Monday, April 17, 2017

What Happened When I Took Pride in My Appearance

By Kristin Bartzokis

Kristin Bartzokis is an athlete, artist, and writer.  She was born with Treacher Collins syndrome and documents her life experiences in her blog Diary of a Beautiful Disaster.  Her first book, also titled Diary of a Beautiful Disaster, is available now. You can order it here

Ok, I’ll admit it.  When it comes to my appearance, I’m pretty lazy.  Most weekdays I toss my sopping wet hair up into a bun and head out the door to my job.  In my defense, the alarm on my phone usually starts its obnoxious blaring at 4:30 in the morning so I can go for a run.  My gym opens at five and I’m there when the doors unlock.  I’m home and in the shower by 6:45 and I leave for work at 7:45.  You may think that seems like enough time to blow-dry and straighten my hair, but ask my stylist and she’ll confirm I have about three heads worth of it.  An hour really isn’t enough time to do everything I would need to do and I literally can’t wake up any earlier to fit it all into my normal routine.  I just can’t.

Here’s what I took away from that:
  • One slight modification can alter another person’s perception of me.  Likewise, it can also change the perception I have of myself.
  • Not only did I wear my hair down for an entire month, I also wore more dresses and skirts to work.  On the weekends, I didn’t always reach for my activewear like I normally had in the past.  I actually wore casual clothes that I hadn’t put on in a while.  It looked like I made more of an effort, even if I really had not.
  • People didn’t stare at me as much.  Maybe, though, it was all in my head.  Maybe children stared the same amount but I dismissed it because I felt confident in my appearance.  Maybe not many people ever usually stared at me and I just always jumped to conclusions.  I know that my imperfections are heightened when my hearing aid and malformed ears are visible, so I don’t think I always fabricated the unwanted attention.  But whatever the reason, I felt like I finally blended in with the crowds.  For someone who had stood out all her life, that was a blessing.
  • I found a steady confidence in my appearance, something that typically waivers on a daily basis.  Whether or not I actually walked taller and smiled more, I felt my self-esteem quadruple over the twenty-eight day challenge.  I felt more whole, like I had found a part of me that had been missing all my life.

But I did want to try something at some point.  I wanted to spend an entire month wearing my hair down and taking more pride in my appearance.  My mom once pointed out that I attracted the most stares when I looked like a slob, which let’s face it, was every Saturday and Sunday.  Maybe if I tried a little bit harder, I’d stop the very act that sent my self-confidence into a downward spiral.

At the end of January I decided to take a break from running to nurse an injury and just like that the opportunity for my experiment presented itself.  I began my challenge on February 1st.  I swear I didn’t intend to choose the shortest month; it just happened that way.

The first day absolutely sucked.  There’s really no other way to say it.  It took me forever to blow-dry my hair and then straighten it.  I couldn’t only do the former.  My hair is too thick and frizzy.  It would have swallowed my small facial features.  The process tried my patience, exasperated me, and left me feeling like a hot, sweaty mess.  I wondered how I was going to do this for twenty-eight straight days.  (Thank God I picked a short month!)

I decided to wear a dress to work that day to mark the momentous occasion.  Honestly, I prefer to wear jeans everyday.  I accomplish much more when I am most comfortable, and you guessed it, I’m most comfortable in jeans.  Because I wore something out of the norm and finally let my hair fall freely, my coworkers kept telling me how nice I looked.  I wasn’t comfortable being complimented so frequently on my appearance.  I never have been.  I was ready to go back to being unnoticed after only one day.

I finally washed my hair again on day four (gross, right?).  I’m used to washing it almost everyday because of my sweaty runs.  But without those runs I could go longer in between suds, and lucky for me, my unwashed hair actually looked better on days two and three.  My morning routine wasn’t disrupted when I didn’t have to do anything but blow out my bangs, which made wearing my hair down almost enjoyable.

By day seven, a week after I started my appearance challenge, coworkers were still telling me how fancy I looked.  What’s crazy is that on that specific day the only thing I changed was how I wore my hair.  The outfit I had chosen to wear – skinny jeans, a button up sleeveless shirt, and sandals – had been my staple clothing combination for the last two years.  There was absolutely nothing special about my attire, but because I took the time to style my hair, I looked more put together and polished.  Isn’t perception intriguing?  One slight modification to my appearance changed how people saw me.

On day eighteen, I had another huge personal break though.  Not only had I been wearing my hair down while I was at work, but I also did so whenever I went out in public.  It took me eighteen days, but I finally realized that I didn’t notice as many people staring at me.  Actually, I didn’t notice anyone staring at me.  My mom had been right.  (Shhh! Don’t tell her I said that.) When I wore my hair in a bun, I almost always caught people, mostly children, stealing glances in my direction.  But it wasn’t the case on this day when my locks hung down to my shoulders.

I spent my morning running errands and decided to get a pedicure.  Whenever I’m at the nail salon, I always catch the nail techs looking up at my face. Always.  I suppose I normally look a bit disheveled when I’m there.  My hair pulled into a ponytail, my face makeup-less.  I get it.  But on this day of my appearance challenge, I wore my hair down and had on a tiny bit of makeup.  I didn’t catch a single one of the techs eyeing me or my appearance. It was such a surreal and magnificent experience to be left unnoticed.

As I jumped in my car to head to my next destination, I wondered if that feeling would carry on throughout the rest of the day.  I doubted it would.  I was about to spend the afternoon at a gymnastics competition surrounded by children of all ages.  I loved the sport, but being around that many kids would usually be my personal nightmare.  Once I arrived there, I again noticed that I wasn’t the center of unwanted attention.  No one stared at me, no one whispered about me.  Everyone just left me alone.

What a day!  It was like I finally blended in, something I had wanted all my life.
When day twenty-four rolled around I realized I had been gravitating more towards the Lularoe dresses and maxi skirts in my closet than I had my jeans.  Maybe I was changing more than just my hairstyle.  These dresses made me feel confident yet still kept me comfortable.

By the final day of the experiment, my coworkers stopped making comments about how long my hair was and how pretty I looked.  That hairstyle became the new normal for me.  It was challenging at times.  There were days when I itched to throw it up because I didn’t have much time in the morning.  But I persisted and completed my challenge by wearing my hair down for an entire month.

So what will happen next?  I’m proud of the pride I took in my appearance and I plan on continuing to style my hair more often (and by style I mean wear down, even if I let it air dry).  It definitely won’t be everyday – I like my options – but I now understand the effects that a simple hairstyle choice can have on my perception of myself.  I want to continue to feel like I blend in while finding other facets that allow me to stand out – my actions, my voice, my message.

My imperfections still exist.  I’m not masking them.  I’m simply trying to live a confident life.  I’m trying to be the beautiful person those closest to me see.  True beauty isn’t measured by an attractive physical appearance.  But exuding confidence is certainly beautiful.  When I don’t notice the stares, I forget that I was born with Treacher Collins syndrome.  It’s when I stop noticing the stares that I find myself.

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