Turning bullying on its head

I came across a short video yesterday when I was scrolling through Facebook and it really struck a chord. In fact, I had my volume switched off and yet something made me click on “play” even before I knew what it was about, attracted by this woman’s face…and I watched the whole thing with subtitles which, subconsciously, makes you pay even more attention to facial mannerisms that you might otherwise miss. I was really affected by it as though I was watching someone I know telling me something fairly emotive or, you could say, as though she was me. I think what this woman, Rachel Farnsworth (who blogs as The Stay At Home Chef) had to share struck me most because it could have been my story.

Because Rachel shares (below) how she was trolled on her video channel by someone calling her ugly for having a few grey hairs. So she talks about how she wants to call that out because of the fact she used to think that about herself but not any more (and all the time, I’m struck by how beautiful this woman is). When she was growing up, she had a genetic predisposition affecting her jaw which made kids at school pick on her…with devastating consequences when it came to her confidence. This continued until, as an adult, she was finally able to have an operation to correct what was deemed wrong and move on, though the damage done to her confidence took much longer to iron out. Now, the only thing a bully could even try to get a handle on is that she is showing some grey hairs…which she is proud of because her husband loves them and because they signify maturity which, since she has a rare autoimmune condition that has already rocked her very survival, feels to her like a celebration of life rather than a negative. (You can read her incredible health journey in her post I Believe in Miracles). In other words, like me (see my article Au naturel), she has chosen to embrace her loss of hair colour in the light of all she has been through with her health; and to see the affirmation in it!

I also have a genetic predisposition affecting my jaw which makes my chin “stick out” from the side compared to other people. This became really prominent as I hit puberty, as it did for Rachel. At school, I was given hell over it; kids I didn’t even know would walk down the corridors mimicking me and this haunted me for years, even at university. People who called themselves friends would crack flippant jokes about my looks, the boyfriend of my best friend would pull the same jeering face that those kids at school would pull (and he later came back to bully me in a whole much-more significant way; yes, Me Too) and it was never allowed to drop so that I was always conscious of being what I felt to be “hideously ugly”. My ex-husband made fun of my profile or talked about it like I was handicapped, openly dreading that our children may have the same feature. Its was very likely since all of my siblings and my mother share this trait.

In fact, when my mother died, it became…at last…something I was prepared to forgive about myself because, when I caught my own reflection in the car mirror, it was something that reminded me of her, like I was catching a glimpse of the face I missed most through the ether. As I mature, thus getting closer to the age that I best remember her, I see my mum in my facial features more and more and I LOVE that I have this thing joining us beyond time and space, over twenty years later. I thank my stars that I ignored the dentist who told me to get rid of it when I was 35. I was going through my divorce at the time and I went to a dental specialist to see if he could straighten my slightly crooked front tooth. He dumfounded me, out of the blue, by suggesting a much more significant operation; saying “You’re almost beautiful…but that jaw…If you were to have a couple of inches removed from the bone and pull your face in towards your ears, you would be there!” I was disgusted by his suggestion…and, for the first time in my life so far, I stood up for what I looked like, walking out of his consulting room indignant that anyone would suggest I give up my most defining feature. It upset me the most that I would have ended up looking completely different to the rest of my family. At long last, I owned it, I “rocked” it and I felt beautiful just the way I was. It was a massive turning point for me and my life just got better and better from that point.

So do we bother talking down bullies, confronting, negotiating or fighting with them or do we use them as our push-off point to launch our own next evolution? Do we allow them to remind us of all the ways that we bully ourselves? Because, in a sense, I was complicit in the bullying I received until I took a stand on my own behalf, being prepared to love about myself what others cried out the very loudest (and most ridiculous) criticism about. All those years, I had been a very good friend and a decent, funny, interesting and talented person yet some people (…not all, but a significant few over the course of many years and various different locations…) saw only what they found funny or repugnant or whatever it was that made them want to taunt me for their own amusement. Perhaps what they sensed, really, was that I was “different” and that made them want to shout me down. Well, yes, I am different in many ways, but it’s not about my jaw line. They were aiming at the wrong thing, gunning for what was most obvious when really it was a cover for the depths of all the other ways that I am unique….and yes, I now love ALL the ways that I am quite different from the herd. This too has been a learning curve.

