Let Every Eye Negotiate for Itself

We are very attuned to patterns, aren’t we? We see them even when they aren’t there, filling in the lines, reading the shadows to complete the image. But does the face we see in the play of light on forest leaves, or the finger in the sinuous beckoning of the windblown grass really fool a mind that can do mathematics in its head? Or is it just a brief dalliance, a foray into a theatre for a moment or two? A titillating fantasy that fades when the eye moves on to other, more important, things?

A stereotype is a pattern too, but more deeply etched, and coloured so convincingly it is mistaken for the thing itself. Not recognized as a simulacrum, it is treated as archetypal, requiring few, if any, revisions –so self-evident it is almost a causa sui. And yet, hic sunt dracones, to continue the Latin –here be dragons- for stereotypes are, by default, fancifully-charted territories. Like incomplete maps filled in with imagined beasts, they are not reliable guides. They do not help.

And yet they are so prevalent, it is often difficult to recognize them, let alone extract them from the gestalt. So they persist, and like a Where’s Waldo face, only emerge from the background if we make a concerted effort to find them. But usually, there has to be a motivation to look –something that shakes us from our apathy. Our indifference.

It’s so easy to slip into somnolence, isn’t it? So easy to let things pass us by unexamined as long as they don’t threaten to disrupt our day. And yet, to escape the pastel hues in which our waking hours are often painted, it is sometimes an adventure to search for the chiaroscuro hiding in plain sight.

There was a delightful article I noticed a while back that managed to open my eyes again: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-38132503

It recounts the story of a a 19-year-old woman from Guatemala who designs clothes for people with Down’s syndrome. The thing is, ‘Before she was an internationally-recognised designer, Isabella Springmuhl says she was rejected by two fashion schools in her native Guatemala because she has Down syndrome. “They said I would not be able to cope,” recalls the 19-year-old. But that rejection was exactly what Isabella needed to turn her life around […].’

So, instead, her mother took her to a sewing academy that would accept her. ‘While learning how to sew, Isabella was asked to design outfits for worry dolls – traditionally hand-made dolls originating from Guatemalan and Mexican folk traditions. The tiny dolls are usually put under children’s pillows in the hope that they will take away their sorrows while they sleep.

‘Isabella took a different approach.

‘”Isabella didn’t want to design clothes for… finger-sized dolls,” says Mrs Tejada [her mother]. “She created life-sized dolls and dressed them in the colourful embroidered jackets and ponchos that she’s now famous for.”

‘Isabella moved from designing for dolls to people, and soon enough produced a collection that gained the attention of the fashion world. Earlier this year, she became the first designer with Down’s syndrome to take part in London Fashion Week.’

But it didn’t stop there. Isabella points out that her main inspiration for designing arose after a struggle to find well-fitting clothing for her body type.

“It was difficult for me to get clothes,” Isabella says. “We have a different body constitution; we are shorter, wider, or very thin. My mother always had to fix the clothes she bought for me. So I decided to design clothes that fit people with Down’s syndrome, plus I really love Guatemalan textiles and the diversity of colours and textures they represent.”’

Wow! I get a shiver down my spine when I think of the odds that Isabella was willing to tackle. But, I wonder if she ever thought of them as odds, or merely as challenges that needed extra effort each time they arrived. Not only are there rivers to ford as a young person hoping to succeed in a highly competitive field, but the water sweeps all but the most determined, the most talented, downstream with barely a ripple.

But what am I? asks Tennyson, An infant crying in the night, An infant crying for the light, And with no language but a cry. I doubt that Isabella ever thought of herself like that. From time to time, there arise those exceptional people who do not understand the concept of failure. Who do not doubt or lose their way. Who are so confident in themselves, no matter the circumstance, that they press on and build on what they know they have, and are ingenious about what they don’t.

Stereotypes fail these individuals, as they do anything unique. How can you epitomize a Caesar, or cage a Churchill? How can you oversimplify a courageous person? How to paint the journey of a cloud? Tennyson, again from In Memoriam A.H.H:

The hills are shadows, and they flow

From form to form, and nothing stands;

They melt like mist, the solid lands,

Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

And so, how to stereotype a syndrome? In Down syndrome, or trisomy 21, there is an extra (part or whole) chromosome 21, which causes an assemblage of physical and intellectual features, including a characteristic, recognizable, but variable facial dysmorphia. It is the latter that may prejudice unthinking employers into feeling that they couldn’t cope, that the individual could never fit in, or perform like the rest of their employees –or other students, in Isabella’s case. But they were wrong.

Creativity knows no boundaries; we all fit somewhere on a spectrum –individuals with Down syndrome included. And imagination, like courage, does not stop at the edge of a chromosome.

Let every eye negotiate for itself, says Shakespeare’s Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, And trust no agent, for beauty is a witch against whose charms faith melteth into blood.

I think Isabella is a beautiful person, don’t you…? And how do you stereotype that?

 

 

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Eternity Gazing at Itself

We see what we think others see; we see what the mirror sees. And yet, I prefer to see what Kahlil Gibran sees:  Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror.

