Painting by Jay Koelzer
de·form \di-´form\ vb. 1. DISFIGURE, DE-FACE 2. To make or become misshapen or changed in shape.
*Today, we have a guest post by writer and friend to The Dictionary Project, Jenna Orzel.
When Lisa asked me to be a guest writer on this wonderful blog, I was honored and excited. When she told me the word she had chosen at random for me, I felt a little overwrought. Just the word deform makes me a little uncomfortable. I immediately think of two movies: Mask and The Elephant Man, two 1980-something films based on true stories. Both tell the story of the fear we as people have on appearances and how despite a deformity, both characters turn out to be articulate, kind and intelligent men. The men portrayed in each film are set in very different times and settings, but the meaning at the end is basically the same.
Cacophobia is the fear of ugliness. There are many reasons why people are impacted by this phobia but the biggest reason that stands out to me is: perhaps individuals simply watched the reactions of others and began to imitate their negative and fearful response. I think all of us to some degree fear something unseemly. We make fun of and assume that if it doesn’t look pretty then there is obviously something wrong with either a person or a situation. Our mothers or guardians or teachers have taught us all to not judge a book by its cover. Yet, I think it’s difficult to not be somewhat afraid, at least at first, when faced with someone or something that doesn’t appear to what we as a society view as normal.
I got a text message a few months ago from a friend of mine that said, “OMG, I just saw that guy with no face again!” I don’t think my friend suffers from the fear of ugliness, but it is shocking when you encounter a deformity. I have definitely been overcome by seeing some sort of disfigurement.
One particular story that I have was during my senior year of high school when I needed two electives to graduate. It was an easy year school-wise. In addition to senior English, I took jewelry making for the third year in a row and an aerobics class for a physical education credit. In the locker room we had to undress and change into a P.E. uniform. Most of the girls in that class were younger than me and I didn’t know anyone in it. I went to a very large high school where the majority of the student body and staff were Mormon. Me not being raised Mormon, I was already kind of an outcast and had few friends.
On the first day of this aerobics class, I had gotten to the locker room early and was relieved to find no one was there yet. I quickly undressed and changed into my uniform and read my book to pass the time until the class started. Soon chatty girls started to flood the locker room to get changed. From another row, I heard a couple of girls squeal and yell, “Go find another locker, freak!” A girl clearly fighting tears back rounded the corner to come into my row. She walked up to me and asked if the locker next to mine was taken.
“Nope, it’s all yours,” I replied.
She opened the locker and very sheepishly started to take her shirt off. I averted my eyes but could see something in my peripheral vision, something odd. I looked up at her for a glance and saw that she had a third breast growing full and plump out of her side, under her armpit. The nipple was erect and I could tell was slightly larger than her other two naturally-placed breasts. I quickly looked away, not knowing if what I just saw was real. Before I could even process the thought of, was that a boob?, other girls in the row of lockers were pointing, whispering and laughing. I looked up at her and she was facing her locker with her head down, now tying the waist strings on her shorts and she had a few tears streaming down her face. I stood up and told the girls laughing to shut the fuck up. Swearing at this school was a big no no. Mormon teenage ears hearing the word fuck was like a gunshot of silence. I loved this power. They all looked at me as the blasphemous young girl I was and trailed off into the gym. I waited, retrieved some Kleenex I had in my backpack and asked this girl what her name was.
“Carrie” she said, taking a tissue. “Carrie with an ie not a y. Thank you by the way, but you shouldn’t say the f word.”
Over the semester, I befriended Carrie. I spoke with the gym teacher about speaking with Carrie’s teachers to let her out five minutes early to be able to come to the locker room to change for class while it was empty. She was always waiting for me by my locker and we always stood together in class and walked in and out of the gym together. I learned that Carrie was also Mormon and her family, being so religious, believed that God made her this way and refused corrective surgery. She being so young also believed this notion. She was not a pretty girl whatsoever. Her hair was stringy and always looked dirty. She had bad acne, smelled of mothballs and her teeth were jagged and yellow. When she was younger, she was hit by a car and the injuries to her legs made her ankles look almost bell-bottom-like and she had large flat feet. She walked with a limp and, to top it all off, she had a fucking third boob.
I learned that she was gifted and could literally be a human calculator. She was a sophomore and surpassed my level of intelligence by far. Yet, the girls were vultures, tearing her apart at every chance they got. It was awful. I used the words “fuck off” and “fuck you” and “stop being so fucking cruel” a lot during the last semester of high school. On the last day of class, she walked me to my car. She told me she would come to graduation and clap for me when she heard my name. I thanked her and she hugged me hard. I immediately burst into tears. I was surprised that this was my reaction to saying goodbye and I felt embarrassed by it. I felt afraid and sad that she had to come to this depraved place for another two years and I told her that. She told me that nobody liked me either and I got through it and that she would be fine. “Plus,” she added, “I’m a lot smarter than…(with a pause and a low whisper), all those stupid fucks.”
I can only imagine what she has been through with her deformity over the years. I need to try to remember that when I’m having a bad hair day or when I don’t like the way my ass looks in a pair of jeans. Finding beauty in someone should be a lot easier than it is. Carrie taught me that and I won’t ever forget her. I hope she is kicking ass and taking names.
Be kind to one another, even when it’s eerie and intimidating. The beauty you find may surprise you.
Jenna Orzel resides in Tucson, Arizona with her partner, Amber. After living in the Pacific Northwest for over ten years, she found herself back in the desert to be close to her family. She provides chefs with often unusual ingredients to sustain Tucson’s pallet for her day job. Jenna has a passion for good food, her family, her close friends, and finding humor in the odd experiences she often encounters. She writes about these experiences and has a collection of true short stories from her life titled, In Case of Emergency.