisted views.  They fed me so little I developed health problems (some of which I still have) from the lack of nutrients I had.   But their perception of me persisted well into adulthood (definitely past the time I described above).  

I have a freind who is beautiful.  Yes, I’m biased, she’s my friend and all, but she is beautiful as well.  She has a daughter, and many people think mother and daughter are sisters, some even thinking they are twins.  The daughter looks that much like the mother.

My friend doesn’t think she’s pretty at all, because she has also heard, most of her life, that she’s ugly.  The thing is, she knows her daughter (who looks so much like her that they are confused for twins occasionally) is pretty.  She hears other people call her daughter “pretty” often, so it’s not just like she’s prejudiced because it’s her daughter.  Yet, even with hearing her daughter, who looks so much like her, called “pretty”, she still doesn’t believe she’s pretty.

Perceptions.  Sometimes, they aren’t always what they appear to be.

I look in the mirror today, and think I’m seeing what is really there.  But how do I know?  Yes, I know I’m fat, and usually, I can see the outer beauty other people have seen.  But I still wonder sometimes.  How much of what I’m seeing is the same as what other people see?  Do I still see myself as fatter than I really am?  Do I have a different body dysmorphia going on?  Could I possibly see myself as skinnier than I really am (unlikely as that may seem to me)?  Can I really trust my perception of myself?

In the end, it doesn’t really matter because, no matter what I see, I am becoming more comfortable with myself.  I wear shorts outside of the house when the weather is appropriate (even though I have a nasty scar on my left knee from surgery last year).  I wear tank tops and let my ‘arm wings’ flap about.  I even have been known to wear loud prints, horizontal stripes and *gasp* the color red.   And I’m working on clunky jewelry. 

I know I have a skewed up self-perception.  It’s possible I will never truly be able to see what I really look like, what other people see, what a camera ‘sees’ when it takes a picture.  But, as GI Joe always said, knowing is half the battle.  Knowing that what I see and what reality is may be two different things, helps me to be able to look into the mirror every day.  Helps me to not give into the disgust over the “fat, ugly” image I still sometimes see.  Helps me to accept myself more (even when what I sometimes see is still the “fat, ugly” image).

And yes, as you have probably already guessed by now, the girl from the story above was me.  It took me a very long time before I finally accepted that, at least at some point, I’d been pretty.  Even if I’d believed the lies the parents had told me that I was ugly, at some point, and by my standards, I’d been pretty.  And of course, the logical conclusion to that was that if I was pretty then, what, besides perceptions (mine and the worlds) was stopping me from being pretty now?

*The names have been changed to protect the innocent.  Or something like that.

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3 Responses

  1. I was always the “ugly daughter” at home. My sister was the one my mother considered pretty. As I get older, I find I like the way I look better….the further I get from that perception of ugliness as defined by my mother. I shall never consider myself a beauty….but I no longer think I am ugly.

  2. Another fine post. Several weeks ago I had a friend take a photo of me–something that literally hasn’t happened in 15 years.
    I looked pretty bad, no kidding. I had thin lips locked tightly together (known as “chicken lips” here in the South) and a pretty massive body. I looked unequivocally old.

    After thinking about it for a while I came to two conclusions:
    1. When I have looked at my body in the mirror over all those years I’ve been doing a lot of unconscious editing.
    2. On the other hand, the chicken lips were largely an artifact of my being too self-conscious to smile when being photographed. In everyday life I am animated and funny.

    So the actual v. apparent appearance score is a tie.

  3. There is no such thing as accurate perspective because everything affects perspective, whether you are speaking of what the eye literally sees or how you figuratively interpret what your eye sees. Lighting, distance, angle, surroundings, everything affects what we see.

    We used to be given optical illusion drawings in science class to illustrate how various combinations of elements inform how we interpret what we see and how easily our eyes are tricked.

    Perspective is subjective, thus beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.

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