Body image is such a mutable thing. So mood-dependent, so soul-laden, it sometimes seems to defeat all words and define us -despite our pleas for mercy, our hope for acceptance in a world gone mad with self. And beauty is what satisfies the fickleness of the group. There is no objectiveness to allure, no criteria to fulfil; it is a feather that flutters briefly through the landscape like a butterfly in the wind. “You are that vast thing that you see far, far off with great telescopes,” says Alan Watts. You are the magic that is you –unique, and special.

But for some of us, the strangeness of our difference is hard to bear. It is something to be hidden, not celebrated. A BBC article I found a while ago told the story of a woman’s courage to change –she couldn’t alter the permanent damage from a previous life-threatening accident, so, instead, she decided to change who she’d become in the intervening years. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-40862546

‘Sylvia had spent ‘most of her life trying to conceal the extensive scars which cover her body –the legacy of a childhood accident. […] at the age of 48, she decided it was time to stop hiding and come out into the open. […] My mum was boiling water in saucepans for our bath. She would pour the water into bowls and she put the bowls on the bathroom floor. We were just playing around, me and my siblings, and I ran into the bathroom and shut the door. We were told not to go in there. I went in there and my sister pushed the door, and that’s when I fell backwards into the bowl of boiling water, causing very bad burns.’

The scars from her third and fourth degree burns were extensive: ‘“There’s not actually any part of my body apart from my face that is normal. My burns start from the top of my neck all the way down to the top of my bottom, and then around the front of my stomach and down my left leg. And then on the rest of my body I’ve got lots of little pinprick holes all down my arms and my legs from where they took skin. […]I went into shock and was having fits. Then the ambulance arrived. They gathered my family together and told them that I wasn’t going to make it through the night. They baptised me and I had my last rites.

‘“When I was growing up a lot of people used to tell my mum, “Oh, she’s beautiful, she’s pretty.” But in my head I always thought, “Why are they saying, ‘You’re pretty’? I’m not. Underneath my clothes I’m burned.

‘I always felt ugly, so it’s affected me mentally as well as physically. Children would call me different names like “witch” and “snakeskin”, and they were really nasty. I was told that I would never have boyfriends, never get married, never have children. Showing my back was always going to be a negative thing.

‘I loved swimming – once I was in the water I was in a different world, it was great – but I was terrified about people seeing my body. When everybody got out of the water I’d wait until they went to change and be the last one to sneak out.

‘I got to a point where I was attacking everybody around me and it was the only way that I could deal with my emotions. I’d literally call people up, like my sisters, and be really nasty to them, a really vile, nasty, horrible person.”’

But Sylvia did eventually find a loving partner, and yet her fear of others seeing her scars persisted. One day, after being photographed at the swimming pool with her mother like an animal at the zoo, they decided to leave and go to the beach instead. But her mother seemed so upset, Sylvia decided to do something she’d always been afraid to do.

‘At that moment something just clicked in my brain and I decided that I was going to draw a line and make her happy. I took my dress off and I walked down to the edge. People were looking at me and I looked at my mum and I smiled, and I went, “Mum! Look! Look at me!”

And she started to smile. I put my hands on my hips and I started to pose on the water’s edge and she was so happy. I went over to her and I said, “From now on I’m going to let people take pictures, and every time they do I’m going to smile and I’m going to pose.”

‘I think that moment on the beach was just a turning point where I realised that no counselling, nothing on Google, was going to help me. It was time for me to help myself. I went out and bought a swimming costume – it had a big hole in the back – and then I set up my swimming classes at my local pool in Highbury, north London. I invite people with disfigurements to come and swim. When I’m in the water and I’m swimming I just feel at peace, I feel calm, and I can think of lots of wonderful things. […]

‘It’s been such a long journey. It’s like taking off a coat and saying, “This is me now, and I don’t care what people think.” I’ve noticed a big change in my life and I’ve been able to accept the way I look.’

As Jean Cocteau said, ‘Mirrors should reflect a little before throwing back images.’ And so should people. It seems to me that there are at least two types of courage. The first, and most obvious, is the type that risks bodily harm –soldiers in combat, firefighters, and so on. It’s the one we can all see, the one that makes newspaper headlines, and wins awards. Medals. Accolades… And yet perhaps that’s really just the outward trappings of the other type –the inward struggle to overcome the fear that we are not who we want to be –need to be, with whatever hand Fate has dealt. Both require bravery –and while one may confront an external challenge, the other, no less brave, defies far more nebulous and malicious ghosts.

But the triumph over unseen odds, however unfortunate they may have been to the recipient, is seldom met with applause, or acknowledged with praise. It is an inner contest, a silent war that few can see, let alone appreciate. It is an unrecognized philanthropy of self to self, and so perhaps its rewards are even greater, although they may pass, unnoticed in the larger scheme of things. The determination to act, and the bravery to succeed, need no commendation really. It is enough to have succeeded in accepting oneself, and reveling in the affirmation of all around. It is no small thing, although it may seem so.

Sylvia may never receive a decoration, nor mention on the local evening news, but in a way, she already has her medal –she can wear herself on her lapel at last.

