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Paying 'Lip Service' to Those Who Judge My Cleft Lip Scars

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Sitting on my floor, in a black pouch with a white “S” on the side, there is around $406 worth of lipsticks, lipstains, and glosses. In Mac, Too Faced, and CoverGirl casings are bright and bold reds, oranges, purples, blues, and even a few greens. People I met on campus would often say to me, “You always have such cool lipstick on, I wish I could pull that off!” I smile, maybe even blush, and thank them. What they would never know is how hard it has been in the past to put that lipstick on in the morning.

My bottom lip isn’t too bad to work with; there is a bit of a scar sitting on top of a bundle of scar tissue that creates a small bump. While lipstick will never look completely smooth across it, I can handle it. My top lip, however, is much more difficult. To the left of the scar, there is a bit more tissue, a stark contrast to the much thinner right side. The top half of the scar connects to the left side of my septum and is far more noticeable than the bottom half. Although it is less defined now, the difference in density on either side of the scar was quite obvious. It looked as if I had been stung by a bee on that side, and it had swelled to twice its usual size.

Trying to put lipstick on the top half is close to impossible, considering there is hardly a centimeter of upper lip to work with. Even after they sewed together the gaping hole of my cleft lip, I still felt raw, exposed and incomplete. Though this birth defect has only left me with a difficulty breathing through my nose at night, it has altered my image of myself in ways that will never leave me.

Growing up with my thin, scarred lip was incredibly difficult. Children can be cruel when confronted with something they have never seen before or do not understand. I became the butt of every joke, the gross weird girl who kept quiet all the time. In the first grade, I had a massive crush on one of the more “popular” boys in my class (let’s just call him Tim). One day during snack time, the popular girl that sat next to me asked if I like-liked anyone in class. I looked away from her, staring down at my blue-camouflage print t-shirt that said “Girl Power” in silver glitter. “Why would she talk to me?” I wondered. Still, she prodded, “C’mon, I think I know who it is and I think he might like-like you back!”

I kept my head down, but my eyes drifted slightly in her direction. She was smiling and squirming in her seat. I desperately wanted to believe she was being honest, but a miscalculation in trust such as this could be a monumental disaster. “Is it Tim?” she asked, leaning down a bit so she could scan for some sort of reaction.

Despite my best efforts, I blushed like a sunburned tomato. “I knew it!” she squealed. “Hey Tim, it’s true! She does like you!” I lifted my head slightly, terrified to see his response. “Ew! No lip likes Tim!” his friend shouted. He just sank into his chair and placed his forehead against the desk, shielding his beet-red face.

This kind of cruelty would not be left behind with elementary school, either. At 13 I went on my very first date – to the movies, of course – and the boy told me not to tell anyone about it: “Well, they made fun of me when I went out with Jessica, so I can’t imagine what they’d say about you.” I tried to push that thought down as I got ready that night. In my bright red skinny jeans and black plaid vest with the fur-lined hood, I waited outside the theater, anxiously biting at the edges of my black long-sleeved shirt.

The movie we wanted to see was sold out, so we just picked the only other one playing soon “He’s Just Not That Into You.” As the previews started, he pulled the old “yawn and stretch” maneuver to get his arm around me. My heart pounding in my ears, I rested my head on his shoulder, pleading with the powers that be for this not to be a dream. A couple minutes later, he leaned in and whispered in my ear, “Do you wanna… you know…” and motioned to his crotch. Being only 13 on my very first date ever, I nearly shouted, “No!” He nodded, “Yeah, never mind that was bad. I’m sorry.” I tried to brush it off, thinking he genuinely made a mistake. A minute or two later, he leaned in again but didn’t say anything. “Oh shit, this is it,” I thought, and leaned in too, expecting my first kiss.

Instead, he backed away. “Uh, no offense, but I don’t want to kiss you,” he said, including a slight gesture to his upper lip, while staring at mine. “I think we would be better off as friends. Anyway, I texted my brother to pick me up early,” and with that he got up and left me, sitting there alone, in the middle of the very appropriately named film we had chosen.

