This story is about an experience with my cleft lip and palate has been an important story in so many ways. I shared this story at two motivational speaking platforms when I lived in Shanghai, China. I also took some of these experiences and wrote a short film that I’ve now made called “Best Smile in the World.”
In so many ways, this experience was one of the best things to ever happen to me. When I took my master’s degree graduation photos, it was one of the most significant days of my life. As I stood in line waiting to take my photos that would mark the completion of my master’s program, the end of a long and grueling thesis, and the completion of my schooling, I was so proud and so excited. This was a big moment for me. I beamed in my black, white, and gold robe when the man behind the camera took my photo as I held my bouquet of roses.
After my picture was taken, I was escorted to another line where I had to sign up to look at my touched-up and finished photos. The only problem was that I would have to go to the photographer’s house across town and I didn’t have transportation. Luckily, behind me was Kelsey, a psychology classmate who kindly offered to drive me, so we signed up for the same time slot.
Weeks later, I was picked up by Kelsey and her grandmother and we drove to the photographer’s house. We arrived at the photographer’s mansion of a house and went into his studio. Image after image, I watched Kelsey’s photos, her smile changed only ever so slightly and her head tilt to the left, then the right. Her grandmother wanted every photo. This was a big moment for both of us.
Then came my turn. I moved into the center of the room and plopped down on a stool in front of the large computer screen where several of my images were organized on the screen. I smiled at the beaming graduate in front of me! Just then, the photographer took his mouse and zoomed in on my face. Then he zoomed in on my upper lip. He took his finger, placed it against the computer screen where my cleft lip scar is, and made a scratching motion as if to scratch my scar from the picture. He then turned to face me with a scrunched-up, unimpressed and almost disgusted look on his face. “You’re going to want to get rid of that, aren’t you?” he asked me as he continued to “scratch” out my cleft lip, something that I had wished I could do for years.
I froze. I literally didn’t know what to say. All of my life, I’ve dealt with negative and hurtful comments when it comes to my facial difference. Among the worst comments have been “So did your mom do a lot of drugs when she was pregnant and that’s why your face is screwed up?” I’ve also had multiple experiences of the equally hurtful “ew.” Even though those experiences were awful and frankly quite traumatic, nothing was worse than hearing an adult, an educated professional whose industry is meant to make people feel beautiful say that he thought I should want to get rid of my scar – something that permanently reminds me that I don’t look normal and never will.
I remember when I was about 14 years old, my mom took me to someone she called the “magic make-up lady.” This woman boasted of being able to cosmetically cover even the most visible of scars. I remember going there and being so excited to have a solution to my problem of always looking like I have something coming out of my nose. I sat down giddily and this woman applied, like, 20 minutes’ worth of makeup onto my face. I closed my eyes and waited to have a dramatic reveal of my new face. When I opened my eyes, I furrowed my brow and stormed out of the building and to the car. My mom came out and asked what was wrong. I said, “It didn’t work. She can’t hide it. Let’s go.”
Since then, I haven’t even bothered to attempt to use makeup to cover my scar. Maybe I should have, according to this photographer who still had my upper lip zoomed in on, my scar in all its abnormality staring at me.
I sat frozen for an uncomfortable minute and tried to breathe back tears when Kelsey chimed in and said, “Why would she want to get rid of it? That’s her face.” I was really thankful for Kelsey in this moment. This girl didn’t know me, but that statement helped me from bursting out into tears right then and there. I silently nodded and fake-smiled throughout the appointment and said I needed time to consider before purchasing.
I didn’t want to let my mom down. I knew she really wanted these photos and how special it was to her to have this milestone captured. I wanted these photos too, but now all I could see when I looked at them was glaring imperfection and a reminder that even someone who strives to make people feel beautiful thought I was ugly. It was a horrible feeling and a horrible experience. I cried on the way home and Kelsey told me not to worry about it and that the photographer would “fix” my photos and make me look amazing. I knew she meant well, but that didn’t help.
I got home and cried for another hour before I could bear to call my mom. I knew she’d make me feel better, my mom always knew what to say. When people would make fun of me growing up or say something hurtful, my mom, without batting an eye, would always have the perfect response. Nothing phased her and it comforted me to know that.
So, I called my mom — my comfort, my security, my biggest fan, the one woman in the world who thinks I’m one of the most beautiful people inside and out. I called my mom and I told her what happened. I told her that I was so sorry I didn’t purchase the photos and that I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t give that man my money. She said she understood. Then, it was silent. My mom didn’t raise her voice to curse out this horrible dude who hurt her baby. She didn’t say something funny to make me laugh. She didn’t say anything. And then, in almost a whisper, she said “I’m sorry, Sarah.” And that was it.
This experience has stuck with me so much because in every way it shocked me. The photographer’s reaction, my mom’s reaction, even my reaction of not just shutting him down and saying “Excuse me? My pictures are fine the way they are, thank you very much. I’ll take photo package A.”
That evening I went out with my boyfriend at the time. I told him about my day and how I hated my scar and wished it wasn’t on my face. He said “Why would you want to get rid of such an important part of you? If you didn’t have a cleft lip, you wouldn’t be you, and I love you, so I love your scar.“
This is another statement that has stuck with me but in the best way possible. I’d never really thought about my scar before as something important or something that made me ME. I have grown to be very proud of it and since my boyfriend – now husband, because who wouldn’t marry someone who empowers them to love a part of themselves that they’ve always hated – since he said that my cleft lip helps to make me who I am, I really have grown to love it. I don’t “see” it as much anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I still absolutely see it, but now I look at it with pride. The magic make-up lady couldn’t get rid of my scar and no amount of photoshop is going to make it go away – and I don’t want it to. This cleft lip and palate, this scar, is me. This is me, and I am enough.