To measure you by the smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean by the frailty of its foam – Khalil Gibran again.

Weight and See

 

Obesity and dietary issues have been seen as major contributors to diabetes and cardiovascular health for some time now. No longer regarded as outward manifestations of status or wealth in most societies, they are now often subjects of disparagement, and those carrying extra weight frequently stigmatized and derided. As if the very fact of being overweight was an act of moral depravity, or at the very least, a manifestation of weakness. Self-neglect.

Smoking –especially in North America- suffered a similar fall from grace when it became evident that it was a cause of major health problems. But it is much easier to hide a smoking habit than an overweight or frankly obese body. And whereas public measures to stigmatize smoking and outline the health risks may have some effect on smoking behaviours or smoking persistence, they seem to be counterproductive in successfully encouraging exercise for weight loss according to a large study from Britain: http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/7/3/e014592

This was a long term study starting in 2002 of 5480 participants of both sexes, all at or over 50 years of age, and carried out by Dr. Sarah Jackson from University College London. ‘In summary, these results provide evidence that weight discrimination may be associated with lower participation in regular physical activity and higher rates of sedentary behaviour. Through this mechanism, weight discrimination may be implicated in the perpetuation of weight gain, onset of obesity related comorbidities and even premature mortality.’

The BBC News also reported a perhaps more easily assimilable summary of the study: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-39191100. The point being, evidently, that shaming or drawing attention to the weight a person is carrying is less likely to get them to exercise than a welcoming and supportive attitude. And environment -‘Exercising when you are overweight can be daunting, and the fat-shaming attitudes of others do not help.’

I suppose this study is much like carrying coal to Newcastle, but nonetheless it is important to hold a mirror to societal attitudes and prejudices. It’s often not so much that we mean to denigrate people who hold different values, or who do not seem to espouse the image we find attractive but rather that we hold ourselves apart. Withholding approval can be as devastating as active discrimination and, at least in this case, seldom leads to positive changes.

Unfortunately the problem of excessive weight sometimes slips by in a gynaecology office as well –noticed, but unmentioned- because of fear of upsetting the patient. Occasionally, an opportunity will present itself, however. One has to be alert –and sensitive.

Janina was a new patient to me. I first saw her in the waiting room sitting in the corner seat which was partially obscured by a large, leafy Areca palm. Her head and face were further hidden behind a magazine whose pages never seemed to turn. A large lady by any estimation, she attempted to camouflage it as best she could with an extra-large, loose fitting brightly patterned sweat shirt and bulky jeans. The effect was really quite beautiful –and so was Janina when she finally lowered the magazine. Her large, brown eyes were captive birds that fluttered delicately behind the bars of exquisite eyelashes. Her face was soft and her smile, although timid and infrequently offered, was captivating. She wore her hair long and auburn waves flowed slowly and gently over her shoulders like water on a beach whenever she moved.

She made a show of being nice in the waiting room, but I could tell that she was uncomfortable as she followed behind me to my office. She closed the door quietly behind her but before she sat she moved the chair as far away from the desk as the room allowed.

I smiled at her in an attempt to put her at her ease, but she had already dropped her eyes onto her lap and refused to retrieve them.

“Dr. Blackstock says you are having some problems with your birth control pills,” I said, when it became evident that she was not going to volunteer any information.

She sat perfectly still, her hands clasped motionlessly where her eyes still lay. Finally, she took a long, slow breath, looked at me, then slowly nodded her head. It was a sad movement, and for a moment, I wondered if she was going to break into tears. But she remained silent.

“What kind of problem are you having, Janina?” I asked, after another sepulchral moment.

She sighed again, but her face changed. “Isn’t it obvious, doctor?”

I raised an eyebrow to indicate that it wasn’t.

“Ever since I started on the pill, I’ve continued to gain weight,” she started. “I was never this heavy before…” She paused briefly to let that sink in. “Never…” She let her eyes drift around the room for a moment, finally settling them on a terra cotta statuette of a seated woman with a begging bowl that I’d placed on a little oak stand in the corner. “I don’t want to end up like her,” she said, pointing at the woman. She sent her eyes back to perch briefly on my face. “But even she isn’t as fat as me…”

As the words sank slowly into silence, a tear began to run down her now quivering cheek. I rose from my desk and walked across the room to hand her some tissues. She seemed to appreciate the gesture and her face softened for a moment. In fact, she used the opportunity to examine me as I walked back to my desk.

“You have no idea how people look at a fat person like me…” she finally volunteered and then her eyes focused on a wooden figurine on my desk behind a plant; it was a woman holding a child and peering out as if she were hiding. “I feel like that woman,” she said, nodding at the plant with her eyes.

I must have let a worried expression escape onto my face, because Janina seemed to focus on it. “It’s a different world when you’re fat, doctor. That’s all people see…”

I sighed. I couldn’t help it; she seemed so sad. “I see beauty,” I said –it just escaped from my lips. I hadn’t planned it…

Suddenly she smiled, and her hair danced once again over her shoulders. She straightened herself on the chair, and then with a gentle shrug stood and moved it closer to the desk.