Recently I read a couple things that have stayed on my mind, so I decided to write about them in today’s post. Monday posts are supposed to be for serious stuff, at least according to my plan, while Fridays are for fun. A little humor to end the week and start off the weekend with a chuckle. The book The Art of Taking it Easy, by Dr. Brian King, is about the use of humor as a coping mechanism for dealing with and defusing stress.
King is a psychologist and stand-up comedian who travels around giving seminars on the power of smiling and laughing in combating stress. He even advises attendees to fake it by clenching a pen between their teeth to simulate a smiling action. This, according to scientific studies cited by King, actually can trick your brain into thinking you really are smiling, thereby reducing the amounts of stress-causing cortisol coursing through your body.
I know this to be true from first-hand experience. Not the pen-clenching part, but the benefit of humor and usefulness of smiling and laughter. My silly, self-deprecating humor has been my armor for decades. Yes, it has served me well in times of stress. But its primary function has been more as a kind of tears-of-a-clown shield. And this brings me to the second thing I read. A post on Instagram by 65inlivingcolor reminded us to be kind to each other because we never know what other people are going through. They can be smiling on the outside, but crying on the inside.
I know this to be true from first-hand experience, too, and I bet many of you do as well.
Growing up I was teased all the time. Skinny, tall, crooked teeth with a large overbite, thick glasses, and big feet anchoring stick legs. “Ugly” and awkward, I learned to use humor to deflect and thwart teasing. The boys in middle school (we called it “junior high school” back then) had a Foxes and Dogs list of girls, and I was in the Dogs section. Getting braces didn’t help my case in the looks department either. They resulted in a transformed smile I love, but wearing all that metal and wire in my mouth back then, along with impressively thick glasses that magnified my eyes like something out of a science fiction movie? Pure torture.
It also didn’t help that I wore homemade clothes. I first got a sewing machine when I was 8, and learned to sew with my mother’s help. She was an excellent seamstress and sewed all our clothes. My mother said I was too skinny to wear solids, so nearly all my clothes were made from conspicuous plaids, florals, and geometric-patterned fabrics that were not stylish or trendy, but served the purpose of tricking the eye into thinking I wasn’t a tall, brown praying mantis.
As if the garish fabric didn’t do enough damage, my mother also insisted on pleats and gathers – lots of pleats and gathers – to give the illusion of fullness. This was fucked up as hell at 13. But what was I to do? My mother always reminded me that one of my hip bones was higher than the other (I needed to stand better); my wrist bones were too prominent (I shouldn’t wear short sleeves); my Adam’s apple looked mannish (ruffled collars and mock turtle necks would help that); my feet looked like “ski boats” (WTF is a ski boat?) on my skinny legs (long, gathered skirts to the rescue); and I walked like a farmer (“just like your dad”). Take smaller steps. Be more ladylike. I know my mother was well-meaning in these constant reminders, which were for my own good.
But not so much.
So I poked fun at myself. I joked about being Mr. Ed with ice cubes for glasses. (If you’re old enough you may remember the Mr. Ed TV show in the U.S., about a talking horse with large, protruding teeth.) I laughed about my Raggedy Ann long, checked dirndl skirts.
In grad school, long after I’d stopped wearing braces and hideous homemade clothes, and started wearing contact lenses and makeup, I even wrote a humorous essay poking fun at my skinniness. It was originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, and later appeared in other local papers in the U.S. People like self-deprecating humor. Laughing at myself was very effective at concealing my hurt feelings, and laughing at myself in writing was something that entertained readers.
I also used to make fun of my two little lopsided “mosquito bites” or “pimples” on my “ironing board” chest. That’s right, I used to be flat-chested. One 32A and the other almost-32A – until pregnancy gave me voluptuous tits – and then post-childbirth gave me one 32A and one…concave? WTF? So in my early 40s, I got a boob job. Perfect, soft and matching 34Cs (though my increasing back fat is taking that band measurement up to 36). The implants were done through an incision in my navel and implanted (installed?) under instead of on top of the pectoralis muscle. There is no scar anywhere. Even medical doctors are in disbelief during exams when I tell them I have implants. Partners can’t tell until I tell them. They look and feel damn good and natural naked, though an underwire push-up bra can make them go crazy on date night. It’s been nearly 20 years and not a single problem or regret. Judge all you want, but I do love my tits. They’ve aged well and adapted nicely to my changing body. My boob job, like my braces, was a good decision for me.