Too embarrassed to call my mom, I sat through the rest of the film. When I got into the car she excitedly asked, “So how was it? Wait, where is he? Didn’t he walk out with you?” I lost my composure within about two seconds, openly weeping in her car. I told her everything in the brief pauses between my heaving sobs. She remained silent through the whole story, until we came upon a 7-11. At the last second she whipped into the parking lot. “What kind of ice cream do you want?” she asked, furiously unbuckling her seat belt. We settled in that night with two pints of Moose Tracks and “When Harry Met Sally.”

Halfway through the movie, my mother turned to me. “You know, Dad didn’t even notice my lip until I pointed it out. The right person won’t see it or care, and this jerk clearly wasn’t the right one.” She reached over and put her hand on mine. “You want someone who will love you for exactly who you are.”

Although everyone may think this about their mother, I truly believe her to be a saint. In the face of sheer cruelty, she remained kind and optimistic. When she was born, her grandmother turned to her mother and said, “What did you do to make God punish you this way?” as if her cleft lip had been the consequence of some horrific past transgression. When she found out I would also have a cleft lip, my father told her, “All I wanted was a little girl, just like you.” He is truly the right one, for the both of us.

As this ironic universe would have it, my favorite thing in the entire world would be lipstick. Watching classic Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, I would dream of the day they “fixed” my lips so I could rock that iconic red lipstick. But the world kept telling me that lipstick wasn’t for me. When I had my makeup done for first communion pictures, the woman put this frosted, pink gloss on my lips. Though its scent was reminiscent of coffee beans and Vics Vapor rub, it had been the first lip product I was allowed to wear that had any sort of color. I felt like the most glamorous thing since Jane Mansfield, but when I finally looked in the mirror, I saw that she had tried to draw “normal” lips over my own. Instead of Jane, I felt like Bette Midler in “Hocus Pocus.”

From that point on, lipstick and I kept a loose, long-distance relationship as I stared longingly at the bright pinks from the chapstick aisle of CVS. As I grew up, my heart broke more and more, watching girls slather on that pink gloss I pined for and make kiss marks on notes to boys, knowing my own mark would never look quite right. I even tried using a lip plumping gloss from Victoria’s Secret, only to have a close friend of mine say, “I bet it’s just a scam anyway. None of this stuff ever works like it says it will,” trying to console me when my lips remained the same.

On my 16th birthday, my best friend decided it was time I dressed up for real. She helped me pick out a teal, strapless dress at Forever 21 and paired it with black garter tights that featured a small trail of hearts up the thighs. I hadn’t worn a dress, let alone tights, in years, but she was determined to get me into one. And to go with this new dress, she helped me pick out a maroon lipstick.

It took about 20 solid minutes to pump myself up enough to actually put it on that morning. There was a lot of pacing, bouncing up and down like a jogger at a red light, and telling myself, “Do it for Gaga, she’d want you to do it.” And finally, after my father reminded me I couldn’t afford another tardy, I did it.

The girl who wore nothing but skinny jeans, her brother’s band t-shirts, and Converse high tops, was in a dress, tights, black fringe moccasin boots, and a full face of makeup. As I slipped into homeroom, my sweet as sugar cane teacher gasped, “Oh my goodness, don’t you look so beautiful!” in that southern drawl.

I smiled a little and scurried to my seat. All day, people were stopping me in the hall to compliment me. A few even asked for the name of the lipstick I was wearing. Not one malicious stare, no “who the hell is she trying to fool?” eye rolls. When the friend who picked out the outfit saw me, she stopped, mouth agape, and the slightest hint of tears in her eyes, “You look so hot, oh my god!” she nearly screamed.

That Revlon Black Cherry lipstick became a staple in all of my outfits. Soon I was buying darker maroons and even a few of the reds I used to envy on the lips of Marilyn. But I wasn’t able to really branch out. Just a little mascara, light brown eyeshadow, and my trusty Black Cherry.

The summer my sister-in-law moved in, it was just the two of us home during the day. Being a makeup artist, she asked if she could experiment with new looks on me. I hesitated a bit, remembering the first communion pictures and dance recital looks that left me resembling Mimi from the Drew Carey Show. “C’mon, you’ll look great! You have the perfect eyes for a smoky look!” she pleaded.