Bullying comes in many forms, over many different focal points. My daughter attended a workshop at a university that she was seriously considering as her top choice yet one of the teaching staff there spend the day blatantly favouring boys while subtly putting down or ignoring all the females in the room. She came home spitting feathers and seriously put off by the course. It reminded me of a geography teacher I had at school who, again, made a clique of certain boys who were allowed into his inner domain after hours but only had put-downs to dole out to even the brightest of the girls, using phrases like “shopping bag arms” and “child-bearing hips” to make fun of them rather than focus on what they had to bring to the subject. He was the one who put lighter fuel onto the fire of my bullying when, after a school trip to France, on which he was the teacher taking the photographs, he paused his slide show of photos of our visit to Rouen Cathedral (in which I had been captured, probably, mid-sentence so my mouth was open and jaw pushed out) and he made fun of this, saying to the class that I looked like an ape, or was it a Neaderthal…Whatever it was, it stuck and, now with teacher’s leave, that name spread like wildfire and went on to reverberate through the corridors and the playground, day after day, for what felt like the longest time. Years later, the irony struck me that Joan of Arc was burned just a short distance from the spot in Rouen Cathedral that became such a focal point for this bullying campaign against me (I also remember that day for being taunted and sexually cat-called by a gang of boys as my friend and I stood right next to where the burning happened); and, perhaps, certain places, institutions and so on do hold a bully energy that replays over and over, until we don’t let it anymore. In this case, the teacher’s bullying felt like a distraction from, or a denial of, the fact I was probably one of his brightest pupils with a natural interest in geography though, of course, my confidence to speak out in his lessons was at zero. Along with many of the other girls, I dropped geography and took history instead; and perhaps that’s what he wanted, a class full of boys (which may be the case, sadly, at that university I just spoke about).

When I look back, the journey I have had through bullying has “made me who I am” in so many ways. I chose my first husband, though he was so patently wrong for me, because I thought it was likely no one else would ever want me; then even he became a bully under my own roof, putting me down so relentlessly and savagely that there was almost nothing left of my confidence until…suddenly…I rose like a phoenix from the fire of it all (and I still don’t know how I did that), declaring “enough”. He had told me I was “hideously ugly” when I was heavily pregnant with our daughter, that I was so repugnant to him that he would never-ever desire me again, having seen me like that, just two weeks after giving birth. He revelled in telling me I looked gormless or was an embarssment, that people found me rediculous or that I was overweight, whenever we were out socially. He told me, when I was at my most vulnerable, that if I ever got sick with anything serious, he would leave because he couldn’t have a “faulty wife”. Yet within 3 months of making the decision to end the marriage, my confidence blossomed so fast that I could see in his eyes just how much he regretted what he had lost (the person he had never allowed to flower when he kept my confidence in check);  I never looked more radiant or self-possessed. “You really seem to have found yourself” I recall him saying one of those nights when we were trying to live under the same roof while the divorce was being settled. “Yes I have” was all I needed to say to him; and then I turned away.

What happened to me was that self-love returned to my heart and it has never once abandoned me since. It sounds trite when we say “you must love yourself first, before you can even pretend to love another or before any of those things you want for yourself or the world can happen” but it’s so true and I can testify to it. Once you have self-love, all things are possible…so, perhaps, that is why life’s bullies try so hard to keep us from realising this. They, quite simply, want to keep us from having what they so patently lack for themselves, because they sense the immense power of it. There is such immense power waiting to be unleashed when you love your own heart; quite enough to shake up the world from its very foundations. Perhaps they think they can never have it, will never taste this astonishing thing that (they know) would change everything in an instant so they work at keeping other people separate from it too; picking on whatever little thing they think might strike that other person through the core, looking for their vulnerabilities based on their own. However, when a person loves themself, such vulnerability melts away like a dagger of ice when the spring arrives. They rise up and swell into the fullness of their true potential; their heart overbrimming with appreciation for everything they are, including loving and appreciating all their own foibles, their uniqueness, their trademarks.

How many years did I pour hatred and self-loathing into that physical feature that marks me as one of my family? I wonder, sometimes, if it lies at the root of the pain issues I have had with my temporomandibular joint which, aside from giving me intense facial and head pain, has refered pain through the whole of my myofacial network to become chronic pain all over the body. I still have to have regular myofacial releases done on that part of my face and my dentist is always so concerned that I might need to see a maxillofacial consultant but I don’t think so; I don’t need a knife taking to what I have going on here as its a matter for the heart. Experts would say that “issues” such as these are typical of a jaw such as mine; such a jaw doesn’t work quite as it should, in their opinion…but I can’t help wondering if this, often, has more to do with the emotional response those of us with this feature have to “being different” to other people; all that self-loathing and muscle tension we may have fed into this part of our anatomy at times when we wished it was different. When I was much younger, I used to try and hold my face in an unnatural way, go to great lengths to show what I thought was my best side or refrain from talking (the countless hours I spent bursting with a desire to say something yet remaining mute because of my embarrassment don’t bear thinking about). I suspect we share emotional traits in common; and, perhaps, evolutionary ones too as we have been through similar experiences.

