#1000Speak for Compassion | Skin Deep – The Relationship between Beauty and Acceptance

Skin Deep

I don’t like moths. I don’t like how they enter my house uninvited, fluttering blindly about, and cluster in a seething panic around any available light source. The frenzied flapping of their dull, tattered wings gives me the creeps.

But I love butterflies. When they gate-crash, I feel privileged, blessed, and patiently herd them out to freedom for fear their short, beautiful lives might meet an untimely end within my four walls.

When I found a glorious creature with stunning red and black markings walking determinedly across my doormat one spring morning, I assumed he was a newly hatched butterfly ready to test his wings. I opened the door respectfully, and watched him take flight.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered he was actually a day-flying cinnabar moth. Who knew that moths could be so gorgeous, or that some of them flew by day and not in the shadow of night?

I was struck, then, by my own superficiality. Me, who should know better. How shallow it is to accept only that which is beautiful, never looking further than the skin-deep. Why do we make classifications and judgements according to how pleasing something appears to the eye?

I suspect it’s a primeval thing, some kind of survival skill buried deep within that well of instinctual behaviour we no longer understand or need. Perhaps surrounding ourselves with beauty masks something ugly inside that we try to suppress. Perhaps associating with the beautiful makes us feel good about ourselves. Maybe it ‘rubs off on us’.

Acceptance, whether it’s social or personal, requires approval and a non-judgemental state of mind. Being accepted gives us a sense of belonging. Ultimately, that’s what we all want, isn’t it? It’s what we’re all searching for in our own convoluted ways. But does being beautiful increase the chances of being accepted?

I was bullied at school, for many reasons; I wore thick glasses with National Health frames (definitely not beautiful), I didn’t speak with the local accent, so I was (wrongly) presumed ‘posh’, and I arrived in school only six weeks before the end of the school year. Bonds and social groups had already been formed. There was no peer pressure to try and ‘fit in’; I was a stranger, and I simply wasn’t wanted. And they let me know it.

When I left school, I rebelled against this unfriendly society which had not found it possible to accept me. I defied their traditional, conservative, insular attitude.

It was the 80s. Electronic music, big hair, frilly clothes and wild makeup was all the rage. I hid behind this flamboyant façade, and joined the wave of New Romantics which swept the nation’s youth. They were heady days. It was an acceptance of sorts.

But I had to grow up. I didn’t want to work in an office or in a factory, so I joined the RAF instead. Thrown into what seemed like chaos to us, a disparate band of females learned to pull together, accept one another, and become a team. Then the RAF split us up and sent us reeling in different directions, but it didn’t matter, because by then we were part of the machine. Acceptance was built in.

The tides of time washed me in its waters, sometimes soothing, sometimes stormy, but always eventful. I drifted, adding the roles of wife and mother to life’s CV. That’s when I ran aground, the meaning of acceptance suddenly rocketing to a whole new level.

My daughter was born with a rare syndrome, but we counted ourselves lucky, for she was never expected to live at all. Two days later, a tangle of blood vessels began to bloom on her forehead. It was the beginnings of a birthmark, a haemangioma, and it grew with a speed and virulence which astounded me.

Day by day it expanded, turning a deep, shiny red, a sinister parasite claiming its place on my daughter’s face. The surface began to wrinkle and pucker, forming little hills and valleys, a menacing roseate island in the soft smooth sea of her forehead.

People love to look at babies, have you noticed? A brief dip into Facebook or Pinterest throws up endless rounds of cute or amusing baby pictures with associated entertaining quotes. When my two sons were babies, I received many smiles and compliments from strangers, who looked into the stroller upon my boys’ perfect faces.

That didn’t happen with Carys. Oh, they gawped eagerly enough. Sometimes, they raised their eyes to mine in shock. Mostly, they just craned their necks and stared at my little girl as if she was something they had just scraped off the bottom of their shoe.

I can’t describe the pain that ripped through me. She was so innocent, had done nothing to anyone, just fought fiercely against all the odds to cling to the dirty, ragged scrap of life tossed her way.

When she was only four months old, she endured a long surgery to remove this ugly complex lump in the hope of saving her sight. With the haemangioma gone, I thought we would simply disappear into the masses, nothing worth seeing. But I was wrong.

The wound developed a thick black crust. The edges were loose, and constantly seeped, but the doctors were happy, it was progressing exactly as they wanted. Now when people stared at Carys, their gaze quickly shifted to us, her parents, and I could see what they were thinking; were we simply neglectful parents, or abusive ones?

