There are lots of reasons why I’ve never spent very much time staring at myself in the mirror. For starters, I have a really BIG HEAD. I’m not talking about big in an egocentric, swollen kind of way. I’m talking about geometrically disproportionate-to-the-rest-of-my-body big. I’m talking about make-a-child-party-hat-look-like-the-size-of-a-snow-cone-cup-on-a-basketball big. I’m talking about don’t-bother-trying-to- buy-me-a-hat-because-it-will-never-fit big. For as long as I can remember, this very prominent and unalterable physical feature has resulted in my being the butt of all kinds of jokes and name-calling by classmates, friends, colleagues, members of my own family and others. If there’s a derogatory or even remotely humorous comment to be made or a name to call people with unusually large heads, chances are I’ve heard it or been called it at one time or another. You name it, I’ve been called it: “Bucket-head,” “Neo-noggin” (as in Neolithic), “Mr. Potato Head,” “Charlie Brown” and the ever popular “Pumpkin-head.” In the beginning, I was terribly self-conscious and embarrassed by the sheer size of my head—not to mention hurt by the many comments and jokes about it. Over time, I’ve learned to roll with it, to try not to take the remarks too personally. Occasionally, I’ll even join in the “fun” by exaggerating the difficulty I have putting on a fully-expanded golf cap (I’ve learned to wear visors instead) or making a point of stopping by the hat counter and trying on one style after another just to prove the obvious—I have a HUGE head!
But my gargantuan head isn’t the only reason for my aversion to mirrors. You see, I’m also one of the only people on the planet to have been born with an upside-down smile. I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. No matter how hard I laugh or how hard I try, I simply cannot make the ends of my mouth form a normal smile. Believe me, I’ve tried everything imaginable. In fact, when my friends first started making fun of my smile, I would stand in front of the mirror at night, sometimes for hours at a time, and physically prop up the ends of my mouth—in the hope that I could train them to go where normal lips go when they smile. No such luck. For a period of time, I actually convinced myself that I would even be content if my lips simply remained neutral when I was trying to smile (i.e., if they stayed straight across, rather than wilted, in response to an uproariously funny joke). Try as I might, that wasn’t happening either. To make matters even more awkward, invariably those who saw my unusual smile for the first time would ask “why I smiled upside down”, assuming, I suppose, that I had a choice in the matter. I always wondered how I should answer that question. The obvious answer, of course, as in the case of my GINORMOUS HEAD, is that “I was born this way”. But, on more than one occasion, I thought it might be far more interesting to suggest that I once had a normal smile, but that over time, the profound sense of sadness that set in every time someone commented on my admittedly unusual appearance had eroded the ends of my lips to the point that they no longer had any interest in returning to their original and intended upright position. Somehow I never found the courage to play that card, choosing instead to simply absorb the quirky stares and often unintentionally harmful comments.
And then, of course, there’s the small issue relating to my ears. Admittedly, this problem is not quite as obvious as the head size and the upside-down smile, but it is made far more apparent than it otherwise would be by virtue of the fact that I have been wearing glasses since I was 12 years old. What’s the problem, you ask? The problem is that one of my ears is slightly lower than the other. Not that big a deal, right? Wrong. From the standpoint of appearance and overall attractiveness, it IS a big deal, particularly for someone who needs to wear glasses, because, as I came to realize, in order for glasses to appear level to the rest of the world, your ears have to be level. When they aren’t, no matter how skillful the optician and his staff are at adjusting your frames, there is simply no way to get them to sit level and function optimally. Consequently, my glasses, like my smile, have always been a bit on the crooked side, not a good combination when you consider the fact that they are attached to a head whose sheer enormity commands immediate scrutiny by everyone I meet. Again, there’s nothing I can do to improve this by-product of birth, much in the same way that there’s no way to change the fact that one of my legs is shorter than the other, that one of my eyebrows is higher than the other or that my shoulders are more than a little on the relaxed side, as opposed to being broad and square as I’ve repeatedly been told “they should be”. Still, at the end of the day, all of these “deficiencies” are simply physical parts of who I am that I’m “forced” to live with, recognizing, of course, that there are real-life consequences attached to them—not the least of which is that, this year, they likely will account for my being left off of People Magazine’s “100 Most Beautiful People” list for what will be the 57th consecutive year!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting for a minute that my anatomical eccentricities compare in magnitude or complexity with the body image issues that are such an integral part of the daily lives of many women (and men) – young and old – especially those who are afflicted with illnesses that profoundly compromise a person’s body image perception. I’m also not naïve enough to believe that, as a man, I will ever fully understand the unique challenges associated with those issues where women are concerned. In fact, having listened attentively to women share on the subject over the last several years I know better. Moreover, in poking fun at myself, as I have done to a large extent in this piece, I don’t mean to trivialize body image issues or the obvious power they have to influence the lives and behaviors of those afflicted with such disorders. I am, however, convinced that the path to true happiness and to a more peaceful and life-affirming relationship with our bodies depends on our willingness and ability to care less about the reflection we see in the bathroom mirror each morning and more about the reflections we create in the sometimes radiant, often tear-filled eyes of those whose lives we touch with gifts that will never be captured by a mirror – gifts of friendship, kindness, trust, compassion, empathy, encouragement, understanding – even the simple gift of our mere presence and our willingness to listen.
How can I be so certain? I’m certain because I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to see those reflections countless times in my own life – and, not surprisingly, none of them had anything to do with the size of my head, the shape of my smile, the levelness of my ears, the length of my legs, the proportionality of my eyebrows or my weight, which, at times, fluctuates like the New York Stock Exchange.
I’ve seen them in the dying eyes of a childhood best friend, who, despite our having fallen out of touch for nearly thirty years, was moved to tears and comforted in his final days simply by my taking the time to visit him in the hospital, to hold his hand, to thank him for his friendship so many years ago, when, unbeknownst to him, I too desperately needed companionship, and to offer to help him hoist a small juice box to his lips so that he could quench his thirst.
I’ve also seen the reflection in the frightened gaze of a 10-year-old little leaguer whom I coached many years ago, when, after noticing that tears had started to well up in his eyes, I cared enough to call time-out—first to simply ask if something was wrong and then upon learning that moments before the game, his mom and dad had told him they were getting a divorce, to offer quiet assurances from a coach he knew he could trust that somehow, someday “everything would be all right.”
I saw them in the eyes of a young mother only moments after I uttered a few simple words of affirmation delivered from the heart upon hearing her incredible story—words that told her through the tears that were streaming down my face that although I had just met her, I already greatly admired her courage and her strength, and contrary to her lifelong but no less heart-breaking self-belief, was convinced that she was quite worthy of living.
What’s more important to me, however, is that YOU see it – or at least entertain and then act on the idea of searching for it in your life. Because, I promise you this: If you will embrace the inescapable reality that I know to be true about you, even though you and I have never met (i.e., that you are not the person you perceive or misperceive yourself to be in the bathroom mirror any more than I am), you WILL see it – time and time again – and it may just change your life.