LOUISE RIPLEY-DUGGAN treads the thin line between curiosity and prejudice.
A few days ago, my friends and I settled into my bed to watch some shitty television. This is something we do fairly often in a manic bid to make ourselves forget that we’re supposed to be doing something important. I think it’s called a degree? Anyway, we watched something new – Beauty and the Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice.
The programme brings together a shallow, beauty-obsessed person, and someone with a facial disfigurement.The people with facial disfigurements are interviewed about the struggles they faced growing up, and the one thing they all comment on are the reactions of children. They all say that children are uninhibited about making comments, or asking questions, or looking at something different.
This programme made me think about my own childhood. When I was 15 months old, I somehow managed to tip an entire brewing teapot over my face and left arm. I’m not emotionally traumatised by the experience – it happened a long time ago, and much worse shit happens to people. It’s not really a big deal. All that stands out to me is how shocking it is that I haven’t since learned to not be such a mal-coordinated giant with uncontrollable limbs. In any case, my face got off fine but my arm was largely covered with third degree burns and I needed a skin graft. The result was an ‘ugly’ scar which was very visible when I was small.
I was never bothered by other children asking me what was ‘wrong’ with me, perhaps because I spent a lot of time with my close friend Lucy, who was born without half of her right arm. When people stared at her, she stared back as if to say: “Yeah AND WHAT motherfucker?” She was a total gangsta at the age of three. Lucy was the first person I knew to start using the phrase: “So’s your face,” and to give them an even bigger Fuck You, she could tie her shoelaces before all of us. Suck on that, two armed losers. Quite apart from anything else, she is now one of the most beautiful women I know, to the point where people don’t even notice that anything is missing because she is so complete in her gorgeousness.
I have never thought anything of people looking ‘different’. But, obviously, kids say the funniest things. As soon as I was able to talk, I was outlandish and outspoken. And my parents allowed me to communicate pretty much as I wished, although it was sometimes much to their regret.
My mother’s favourite story is: ‘Louise and the Dwarf on the Tube’. I was two-years-old and over tired. It was late at night. I was standing on my chair, singing. It was Christmas time, the passengers were all pissed, and most of them were singing along. A dwarf got on the tube and sat in the only available space – next to me. My mother instantly prepped herself for damage control.
Assertive two-year-old + tired + dwarf = get the fuck out. Amazingly, he addressed me first and the conversation went as such:
Dwarf (whose name is actually Derek): You sing very nicely.
Louise: And YOU are VERY SMALL.
Derek: Well, so are you.
Louise: Yes, but I am two and a half. How old are YOU?
Derek: I’m 40.
Louise: What’s your name? And WHY are you out without your Daddy? You are TOO SMALL to be out ALONE.
Derek: My name’s Derek, and my Daddy’s dead.
Louise: I’m sorry about that (pause). SO. You are a VERY SMALL, GROWN UP MAN called DEREK.
Derek: That’s right, I am.
Louise: And, DEREK, do you also have a VERY SMALL PENIS?
At this point, my mother grabbed me and began hissing, in French, that little girls should be in bed, and would I just sit down and shut it? Derek, who was clearly indulgent of the curiosity of loudmouthed children, laughed and got off the train at his stop.
We tell this story fondly in my house, because I wasn’t being offensive; just unapologetic and curious. My responses carried no judgement, and I knew that there was nothing wrong with wanting to know why something was the way it was. When people asked Lucy why she only had one arm, she had no problem answering. And, neither did I regarding my scar, so long as it was curiosity and not prejudice.
Surely, if you teach a child not to ask a question regarding something unusual, you’re teaching them that anything unusual is something to be avoided, or even feared. You’re telling them that the person has something ‘wrong’ with them, when actually that’s not the case. Often, a ‘disfigurement’ is something that people are proud of because it’s made them who they are. And ultimately, differences between us are what makes us beautiful.