Carys, and other children like her, fall into a minority group which society as a whole has not yet found itself able to accept. True acceptance would, by definition, require the majority to allow the full integration and participation of the minority in all aspects of society. Even in these enlightened times, that doesn’t happen.

For example, Carys must go to a ‘special school’, which is tucked well away from the community where she lives. There is no other option. I resent that. Although the school is excellent, I would like her to attend our local school, which ideally should have an attached special care unit for disabled children.

How wonderful if Carys could be visited by her brothers during her day ay school; how wonderful if the children from the mainstream school could integrate with the disabled children, help them, play with them at break, grow up never being afraid of them or developing ignorance and prejudice against them.

It’s as if society doesn’t want to be affronted by the sight, or blight, of disabled people. We hide them away and pretend they don’t exist.

When participation in society is confined to only certain areas, then the majority is only practising tolerance, not true acceptance, as we can see here. Tolerance and acceptance are not the same.

A decade later, Carys’s haemangioma is just a shadow of its former self, the scar has faded, but she still looks obviously ‘different’. The dangers of her syndrome are hidden within, where they can’t be seen and gawked at. People still stare, but not as much. I am less inclined to accept rudeness, but am also better able to let it go.

Being Carys’s parent has broken my heart many times over, and filled and refilled it with more love and hope than I ever thought possible. She has taught us so much about what’s really important.

I want many things out of life for my sons. I work hard to set their feet on the path to achieving them. For Carys, the list is much shorter and simpler; happiness, love and a life as free from pain as possible.

But acceptance, well, we’re still working on that one.

42 Comments on “#1000Speak for Compassion | Skin Deep – The Relationship between Beauty and Acceptance

  1. I feel very humbled by your post on Carys and she is so lucky to have a loving mother like you. As humans we seem to dislike anything different – perhaps it scares us? I have mental ill health, at times, and I feel the wary gaze of people when I am a little over-excited or sometimes blue. How much harder for a little girl to cope with curious, fearful or unpleasant glances but what strength she will have for her life ahead. I, too, am phobic about moths but there is a beautiful bright green luna moth on my website.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, in a way then I think it must be much harder for you. Carys’s ‘difference’ is obvious, and maybe some people expect or forgive her if she acts outside of their expectations. You wont be allowed that grace, I suspect. I think that of children with conditions like ADHD, for example; they and their parents are judged so harshly at times. Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment, and I will check out the moth on your blog… Bright green, huh???

      Liked by 1 person

    • I love your blog Kerry… My sister is called Kerri with an I. But I’m on my phone, so I’ll come back later and read it properly on my laptop!

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  2. What a beautiful, heartwarming tale for you to be able to share here with the world. Your son is lucky to have a mom like you. :

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  3. Ali, I read this post last night, and am still unsure I can find words to comment. To say I was moved is an understatement. I don’t really know what it’s been like to deal with the cruel stares and callous remarks aimed at Carys, or continue to battle for your adorable loving little girl to gain acceptance in a hostile world. I do know what it is like to not be accepted, to cry over never being recognized for more than just a blind person, or worse, because I’m treated like I’m invisible. I know what it’s like to rage in anger because, for the five thousandth time, someone has addressed me in third person over my head, directing the comment to a sighted companion, as if I don’t exist, or am mentally challenged. I hate to say it Ali, but while I sincerely empathize with your feelings on the injustice–and it’s real prejudice to segregate kids like that–integrating them doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. I was mainstreamed, put in the same school as other children, and experienced just as much invisibility, intollerance, discrimination, and ignorance. It is heartbreaking to me to learn about so many families like mine still going through the same traumatic rejection, as if in the past thirty years, we have learned nothing in this world. It’s not easy to keep having to educate everyone. Sending hugs to you and Carys, Ali, I for one accept the both of you, looks are as you say skin deep and compassion, like water or air for breathing, is what we need to live. I hope people can learn to stop making so many judgments and assumptions and start connecting and reaching out. I believe we would all be pleasantly surprised how similar we are. We all want love and belonging and acceptance, Ali. Just some people crazily think that they’ll be accepted if they knock someone else down. And they’d rather fear the unknown than be curious and open to really seeing the light in the person. I don’t think anything I say will make it easier for Carys, or you, but I’ll be there in trying to make a better, more receptive, more welcoming world.

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    • Do you know, Éilis, I’m often actually glad that Carys isn’t able to recognise or understand the rejection directed at her. That thing about being spoken about in 3rd person over your head, that has happened to us, and it infuriates me. It’s so rude to do that to someone. I’m sorry you had to go through all that. And I agree that integration is worthless without education, exposure, and brave people speaking up. But it can change, and I firmly believe that it will change. And you will be one of those people making it happen, Éilis, I feel sure of that. For people who can’t, like Carys. XXX and BTW you said it all beautifully, as only you can!

