In a world where everyone is increasing in desire to stand out, all I have ever wanted to do is to fit in. To be inconspicuous, just blend in with the crowd. As Olivia Pullman, Auggie’s sister says in the story Wonder, “you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out”. I’ve become used to this over the course of my life, I’ve not known what it is like not to stand out. What it is like to not have people glance at you for a second or two longer than they should, to not have children look at you and ask “mummy, what’s wrong with that man’s face?”
Of course, over time you acclimatise to this, and it can be hard to tell whether people actually notice these things anymore, or whether it’s your own perception that the whole world can see the blemishes on your face and hear the nasality in your speech. In reality it’s probably a little bit of both. Either way, the effect has become the same – to constantly be on edge anticipating negative judgment and negative social interactions, always wondering if this interaction will be the one where someone feels bold enough to make an unfavourable remark. The social anxiety associated with new people and novel situations is huge. To go to a party or a dinner, or an event where I don’t know everyone there feels like an act of bravery. I feel out of place, like a fraud, and it’s using all my energy to feign a social competence that I don’t truly feel I have. Sometimes I surprise myself and will genuinely have a really good time, particularly if the company I’m with accept me as I am, and help me to feel safe there. Even when surrounded by nice people, being different can catch you off guard – for example, I’ll be letting my hair down, having a good time at a bar, and someone will come over and start chatting to me. Every now and then, as if to make conversation, someone will say “what happened to your face/lip/nose?” It’s a perfectly reasonable question, but there it is, that sinking feeling reminding me that I stand out and that everyone has noticed.
Of course, once people get to know me, generally they appreciate me for who I am. My friends, family, colleagues all learn to look past it. My local doctor, hairdresser, corner shop, mechanic etc. have all known me for years and treat me as they would anyone else. Sometimes my friends or family will be with me in a shop and will be confused by my decision to go to the self-service checkout when there’s a human checkout operator available, but I like that the self-service checkout doesn’t form a conscious or unconscious opinion of my appearance or how I sound. The same at the petrol station, paying at the pump keeps me out of the potentially judgmental gaze of staff or fellow customers, and pre-ordering my hot chocolate means I can minimally interact with just one person, giving them less time to interrogate me with small talk or to have to mingle with other customers like a fish out of water. I guess I’ve been practicing a form of social distancing for years – having a bubble of my family, friends and colleagues, but keeping my interactions with strangers minimal and preferring the indifference of a machine to the unpredictability of a human where given the choice.
Earlier this year, when I was out of town at a hairdresser who did not know me and my history, they picked up that my skin looked different (as if I wasn’t already aware of it). I’ve been aware of my rosacea since 2017 and have been on daily treatment prescribed by my medical team ever since, but this hairdresser would not accept my word that what I had was rosacea and not a bad sunburn. She vehemently disagreed with me and humiliated me in front of other customers which left me feeling incredibly embarrassed. The hairdresser called her manager over to also touch my head (without my consent) to make her own diagnosis before proceeding to tell the next customer all about me. Similarly, later this year I was riding my scooter home from work at about 7.30pm one evening and a council contractor yelled at me for riding through wet paint (he was just about to put the cones out – which would be the equivalent of painting your wall and then putting down the newspaper to protect the carpet). I tried to have a diplomatic conversation with him about the fact that he needs to put cones in the area *before* commencing painting, but instead he chose to focus on how my speech sounded, “If you stop speaking like a retard maybe I’ll listen”.
As unpleasant as these things are, I have come to accept them as a necessary consequence for engaging in our world. Fortunately such events are rarer nowadays, but I realise that a few times per year I’ll be harassed on the basis of my appearance and/or my speech. The most irritating thing is there’s no warning of when that might occur, hence why every interaction with someone I’ve never met before is somewhat daunting. Although they’re becoming relatively rare, they totally derail your day when they do happen. They serve as a painful reminder that for every person who felt entitled enough to say something, 100 other kinder people noticed, perhaps silently made some assumptions, and chose not to mention it.
Yet, in the last year and a half amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the strangest thing happened. Many people around the world have become quite familiar with wearing face masks.
Having been fortunate to be based in New Zealand over the last 16 months, there have only been a handful of occasions and situations where mask use is required, but air travel is one such occasion. I have never walked with such confidence and with my head held as high as I do when I am in the airport terminal and boarding or disembarking an aircraft. I’m sure for many people they view the couple of hours of enforced mask use to be an inconvenience, but for me, it is like I have just been given the Invisibility Cloak for a couple of hours. The mask goes on, and the social anxiety fades away. People can only see my eyes above the mask, conveniently my favourite facial feature. Any distortion in how I sound is attributed to the obstruction of the mask. For the first time in my life, I feel just like everybody else. No extra glances, no children pointing at me only for an embarrassed parent to hush them away, no-one making an assumption about my intelligence based on the sound of my speech rather than its content. People seem to react more warmly to me too, although of course it’s hard to say whether it’s as a result of the mask, or the increased confidence I feel when I wear it which projects onto other people, I suspect it’s a bit of both. I’m almost a bit disappointed masks are required so infrequently in New Zealand so that I can’t feel this more often (wearing a mask where it’s not required has the opposite effect – one feels conspicuous if no-one else is wearing a mask).
Like many people around the world, I dream of the day where I feel as safe and confident without a mask as I do with it, but for now, it’s amazing how a simple piece of cloth can bring such vitality.