Accepting the fact that I had nothing else to do, I agreed. “Just, let me do the lipstick,” I bargained. When it came time for lipstick, I shakily dragged the Mac Ruby Woo across my bottom lip. Sensing the gravity of the situation, she interjected, “You know, with your lip line, don’t smudge back and forth, go side to side.” I glanced away from the mirror, her sitting across from me, smiling. Not the kind of smile that feels like a patronizing pat on the head, but one that felt supportive, understanding.

“Sorry, I’m not really made for lipstick,” I said, nervously laughing at my dark joke. Her nose scrunched up, her brow furrowing a bit, “What are you talking about? You always look great when you wear lipstick.” “Does she not see it?” I wondered to myself. “Well, because of my lip, it’s a bit harder to wear. People were always drawing lips on me when they did my makeup,” I explained.

She rolled her eyes. “Oh my god! I don’t understand why people do that. Makeup is about accentuating what you have. When I work with clients, I like to try and create a look that brings forth their inner beauty; to show them what I see inside them.”

Since then, she has broadened my horizons with lip color and makeup in general, teaching me how to highlight all of my features. Not having a sister and having a mother who shared my fear of makeup, stores like Mac and Sephora intimidated the hell out of me. In my eyes, I saw a room full of girls like the one in first grade, guarding things that were never meant for someone like me. Now, I waltz in without a care in the world, knowing I have a place in this environment.

I still required a bit of a pep talk each morning to put it on, but I did, determined to repair my relationship with lipstick. Then during an appointment with my plastic surgeon, a short, blonde woman I had never met before came in the room to look me over. She did the usual groping of my face in complete silence. I had never had an issue with my plastic surgeon doing this because he had been with me since the beginning; I was comfortable with him. This, however, made me feel like a lab rat.

After a few moments of touching and poking, she remained standing incredibly close to the table I had been sitting on. Tilting her head to the side like a puppy, I knew what was about to come out of her mouth was going to be a huge heap of self-serving savior language. “Well, your bones have set nicely. Now we can go in, take some tissue from your cheeks so your cheekbones are more defined!” she cooed. “Now wait,” I thought, “I have always received compliments about my cheekbones. I thought we were here for my deviated septum and the leftover scar.” Ignoring my puzzled look, she went on, “And then, we can do another bone graft and borrow some more tissue so you can have nice, full, Angelina Jolie lips!”

This comment knotted my stomach. Angelina Jolie is an incredibly beautiful woman, but I am not her. I don’t want to look like her, I want to look like me. But still, she stood there, smirking like she had just told Oliver Twist he could in fact have some more. The final straw came when she added, “Then you’ll finally be able to wear lipstick!” not knowing this had been the first day in two years that I hadn’t worn any. “Well, let’s get some ‘before’ pictures and then your doctor will be in to see you” she said, turning on her tacky clog heels to leave.

My eyes stung as the door shut, thrust back into the years on the playground getting dirt kicked in my face. Images of my kiss marks next to others burned in my memory, along with the failed lip plumper, and the rolled up tissues I’d tuck under my upper lip. As I sat down on a stool in the next room to have the pictures taken, a tear slipped out. The woman taking pictures came over to me, asking what was wrong. When I told her what that horrible woman had said, she placed her hand on my shoulder, looked around the room, and whispered “F*** her, you can do whatever you want with your own body.” That kind but crude statement meant more to me than this stranger will ever know.

With that, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my newest shade, “D for Danger” by Mac and put it on, along with a devilish grin when she and my doctor came back in the room. Looking me over, he talked more about fixing the deviated septum, knowing that was my main concern. During the exam he ran his thumbs over my cheekbones, “Wow, your bone structure has really come together! You have gorgeous cheekbones.” I looked past the two med students who were nodding in agreement to shoot a “haha, screw you” smirk at the blonde woman, who was now visibly uncomfortable.

After that appointment, I made a point to wear lipstick every single day. I wanted to show the world, as well as myself, that I was going to live my life the way I wanted to. At first, it was worn out of spite, for telling me I cannot do something is a surefire way to get me to do it. Gradually, that anger faded, and I wore it simply because I liked the way it looked.

Through this defiance, I learned to love my lips, and in turn, myself. Each day as I sit on the floor in front of my illuminated mirror, I put on my lipstick, taking part in my own tiny protest. And I look damn good doing it, too.

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Photo by contributor.

Originally published: July 18, 2017
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