I am ugly. There’s a mathematical equation to prove it. Or so I was told by the boy that sat behind me in my seventh grade art class. “I’m going to stick my pencil through the back of your eye,” he told me, laughing. “It’s not like you could get much uglier. Even the teacher thinks so.”
Two years earlier, a different boy, whose name I can no longer remember, angrily asked me what was wrong with my face, after I beat him in a game of handball during recess. “You have the weirdest set of eyes I’ve ever seen,” he told me. When my teacher overheard this, he sent the boy to the principal’s office, where I would later go and give my side of the story, only to be told that I needed to not be so sensitive. So when the boy in my art class continued poking me in the shoulder with the back of his pencil, I said nothing.
My art teacher that year was a heavy-set Black woman named Ms. J. She had a laugh so loud it echoed down the corridor. She wore beautiful, bright colours and taught us about artists and movements that I had never heard of, and encouraged us to explore what art meant to us both collectively and as individuals.
My school was filled with children who came more from upper- than middle-class families, the offspring of doctors and business executives and athletes. I had always felt out of place with children who were taken care of by nannies, who had fathers who attended prestigious universities and were frequently away on business trips. My father was a cabinetmaker and my mother issued building permits the next town over. Neither had more than a high school diploma. It was a town of mostly white people, so having a Black woman as a teacher felt almost cultural, in a way that only white, sheltered, upper middle-class children would ignorantly understand.
Every week, Ms. J required students to research an artist, a movement, or a piece of artwork that we were drawn to. Art isn’t about what you see, she would tell the class. It’s about what you feel. Show me what you feel. We had to research and write a one-page report explaining our topic and what it meant for our art. After school on Wednesdays she would hold studio time, when students could come in, work on new projects and discuss the things we had learned in class. It was usually just me and a handful of other students I had become friends with.
One week, Ms. J spent the first half of class discussing the role of beauty in art and how the very idea of beauty was subjective and dependent upon the interpretation of the audience. She taught us about the “golden ratio,” the mathematical equation that, in many ways, explained beauty. During the Renaissance period, artists would use an equation to create balance, symmetry and beauty in their work. It was first explained over 2,000 years ago in Euclid’s Elements, and describes a sequence found frequently in nature. Based on Fibonacci’s sequence, the ratio combines symmetry and asymmetry in a way that is alluring and attractive to the eye. Often applied to design, architecture and nature, the closer an object’s measurements were to that ratio, the more beautiful it was.
One week, during a discussion on facial structure and drawing portraits, Ms. J mentioned the golden ratio again. She told us that scientists had studied this equation, using the formula to quantify beauty.
“They analyze and they measure,” she told us. “They measure the hairline to the root of the nose, right between the eyelids. And from right between the eyelids to the base of the nose. And from the base of the nose to the bottom of the chin. If these numbers are equal, the individual is said to be more attractive.” She gestured as she spoke.
She told us that the ear should be the same length as the nose and the width of an eye should equal the space between the eyes. The ratio states that the length of a woman’s face divided by the width should have a ratio of 1:1.618. In order to be considered beautiful, that is. She showed us work by Renaissance artists like Raphael and Botticelli.
I had never understood mathematical equations or ratios, and so the only thing I learned from her lesson was that these were the beauty standards a woman must meet if she wanted to be deemed worthy.
Ms. J went further, telling us that additional research into the role of the golden ratio in determining female beauty reveals the translation of these calculations into an attractiveness ranking system. Individuals, mostly women, were rated on a scale of one to 10, based on the symmetry of their facial structure, with most individuals scoring between a four and a six. Never had an individual been ranked a perfect 10, but still we lived in a society that found the need to measure and rate and rank and score.
I couldn’t help but think that if my appearance had been measured against the “golden ratio,” my formal rating wouldn’t have been higher than a two.
I grew up having every flaw pointed out to me. I grew up believing I was wrong. It’s part of the territory that comes with being born with a facial disfigurement as a result of Crouzon syndrome – a rare disorder where the bones in the head do not grow. My eyes were too far apart, too crooked. My nose too big. My jaw was too far back, my ears too low. There were regular appointments with doctors and surgeons trying to fix me and my twin sister, who was also born with Crouzon syndrome. Some of it was for medical purposes, other times for aesthetics.
I would sit in a room while doctors took pictures of my face from every angle. They would pinch and poke, circling my flaws. I would sit and let them pick apart my every flaw. And I wanted it, I did.
“Fix me,” I would beg.
They would do their best.
I’d have surgery, recover, and return for more pictures, more circling and more detailing of every flaw. I was obsessed with symmetry, obsessed with bridging the gap between the person I was and the person I felt I should be.
The afternoon the boy in my seventh grade art class told me I was ugly, I told my mother that I wanted to die. She brought me to a therapist the following day.
My therapist’s name was Beth. She was a middle-aged woman with red, curly hair that fell just past her shoulders. She had a round stomach and round glasses and almost always wore green. I would sit in Beth’s office, play Mancala, and tell her of my dreams to travel and write. We almost never spoke of my appearance.
One day in March, I arrived a few minutes late to my appointment. I entered Beth’s office where she sat facing the burnt orange plaid couch that looked straight out of a 1975 home furnishings catalogue. We did not play Mancala. Instead, Beth looked directly at me and asked me if I was happy.
I did not know how to answer, and so I cried. She took a tissue from the small table next to her and gave it to me, listening as I sobbed. When the tears stopped, we sat in silence for several minutes.
