Beauty and the Beast – More Than A Fairy Tale

MeThis weekend opened the long awaited live action “remake” or re-imagining of the Disney animated modern classic Beauty and the Beast, a movie near and dear to me for many and some complicated reasons. No longer a “cartoon” film but one with live actors, this version is likely to affect me even more.

The “original” premiered back in the day – a phrase I use too much as I get closer and closer to 50 this coming October. And really 1991 wasn’t all that much back in the day considering I started out in 1967. Disney’s great new era of animated features began two years earlier with its release of the fabulously entertaining The Little Mermaid. I don’t remember why I wasn’t fully enticed by Ariel (though I can guess) at the time but when Beauty and the Beast was released, I became a grown up fan of each new annual animated feature. Brain cells storing the memory of my first viewing of what would become an Academy Award Best Movie nominee are long gone, but I do remember being as enchanted as countless little girls wanting to be Belle. And I remember being hopeful for the message that I spread today…that people need to look beyond what is on the outside…that people who look different are regular people …not to be afraid of but worthy to befriend and perhaps even love. I didn’t relate so much to Belle (though I loved her love of books and her feisty independence) as I did to the Beast. Though many believe I have self-acceptance of my body differences there was a long time when I thought I was a freak, a grade or two below Beast level and to be honest, those thoughts rise up every now and again.

Belle, the plucky village girl dreams beyond the typical role of a woman in a provincial village with “stuck in the past” residents including the overbearing and chauvinistic Gaston. Gaston only wants Belle because Belle doesn’t want him. And later when Gaston discovers the Beast, he becomes enraged – how could anyone turn him away for a head horned pawed covered with animal fur man beast? This story “as old as time” does not need me to recap how it ends. Instead I write this about how Hollywood and Society still don’t understand how this is too much an one sided story and why it affects me so personally.

The summer before I was to enter college a well-meaning important person in my life had wanted me to be careful at campus parties. Though Smith was and still is a women’s college, male students from surrounding colleges as well as town residents were known to attend house parties. For various reasons that can wait for another blog, I did not participate in usual HS social activities. My inner party animal (pun intended) was waiting to get out. This person knew I was excited to leave home and enjoy all that college had to offer yet worried I was too naïve and inexperienced with partying situations. She later told me she agonized over how to properly prepare me for potential danger. She finally blurted, “Geri, be careful at parties where guys are likely to drink too much and become drunk. A group may see you and decide to make wagers as to who can fu@& the handicapped girl…” Horrified is too much an understatement of how I felt in that moment. I could be seen as a freak experiment? I had finally emerged from my almost 5 year self-imposed moratorium on talking to the boys in my class because in 7th Grade the all too common puberty related self-doubts took a stranglehold of my self-esteem.

I had always known I was different – having congenital deformities of all parts skeleton. I wore unbending prosthetics and my malformed arms/hands/fingers only reached below my bust line. My below the waist body is even more weird — my ugly legs and feet that don’t allow me to walk. I had been used to stares in public and questions of “what’s wrong with her?” as early as I had conscious awareness. I was actually an outgoing little girl, as plucky as Belle herself I believe until adolescence and hormones took over. And I had talked to, even kicked at times, the boys in my classes up until 6th Grade. Finally by the time 2nd half of HS Senior Year arrived, I emerged from my shell and began communicating, however difficult, with some of the guys. Yet I waited too long and I was not invited to my Senior Prom – again chalking it up to that no one wanted to go with the funny looking Geri even as I had grown up with all my classmates in our small school district.

And now this special woman was warning me that again I could be seen as freak just as I was keen to start a new chapter of my life, determined to push myself out into the world – even if it was an all-female college.