In case you’re now wondering, I’ve done nothing to my face or any other part of my body. I have good genes as far as aging goes. My smooth skin at 61 may also be related to a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS).
Folks with EDS have velvety soft skin. I have a stretchy body and stretchy organs. Physical pain is a daily constant. I used to entertain people by popping my hips in and out of their sockets. I have a titanium screw holding my bicep to my shoulder. (Lugging that one carryon bag around the world for 70 days by myself with a screwed-in bicep was no joke.) Colonoscopies are performed differently so not to tear open my intestines. My lungs are long and stretchy. IVs can and have shredded my veins. Pregnancy was a bitch thanks to an “incompetent cervix,” among other things.
(And what is up with the judgy labels on women’s body parts when we’re dealing with a dysfunction? “Incompetent cervix” and “vaginal atrophy” — really? They don’t call it “incompetent penis.” Sorry. I’m just saying.)
Anyway, I joked about having a “screw loose” when I fell and broke apart scar tissue in my shoulder (fuuuck), and I used to mock my own “rubber-band girl” body with silly antics.
When I first researched EDS I wasn’t laughing. I read that 80 percent of people with it die of an aneurysm by the time they’re 50. Shit. But then I learned there are many different sub-types of EDS, based on a number of precise mutations to specific genes.
When my son’s pediatrician recommended genetic testing for him to determine if he had EDS or Marfan Syndrome, the results of the testing determined that he and I both have a “non-specific connective tissue disorder with increased risk of aneurysm.” Our gene mutations didn’t match the exact clinical criteria for any of the 10 sub-types of EDS known at that time. (In 2017, a new EDS classification expanded to 13 sub-types.) The good news is we don’t have the 80-percent-dead-by-50 sub-type. My son is healthy and so am I. I don’t have any joke for that. Only gratitude.
Years ago, I went to a party hosted by an older high school classmate I hadn’t seen since she graduated from high school two years ahead of me. When I approached her to say hello, she gave me a cool, distant greeting. I was hurt. “Nothing’s changed,” I thought. “Still the unpopular girl.” I found out later she’d told a friend she didn’t know who I was. “Talk about the ugly duckling turning into the beautiful swan!,” she’d gasped. “Oh my god!”
But here’s the thing: The ugly duckling still lives inside. No matter how we present on the outside. No matter how funny we are. We never forget the Ugly Duckling and it’s always who we identify as.
Even when I was working part-time as a model, I didn’t feel I belonged with the other models. Photographers would have to stop photo shoots so assistants could blow-dry the wet armpits of the clothing I was modeling — while the clothing was still on my body — after my nervous sweat soaked through.
Let me tell you, honey, you don’t know embarrassment until you’ve had to stand like a humiliated scarecrow so two disgusted lackeys can simultaneously point blow dryers to both your fucking sweat-soaked armpits in front of other models/bitches-from-hell who are watching with rolling eyes and unconcealed laughter. Of course I wrote a funny essay about this, which was published in a local magazine and then picked up by other local publications around the country. Like I said, people like it when you make them laugh by making fun of yourself.
Being funny…acting silly…making jokes. Humor, smiling, and laughter are not only healing, they can also be used as a shield – a deflector of sorts – to hide sadness, pain, fear, and embarrassment. Only by learning each other’s stories will we really know all that’s behind a smile. It feels so good to finally be in a place of authentic smiles now.
What about you? What’s your story? Do you smile to defuse stress? Does humor help you cope with anxiety? Or have your smile and laughter ever served as a shield to conceal pain?
April is National Poetry Month and every Monday this month I’ll feature some of my favorite poems by Black poets. This one, written in 1922 by Carrie Williams Clifford, celebrates the search to know oneself.
My goal out-distances the utmost star,
Yet is encompassed in my inmost Soul;
I am my goal—my quest, to know myself.
To chart and compass this unfathomed sea,
Myself must plumb the boundless universe.
My Soul contains all thought, all mystery,
All wisdom of the Great Infinite Mind:
This is to discover, I must voyage far,
At last to find it in my pulsing heart.
Credit: This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on February 8, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets. “Quest” originally appeared in The Widening Light (Walter Reid, 1922). Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/quest-0
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