I met another woman once, on my daily dog-walks, whose jaw line was so familiar to mine that she could have been a long-lost sister. We became uncommonly familiar with each other very quickly, going back to her house for a coffee one day which lasted for 7 hours, during which we told each other our respective life stories in remarkable detail. It was almost bizarre – a complete one-off that we both seemed to need at some level –  and I wonder if it was due to an unspoken signal imparted by our shared features which unleashed an uncommon familiarity; like a key-code that allowed us to open up to one another like we were long-lost soulmates. I suppose you could say it was as though we were talking to ourselves; or a different version of self on a different timeline of circumstance. Though the way we looked and our facial similarity was never refered to it turned out that, yes, she had had an oddly similar life-story to mine, in so many ways especially when it came to not quite fitting in and seeking love and relationships that really mattered.

Now, when I meet people with my facial features…and I do…I can’t help getting a warm feeling, like I am crossing paths with members of my tribe. It happened just the other day, outside the train station, when my daughter said “Mum, look, its you…that man, he could be your twin brother”. Another time recently, she relaxed on what could have been a demanding course she was taking because the teacher looked just like me and her uncle, who shares the same family jaw (you should see us all at one of our family weddings). I’ve brushed shoulders with my own doppelgangers all over the world, sat in the next seat on the underground in Sweden and passing me in the street in Turkey, to name but a couple of the many examples. Recently, I found myself looking at another version of me in a coffee shop and I was so taken with how beautiful she was, I thought I might cry; her face seemed to convey every emotion and so much tenderness and there was such a lot of my mother in there that I felt a sense of loss when she left. Sometimes, these kinsfolk seem to stare at me just as much as I am trying not to stare…and grin foolishly…at them. The TV presenter Griff Rhys Jones looks just like one of us; I stayed in one of his holiday cottages recently and all the pictures and videos of him that we had exposure to there really drove that home to me, especially as my brother and he look so alike in their “maturity”. His young architect son too…watching him in the BBC program where they renovate the cottages to make them habitable…my goodness, he could be a male version of me when I was going through that particularly awkward teenage phase when all your features seem more stark and out of proportion somehow. And, yes, I can now see that this makes him attractively striking, not ugly as I thought when I was his age. In other words, I only feel warmth and familiarity…I suppose, uncommon amounts of affection…when I recognise myself in other people, even though they might be complete strangers.

So, for me, its become a bonus to have this very distinct marker of familiarity or type that makes me stand out from a crowd; and we all have some kind of very distinct trait or feature that we can look out for in a sea of faces. Instead of wanting to assimilate to the masses or the latest trend, to get facial surgery or look like a TV idol (as so many teenagers do…), why not embrace that and make the most of what makes us singular enough that we get to play a game in which we see ourselves sometimes…but not all the time…looking back out of another pair of eyes. Though we only do it subconsciously, it makes us more attentive to other people because we pay attention to other people instead of glazing our eyes over or hardly noticing them at all, seeing only their clothing, their religion or the colour of their skin. By the way, I’ve seen people of all races and skin colour with my particular jaw; and it makes me smile! We don’t love people with shared features more or less than anyone else (in fact, we may not even like them or agree with them though we may wonder if we have had similar experiences; which forms a basis for deeper understanding). However, these physical cues help us to realise we are not alone; that we have “family” all over the world, and that we never know who is genetic kin so why would we want to wish ill on any other community or nation of people. The DNA tests that have become just so popular and available lately have demonstrated to thousands upon thousands of people that they have relatives in all four corners of the globe and this should make us feel very different about ourselves, helping us to see the far bigger picture of “human family”, of which physical similarity is just the tip of the iceberg (at the deeper level, we are all one, after all). Such a picture really drives home that when we harm another, we are really just hurting ourselves. There must come a point when we will all come to know that we are all closely related; we must be getting near to that realisation, surely…and do we really need to hold a piece of paper from a lab to prove it?

In the meantime, back to Rachel’s video…its good to watch so many people speaking out about what they might once have pulled inwards or dealt with in a more private way. Looking at her speaking I realise that, yes, I so recognise myself in her facial features – quite aside from her story – and there is a sense, abstract though it is, that she is an aspect of me “speaking out” just as I am doing here. We are doing it for each other, as many times as it takes until we heal this thing; making it so there is no traction to be gained from bullying of any kind because it’s all been done before and we have shown that it only makes us stronger and more self-loving, more intact and powerful than ever before. The era for bullying is coming to an end…I do strongly sense that it’s reached the end of its shelf life…and the “me too” movement is just the birthing pangs of a new era in which we have all “been there, done that” and can get over ourselves. In my own life, I am long over the bully era and have no vulnerability left on that score. I feel so deeply and unconditionally loved and appreciated by my husband (white hair, health challenges and all) that there are no wounds left to heal but, above all, this is because of the profound love that I have for myself, without which (I feel sure) I would not have found such happiness and fulfilment in all aspects of my life, which completely overrides all the other challenges to do with health. I do hope more and more people get to realise this as quickly as possible now, which is why it feels so important to share. Here’s Rachel’s great video, with my profound thanks for the catalyst she has been in the cathartic process of sharing my story on this topic – it feels “complete” to been able to get it out of me and into print.



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