See the connection now as to why I feel a kinship to the Beast? Yet life is not a fairytale with all happy endings. No magical transformations swirling in cinematic glory. And the Beast was a guy who was loved by a woman – the way it is generally in both reel and real life. Many more men with physical disabilities are likely to be married. We see this in many more feature films and our everyday world. Women are traditional caregivers. In my many hospitalizations over the years, several in rehab settings, I’ve seen women therapists have relationships with their male patients. The Boston Marathon, while horrendous in its initial terror and tragedy, has in time brought out stories of nurses and other health care providers who have married male survivors with various life changing injuries/conditions. And while I, embarrassingly, have never been in a romantic relationship, I have nonetheless been interested in a few gentlemen over the years. And a couple of times, mothers of a two men I liked would intimate that I should not get my hopes up, that I was not wife material and could not provide a home – in other words, I would be a burden. For those who don’t know my background, I was abandoned by my biological parents at birth – was I too much a beast baby and perhaps would be a burden? These questions have followed me throughout my life.

I still want to see this new version of Beauty and the Beast, for the music I love, for the banter between Lumiere and Cogsworth, for the fairy tale ending that true love sees beyond the beastly exterior. I still want to have that hope for myself.

Musings on Birthday #49

Since Sunday, I have shared a slew of Baby Pictures on my personal FB account. The Baby Pictures only begin at approximately 12 months though. I’ve definitely been looking back at a time I don’t remember. I’ve also been reflective as my 49th Birthday approaches Saturday. Some friends who I adore believe in the idea of a month long celebration!! Being a middle aged single woman sans partner of any kind, being motherless and currently being more housebound than not means I don’t have lots of ways to celebrate for long, let alone a month, but I will admit I DO LOOK FORWARD to my Birthday each year.

Quite a while ago, a person commented that Birthdays really aren’t that important – and she doesn’t care much when they roll around… the underlying message being that I was too old to want a big deal made of my special day. This person also demeaned me and a dear friend who came to share in my grief when my Mom died last year, sneering when knowing we were sharing a King size bed in the hotel.

Yes, I do look forward to October 22nd each year – though the day comes with sad thoughts and lingering questions that will trouble me to my end of days. I was born unbelievably at 5:15 AM (never again would I arrive anywhere so early!) at White Plains Hospital to an Italian couple. I will likely never know if I was ever held by either the man or woman – or if only by the delivery doctor and nurses and later nursery staff. I’ll never know if there were any tears of joy (doubtful) but rather tears of shame or dare I wonder, horror. Logically and intellectually, I can understand the fear and disappointment of the couple who had already lost a baby daughter a few years earlier to the same genetic condition. That baby died within a few days. For whatever reason unexplained, my internal health was sturdier if not my skeleton make up. Diastrophic Dwarfism (as I first remember the condition being called) or Dysplasia is a recessive hereditary condition so both haywire genes were present from the egg and sperm in the embryo that resulted in me. Having taken Anatomy and Physiology some time ago now for my MS Ed/CTRS requirements I was amazed how the slightest change can result in either life threatening illness and/or body malformation, even something as seemingly minute as a missing protein.

Many people know by this blog and website that I give school presentations and give older students an overview of my life story including details of being given up by my biological parents. Thankfully, I was given the chance to live out in society rather than an institution as was the usual decision through the end of the 1960s. And despite an handwritten note of instruction “No Pictures to be taken of this Baby” put atop my Hospital records (copies received when in my mid 20s), Department of Social Services workers decided to put my picture in the local county newspaper seeking a family. The family decided upon was the Marianos, then of Bronxville, NY – Doris and Bill with their daughters Joanne, Beth and Andrea.

Sadly, I lost both my Mom and Dad in 2015 so my main story tellers are silenced forever but I have memories of the stories told to me and pictures that accompany the story. An official family portrait and individual baby pictures were taken soon after my arrival. And there would be many more pictures over the years. What a gift of acceptance and love.

