Recently I’ve had the chance to talk to school kids about being different and about growing up ugly and disabled. They’ve been really energetic and authentic conversations. I was born with deformed legs and a massive tumour in the middle of my head that rampaged across my face, so I’ve got a few thoughts. And many of these kids have aspects of themselves they’re not always entirely happy with either.
One of the things I’ve really enjoyed doing with them is running through the “top ten” list of nicknames I copped when I was their age – between grades eight to twelve. Each time I’ve run through it, I’ve asked the kids to shout out which name they thought I might have found funny and enjoyed, and which name they think I found most hurtful.
The list reads: Toothpick Legs, Transformer, Stumpy, Cripple, Flat-nose, Pinocchio, Jake (the peg), Ugly-face, Toe Nose (my nose had been crafted from a toe that came off my amputated foot) and Retard.
Most of the kids have been pretty good at guessing the nickname I actually found pretty endearing – “Transformer.” But they’ve taken the easy road and chosen “Retard” as the name I found most hurtful. It certainly hurt but “Toe Nose” was the real winner in that regard. It hurt because it was unique to me – a guided missile targeted at my sense of self-worth.
It’s the same with lots of our kids, I think. Many of them have parts of their bodies, their personalities, themselves they wished would just go away. It’s those intensely personal things that can hurt the most. That’s certainly the way it was for me because I’m ugly.
I don’t mind if you some of you don’t think I’m ugly; that’s quite nice, actually. But I do mind when people try to convince me that I’m not ugly. I’ve lived in and with this skin, without these legs my whole life. And I’m very comfortable with the forces – good and bad – that have come to bear and made me who I am.
After a year of being exposed to other kids in grade one, though, I was all too aware that I was different. I knew that other kids didn’t have squashed noses or dents in the sides of their head where their eyes were before they were moved to the front of their face. Other kids had legs and feet and toes. I knew I was different but over time it bothered me less.
Over the next few years I started to realise that everyone had differences about them anyway. I saw them in hospital all the time. There was the kid in a wheelchair. There was the kid with the strange lump on his neck. But I also started to see them at school too. There was the kid with flaming red hair and pale white skin. There was the girl who was already taller than all of the boys in the class. There was this one really skinny kid and all the fat ones.
I was lucky; I worked out pretty early that everyone was different in their own way. And I had the kind of matter-of-fact support from my parents, my family, my friends that allowed me to spend the time working out how I felt about being so different. And it has given me a few ideas about how we can best help our kids deal with the parts of their life they’re not happy with and can’t easily change.
Here’s what I think.
A child can be beautiful without having every trait perfect. Do we rob them of that reality by simply saying they’re beautiful all the time? Yes.
Too often we use it as our go-to term of endearment – especially for girls. I do it with with my daughter all the time, calling her beautiful or gorgeous, or saying she looks pretty. She is all of those things but she is more. And how do we signal to kids that it’s okay to talk about their less-than-perfect aspects if the majority of our compliments to them centre on how they look.
Often we tell our kids they’re beautiful, not because of some aesthetic assessment we’ve made but as a short cut to saying we love them. Next time, don’t take that shortcut.
Next time find a lovingly wonderful way to tell them you like their bumpy bits too, their broken bits, their jet-engine loudness, the crazy cross-eyes they get when they laugh. Tell them we all feel a little bit ugly sometimes. And that it’s okay to be themselves.
Did you watch Robert Hoge’s incredible story on Australian Story tonight?