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  4. Beautiful and touching post Ali. You’re so right about hiding things away. I always noticed that when psychiatric units are attached to a general hospital they are always right at the back. We can but keep chipping… Love to Cary and the family.

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    • Thank you Olga! Things will change, but it will be long and slow. Having said that, here in Ireland there is much unpleasantness coming to light which has remained hidden for years, lifetimes even, and its all change for the good. So around the world, its already happening!

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  5. A wonderful post, Ali, told with your usual introspection, thought and beautiful expression, It is said that humans make judgements on people they meet within the first 5 seconds. I’ve tried to work hard on that! People used to stare at me when I took my daughter out in her stroller – she’s Korean – but after a while I stopped noticing and eventually got to the point where I couldn’t figure out WHY they were staring. Cameron was just my daughter.
    You have all the virtual support I can send you for this journey!

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    • Thank you Noelle! It’s a funny thing about the staring. I was trying to explain it in another comment. If its just curious, or comes from empathy, it doesn’t have the same impact. If there is aggression or hatred or disgust behind it, you can sense that. I think. I was very raw at the time of Carys’s haemangioma, hormonal new mom, struggling with the diagnosis, and then the lump to crown it all. I probably often misread the messages. But I once got followed around a shopping centre by a gang of kids pointing and shouting about how disgusting she… Carys… Was. There’s only one way to interpret that. And there’s no excuses for them. You must have felt the same when you went out with your daughter. How closed some peoples minds are! But generally, I don’t think it’s so bad as it used to be… Or does experience just make us harder?

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  6. Having been following Elizabeth Barnes at Autism Mom for a while one of her posts as one the three stages: awareness, acceptance and respect. As a society we are getting closer to understanding so awareness of conditions grows. But accepting is father off and as you say giving proper respect to everyone is probably as far away as ever. This is a brilliant post Ali.

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  7. A beautiful and touching post, Ali. I have to admit being a little choked up. The difference between tolerance and acceptance comes up more and more these days. Perhaps that’s a sign that we as a people are moving slowly into the next phase of compassion. Posts like these make a huge difference in shifting perspectives and opening hearts. Best to you and your family. ❤

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  8. Wow. What a beautiful story, and so fitting for #1000Speak. As much as people talk about the importance of inner beauty, I think there’s still a huge emphasis on outer beauty… which can be damaging for young people who feel insecure about their appearance. I had braces and big glasses for much of my time in school, and internalized the teasing so much that eventually I thought I was one of the ugliest girls on the planet. It takes a long time to learn to let go of that mentality.

    Thanks for writing this, Ali. Much love and happiness to you and your family. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Sara. I’m sorry you had such a hard time with bullying in your youth. It certainly does have a huge impact on your confidence and state of mind, which can take a long time to get over, if ever. I have had self esteem issues all my life. Was it the bullying, or something in me, I don’t know. But the bullying didn’t help. All the best to you.

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  9. You have such a way of making people stop and think, of touching the emotional centre in someone, of being able to halt someone in their tracks and force them to think about everything they value and hold as morals. And you’re so right every time. A perfectly poignant and thought provoking post on acceptance. The thing is, we are all guilty of stopping and staring at something slightly different. Even those of us who are different are still guilty of doing it. A wonderful reminder Ali, and what a beautiful daughter you have ❤

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    • Thanks Sacha. Maybe its not the staring so much, as the intention behind it I pick up on. It’s hard not to stare when something unusual grabs your attention. Sometimes though it comes across as unpleasant, or aggressive. I think that’s what I am aware of.

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  10. Told with passion and compassion. Carys’s name means Love and it’s obvious why given the feelings you have for her and the love she feels and gives in return. The road you tread was never going to be an easy one but you bear it so well.
    xxx Sending you Hugs Galore xxx

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  11. And you are something special for being courageous and honest so that we can all learn this acceptance.
    From an early age it seems we were all taught to not look at people with disabilities. You were told, “Don’t stare, it’s not polite.”
    One feels sorry and then doesn’t know what to say, so I think its no one’s fault unless you encounter rudeness.
    By the way, are you Conor Kelly?

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    • That is so true! We are made to feel paranoid by constantly being told not to state. I don’t mind people being curious, glad to talk about it, in fact. But what happened to Carys when she had the haemangioma was something else. Either she was treated like a freak or invisible. It’s so difficult, for other people who don’t know how they should react, and for the afflicted. I get that. So I never ever made a scene. That’s why I write about it now. Xxx

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