Ironically, I developed a love/hate relationship with pictures. After my cute baby days were over and I entered the awkward teen years and adolescence doubts took hold, I really did believe I was a freak. I so wanted people to want to take my picture and then when they did, I would pick apart each photo to decide if I looked weird or not. I’m particularly sensitive to anything shown below the waist. Last year was my HS Class of 1985’s 30th Reunion. Though not pleased I was confined to a wheelchair and slouching back, I nonetheless decided to glam up as much as possible and was thrilled when friends/classmates wanted to take pictures. Ridiculously, I still remember there were no candid photos of me in our Senior yearbook. Of course I was never a cheerleader or played on sports or part of the popular cliques but I still wonder why I didn’t rate one candid back then and chalk it up to my not being pretty enough.

Once during a summer camp week away, fellow campers convinced two sweet boys with developmental disabilities from Long Island that I was cute and interested in them; the message being that only those with diminished capabilities would be interested in me. I never told anyone about that until a year or so ago, but the humiliation has always stayed with me. That and women whose sons I “crushed” on would subtly tell me that girlfriend or wife material I would never be…messages I can never shake though I desperately wish I could.

Now back to my Birthday …the big 49! 49 is big, one might ask? Well considering I have vivid memories of wondering if I’d make it to 50, yes, 49 does seem to be a milestone. A few times over the years I asked a couple of doctors, two women actually (maybe I felt safer asking the tough question with them), what my life expectancy was. Both times the responses were “Don’t really know.” Yet, doctors have looked after me and have done what’s needed to prolong my life. During 10th Grade, I underwent a tremendously difficult spinal operation that left me in a body cast for 6 months and cut short my Sophomore year. The reason given was that my spinal curvature was increasing and would “crush” my heart. In 1992, a C3-C4 degenerated disk was removed before it could slip and slice through my spinal cord. In 2015, there were two more arduous and complicating spinal surgeries to allow continued breathing and hopefully a return to mobility. 50 doesn’t seem to be much of a question mark anymore though my other questions of whether I’d still be scooting and doing acrobatic leaps on/off the Throne and over the tub wall are more or less answered.

The weeklong retrospective back to baby pictures day has helped me realize how far I have come. I may not be so adorable anymore (really what 49 year old respectable woman wants to be cute?) but dang, when I try …I can be pretty and even sexy! Happy Birthday to me!

Happy July 4th, America!

Write only if you cannot live without writing. Write only what you alone can write. ~ Elie Wiesel

Today is July 4th, 2016, 240 years after the Continental Congress voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence – for the 13 colonies, from that point on to be known as the United States of America, to sever ties with England, from their oppressors, to rebel against taxation without representation among other iniquities.

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…”

Can’t help but read these words with new appreciation and insight. These are tumultuous times we live in. Within the past week, we saw our original Sovereign power declare its independence from a modern international union.

For all of America’s current faults and divisions, and they are plentiful, I am grateful to be an American citizen. Am grateful to have been born on this land. Am not sure how or when exactly I became a mini Yankee Doodle Dandy and Patriotic fool – was as far back as Elementary School. My parents were always involved in politics and we celebrated the 4th of July each summer with cookouts, sparklers, fireworks over the Hudson River and later right over Orange Lake. Dad would buy us Commemorative Coins – including the 1976 Bicentennial Set. I’d read books set in the Revolutionary Days, including one about a little girl living in Bedford (and for the life of me, I can not remember the title or the character’s name). I read biographies of important Americans. I delighted in the Bicentennial Celebration during 3rd grade with Miss Partalis. Holly Hobby, Martha Washington, Betsy Ross were a few of my “idols” – yes, I was a bit of a geek way back. 6th & 8th Grade Social Studies classes brought more American History and my fascination grew.

