In Imperfect, Lee Kofman explores what it’s like to live in a body that deviates from the norm. Here, she shares some of the lessons learnt while researching and writing her fascinating new book.
By the time I turned eleven, I’d undergone approximately ten surgeries. I was born with heart defects, and two years after these were corrected I was hit by a bus. But as much as my wounds have affected me, it was only once they healed, and the physical pain subsided, that far greater pain began.
My redesigned body, with its constellation of disfiguring scars, has impacted my life and my personality deeply. For example, so as not to expose my scars, I haven’t experimented with my sexuality as much as I’d have liked, and I’ve avoided most outdoor activities; perpetual concealment of scars has affected me internally too and I’ve grown up to be generally secretive. When I began work on my new book, Imperfect, in which I explore how our appearance can shape our lives, I talked to many people – those with noticeable birthmarks, albinism, dwarfism, burns and other so-called imperfections – and I realised that, like in my own experience, while appearance doesn’t determine these people, it creates the weather of their lives. It affects how they love, move, laugh, and form ideas about who they are and who they might become.
While working on Imperfect, I’ve learned four key things.
People read bodies like memoirs. It seems we believe, often subconsciously, that appearance is a coded description of people’s life stories, personalities and psychological wellbeing. Sadly, readings of imperfect bodies rarely go in their favour (one of the main reasons I conceal my scars). People read imperfections as a destiny – of misery, loneliness, physical suffering. They often assume imperfections indicate low intelligence. Facial scars evoke visions of criminality, and albinism conjures sinister, perhaps otherworldly, beings – hence the astonishing extent of mockery and other abuse, or avoidance, which is the lot of those whose imperfections are visible.
We need a space to grieve. As much as there is sky-high pressure on people – particularly women – to be beautiful, our society also likes to pretend that looks don’t We like to say all bodies are beautiful. We urge women to accept themselves as they are. These messages are meant to counter the pressures of beauty, but I’ve met many women who, like me, feel burdened by both beauty demands and additional expectations for unconditional self-acceptance. Self-acceptance, though, isn’t something most of us achieve easily or permanently. To truly promote bodily diversity and lessen pressures women face, we first must speak honestly about the difficulties they may experience and make space for grief.
Faking confidence is a good idea. While unconditional self-acceptance isn’t easily achievable, nor even necessary to lead fulfilled lives, it helps to exhibit assured behaviour whenever our imperfections are exposed. This confidence doesn’t have to be genuine – it can be just as effective when performed. If you conceal your insecurities, others have less room to express their own judgements, and you don’t give them new ‘ideas’. Even fake confidence is likely to render us more attractive.
We can capitalise on our imperfections. This was my most surprising finding. Some people even obtain glamour on account of their bodily imperfections. Perfect beauty is ubiquitous in magazine pages and billboards, but fashion thrives on the unpredictable, and today there are successful models with albinism, cleft palate, vitiligo and amputations. Some artists have utilised their imperfections in their work, like the renowned comedian with dwarfism, Tanyalee Davis (whose favourite description of herself in shows is ‘a five-year-old with tits’). We can also use our imperfections in modest, mundane, yet meaningful ways. Some people living with ‘invisible’ chronic illnesses use their imperfections as evidence of their conditions, to obtain empathy or even practical help. Others use them to make friendships or deepen existing ones; as James Partridge, an activist with burn scars, says: ‘You really get to know someone quickly once you start having a frank conversation about facial disfigurement!’ And look at me: as much as I lament my scars in Imperfect, in writing this book I’ve, too, capitalised on that which I’ve always considered my greatest misfortune.