“It’s like when you re-read the same sentence over and over again without understanding what it means,” I said, finally. “That’s how I feel about my life, about what I look like.”
She nodded as I spoke, looking at the tablet and pen sitting next to the tissues on the small table. She began to reach for it, but stopped. Instead she folded her hands and put them in her lap.
“I don’t understand it,” I continued. “These things, they just keep happening and I know it has to mean something. It has to. I want my suffering to mean something. I want this pain to matter.”
She responded by giving me an assignment. She told me that she wanted me to take a picture of my face every day for the next few weeks. She told me that I had no connection with my physical self, because my appearance had undergone drastic changes so many times. This made sense to me, and I was surprised I had never made the connection.
“You don’t have to show these to anyone,” she told me. “Just take them for you.”
I was skeptical, but agreed.
I used to cry at the sight of a picture of myself. The tears would consume me and I would spend the following days refusing to leave the house. Seeing images of the person I was made me angry.
I was ugly.
When I was 9 years old, my twin sister and I were interviewed by the French edition of Marie Claire. Two women came to our home. My mother put us in dresses and curled our hair and we sat at the dining room table, which we were only allowed to do on special occasions. The women took pictures of us and asked us questions about our life. All I can remember of them is their accents and the way I felt confused when they kept implying that I was different.
In the centre of the table sat a framed picture of my sister and me from when we were 5. We were in coordinating blue and white sweaters and holding strands of pearls. It was one of those forced mall photos that families like to hang in their homes to convince everyone else they are happy. I hated the picture. My eyes were bloodshot and I looked weak. It was taken only months after I had surgery to expand my skull and advance the middle of my face. They broke my bones and shifted everything forward – necessary to rectify the premature fusion of my skull. They took bones from my hips and put them in my face. I had to learn how to walk again.
A few years later, I found the Marie Claire article buried beneath memories and a thick layer of dust in the attic. I sat on the plywood floorboards and began translating with the basic French I had learned in school. The words spoke of the way the bones in my head were fused prematurely and described the devices that the doctors invented in the garages of their homes as a last resort. I cried as I read the words, because it all felt so simple. The way they described it, I mean. They didn’t mention the weeks spent in the ICU or the fact that my mother spent her nights hunched over the edge of my hospital bed, too afraid to leave. The article didn’t mention that I was a person and not a disease, and stretched across the page, in big bold letters, I saw it: ‘Their faces resembled work of Picasso.’
The words stamped the page right below a picture of my sister and me sitting at our kitchen table, laughing like ‘normal’ children. But we weren’t normal children, because normal children don’t get written about in French magazines. Normal children don’t get called ugly in French magazines.
I was embarrassed or maybe I was more ashamed, and I found myself wondering how I ever could have thought someone could think I was special. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders and it felt as though the whole world was laughing at a joke I wasn’t in on. I slammed the magazine to the floor and spent the rest of the night in my room.
“Picasso was an artist. You are God’s artwork,” my mother would tell me.
“God should take up a new occupation,” I would say back.
I shredded the magazine that night.
A few weeks after I found the article in my attic, I told Ms. J about it. About how my face was compared to a Picasso painting. I told her of the assignment Beth had given me and asked her if I could incorporate my project into my class assignments. Ms. J was supportive of my idea. She told me that appearance, much like design aesthetics, is arbitrary and exists only to assign meaning and purpose for those seeking it, but that ultimately our unique attributes are our signatures. They’re the stamps on the world that only we can leave. They’re the things that set us apart and make us beautiful.
Ms. J walked over to her desk, which sat against the wall in the front left corner of the classroom. She began punching the keys on her computer and I stood there, unsure whether I was to follow or not.
“Leonardo da Vinci explored beauty and symmetry through what he called the ‘divine proportion.’ He was a math guy,” she told me, “so he frequently incorporated mathematics into his work to ensure they were visually appealing.”
She turned her computer screen toward me, scrolling through an article with images of da Vinci’s Profile of an Old Man, The Vitruvian Man, and Mona Lisa, all famously beautiful pieces. She stood behind her desk, one hand on the computer mouse, looking up at me.
“Do you know what da Vinci looked like?” She enlarged an image of an old man with long, white hair.
“I don’t know about you,” she quipped, “but he doesn’t look too pretty to me.”
“Being compared to Picasso may seem like an insult, but it’s an honor,” she told me. “You are a masterpiece.”
Today, when I think of da Vinci, I do not think of the physical body of the man. I think of da Vinci as his talent, as his brilliance, as his legacy. His work is often said to have been a window into the extraordinary inner workings of his mind, and it reminds me that we are all more than our bodies, more than the ratio of our eyes to ears to nose to mouth.
I used to find the existence of algebraic and geometric formulas that explained beauty oddly comforting, because then at least there was an idea – something to work toward. But art isn’t necessarily about beauty. Art is supposed to make you feel something, and I began to realize my appearance was my art. My body, my face, my scars told a story – my story. But I guess that’s how life works sometimes – only noticing beauty in retrospect and poetry, in silence. Sometimes I catch my reflection in the mirror and I remember the words of my teacher, beauty is subjective, and suddenly the reflection I see doesn’t feel like such a stranger.
Follow Ariel on Twitter @ariel_henley9. This article first appeared on the Narrative.ly website and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author. It was included in the July 2016 issue of Viewpoint, Changing Faces’ monthly supporter email.