Then came 9th Grade Non Western Studies with Mr. Klinger. Herbert Klinger who wore drab olive green sweaters and slacks. He was a world traveler and had made numerous educational films. (Seriously, what kid wasn’t thrilled to see the projector set up when entering the classroom?) We learned of the caste system in India I remember. And surely we learned something about ancient China (I think?). What I remember most, though, is sitting in my mid row seat hearing and seeing about babies in Africa that were left out for Animals to eat or to die in the elements – the babies that weren’t healthy or “normal.” I remember shifting around in the chair, not knowing what to do ..wanting to cry but not wanting to draw attention to myself. Back in those days there were no such thing as “trigger warnings,” not that I do think it was or is necessary. Life happens and survival of the fittest means rising to the occasion and facing difficulties when they come. If we were all to be warned ahead of time, where would our strength develop from? Back to the point at hand, 9th Grade Non Western Studies Social Studies Class was when I knew for sure I was blessed to have been born in America. Sure I was left in a hospital by my biological parents, but I wasn’t put outside to perish.

And I wasn’t even left in a hospital forever because wise women (and I do believe the powers to be at that time were wise women) decided I should have independence to a degree, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness out in society – my unalienable rights as much as the next baby.

Our government is not perfect, there are the pros and cons to Benefits – but I’ll save those for another time.

For this July 4th, 2016, the 240th Anniversary of this great imperfect nation, I am grateful to be an American and I pray to be here in 10 years for the 250th Celebration!! Regardless of my physical independence, whether it bounces back some or not, I am still of Independent Mind and that is everything.

After 20 Years, Still No Makeovers Possible

Sometimes coincidences are too glaring to take lightly or to dismiss an opportunity not taken once before in almost a nod to Rip Van Winkle …an opportunity to share a lasting message about self-worth and image.

This 2014 winter in the north east had been cold and snowy and it reminded me greatly of a similar winter in 1994 where it uncannily snowed every Wednesday.  If it was Wednesday there was invariably a 2 hour school delay or a full snow day.  Likely I would have ordered a few lunch specials from the local Chinese restaurant which never turned down a request for delivery.  Then I was housesitting for a church family and was mostly “stuck” in the house, cozy as it was, because I simply couldn’t go out in the snow and ice, and I wasn’t working.

Fast forward to 2014 and we had almost the same winter and snow patterns although the day of week differed as to when schools were delayed or closed.  All these years later I have the added benefit of technology and social media to keep me entertained; I scrolled daily through Facebook updates and could not help but be confronted with endless posts about The Today Show anchors, specifically the female ones, being brave about going make up free on air.  I found my hackles being raised the same way one feels the hair tingle on one’s arm in an alarming way that reminded me of 20 years ago.  I dug out my “never-did-anything-with-these-writings folder and found the following letter I wrote to Oprah Winfrey on February 21, 1994 with intent to send this essay written the summer before at a writing workshop:

“HOW TO LOOK LIKE A COSMO GIRL.”

– click –

“SIX SISTERS OUT TO MAKE A CHANGE LATER TODAY ON DONAHUE.”

IT’S A BEAUTY MAKEOVER

– click –

“WANT TO LOOK LIKE A MILLION WITH NEW CLOTHES? WATCH OUR SPECIAL

REPORT.”

– click –

“TIRED OF THE SAME OLD YOU? WANT A CHANGE? SEE WHAT THREE WOMEN

DID. WATCH OPRAH THIS AFTERNOON.”

CLICK OFF!

 One reading today perhaps would ask “Who’s Donahue?” but Miss Winfrey would still be known and I believe Cosmo, as in Cosmopolitan, is still a go-to in print magazine for all things women’s issues – focused mostly on fashion and beauty.  Yet isn’t it a shame that the same topic aggravates me?  That this is still an issue and subject of morning talk show segments and countless magazine articles, both on line and off?

With the age of social media and new tech advances, beauty can be very easily distorted with body sculpting tricks or facial enhancements.  20 years may have passed since my original essay but the topic remains basically the same …how does Society define beauty and is its mainstream definition false?

More from the never-seen-the-light-of-printed-anything now dog-eared, stained essay:

 I try very hard not to let myself fall into the quicksand pit of self-doubt and increasing self-consciousness over not being able to measure up to the impossible standards society and commercialism set.  I would love so very much to be “made over”.

But my mistakes aren’t solely those of the wrong color eye shadow, poor fashion sense or an unflattering hair cut (although I have also erred in those areas). My “mistakes” are more complicated and they can’t be fixed.

Using the medical lingo of my doctors, I was born with physical deformities of the upper and lower extremities, that is, of the arms and legs. The official medical diagnosis is “Diastrophic Dwarfism”. My abnormally developed legs, feet, arms and hands are attached to an otherwise normal looking torso. But, I lack proportion. Reaching out in a curve, my arms and hands together measure approximately 11.  My fingers are short, stub-like and are unable to curl into a fist. My legs and feet together are shorter than two feet and are not rigid enough to support my 75 pound body for walking or standing.  I do walk however, with the aid of straight, unbending prosthetics that fit over my own legs, like casts. With my “legs” on, I stand approximately 4’6″. With the “legs” off I sit on the floor, no taller than 3 feet, and look similar to an oversized baby who scoots to move about.

Being masochistic, I watch these talk shows that show beauty fashion, exercise, etc., make-overs. The producers always find an average, everyday housewife, or a typical career woman who isn’t quite “hip”. In less than an hour, the chosen woman has a new hair-do, new clothes, and new make-up. The audience then “oohs” and “ahs” and claps over the transformation, the “after” after the “before”. If it were only so easy.

(Oh and for truthfulness’ sake, I am no longer 75 pounds)

I generally don’t watch morning shows anymore but every now and again, and against my better judgment, I watch KLG and Hoda’s Ambush Plaza Makeovers on Thursdays.  And just the term makeover is disconcerting …make over …as if something is inherently wrong with what already is … and that which cannot be changed … no liposuction, no facelift, no anything save perhaps the longed for but still unavailable 1970s TV fantasy of bionic legs and arms.

Now, while I know that blog posts are not supposed to be advertisements for any brand I do appreciate the message of one body care line’s campaign for “real beauty” as well as a German department store’s use of mannequins modeled after real people with varying kinds of body conditions/disabilities. I also applaud a college classmate Cynthia Wade’s recent short documentary entitled “Selfie” debuted at Sundance Film Festival to challenge teen girls and their mothers self image beliefs.  (Of all ironies, I cannot take selfies myself because my short arms can’t reach out far enough to hold and snap a picture with a hand-held phone or iPad camera.)

Too late now for regrets but I wish I had been brave enough to send the excerpted letter to Miss Winfrey on February 21st, 1994 when I typed it:

Sometimes, it may be hard to believe, but I forget that I’m different…but at other times, usually in social situations I’m all too painfully aware at how different I look.  I wish I could be beautiful and turn the head of a man.  I wish that people would expect that I would have a boyfriend or a husband someday, not that it’s out of the realm of possibility. 

2014 Best Supporting Actress Oscar Winner Lupita Nyong’o was chosen as People’s Most Beautiful Woman for this year …a nod that beauty can come in all nationalities.  Also, in reading her bio, Nyong’o wrote, produced and directed a documentary about the treatment of albinos in her family’s homeland of Kenya – another group that is targeted for ridicule for a DNA malfunction beyond personal control.  Miss Nyong’o’s mother’s message to her that she was beautiful was a gift and should be a message all young girls receive worldwide.

Twenty years later and I do believe, society’s attitudes towards differences – whether appearances, race, and disabilities are changing if slowly though.  And I don’t believe notes like the one in my hospital birth records stating “No pictures to be taken of this baby” would happen anymore …I hope not anyway.  My biological parents apparently could not handle a non-looking “normal” baby though I had the usual requisite 10 fingers and 10 toes.

Women and girls especially around the world are subject to discrimination based on simply their second X chromosome (China’s society’s high value on sons for example) but add any kind of difference and much hardship can follow.

Can Social Media help change the persisting “definitions” of mainstream beauty of a size 4 body, light skin or long flowing hair?

Can words and experiences like mine also help?  I hope so.