I spent last week with an uninvited and unwanted guest. I had a spot on my chin which grew to such a size that it seemed deserving of its own name (if not postcode). God saw fit not to push me over the edge with spots in adolescence, so I’ve never quite learned how to co-exist with skin eruptions, let alone apply make-up and such like with sufficient skill to make them slightly less visible.
So it was that everywhere I went for a few days, the Spot came too. When I entered a room, it went in first. When I was talking to people, I felt as if there was someone else joining the conversation. In fact, so conscious was I of it, that I fell into starting every interaction with the words “I have a spot on my chin”, as if the person I was speaking to might have been under the misapprehension that it was, perhaps, a reenactment of Krakatoa or a misplaced Comic Relief nose.
Each time I said it, I cringed at the words. Why did I feel the compulsion to draw attention to what was, after all, a fairly unmissable blemish. Did my subconscious think that people might have wondered if I was aware of it? Was I reassuring them that I did check my appearance in the mirror before leaving the house? Perhaps my teenage self wanted to get in first and take away any potential ammunition from somebody trying to get one over on me.
The truth is probably an unedifying combination of all three, along with a dose of that peculiarly British virtue of self-deprecation. If it weren’t a contradiction in terms, I would say that I excel at it. I am world class at putting myself down. Doing that Facebook thing that’s going round at the minute last night, where I had been tagged to list seven interesting things about myself, I found it easiest and most natural to recount mildly amusing tales in which I was the butt of the joke. Although I’d never say it out loud, there are dozens of things about myself I should be proud of, lots of achievements which aren’t widely known outside of my immediate family. Yet, like just about everyone else on my timeline who’s done it, I went for gentle self-mockery. Look, look, I have a spot on my chin!
I don’t know if I would really wish it otherwise. There’s a comfort in people bumbling along together, pretending to each other that the good things we have are somehow all the result of happy accident. I am certainly far too British to feel at ease with the prospect of social intercourse based on the trumpeting of personal triumphs. There’s a difference, though, between not actively boasting and going out of one’s way to preemptively kneecap one’s own character for fear someone else may try to.
Yesterday I spent the day with my sister and my little niece. She is at peak cuteness; that fleeting blend of baby and budding individual, finding her words and personality and place in the world. Whatever is said to her, she repeats back, testing out her language and the things it can bring her. If you say to her, “A, what are you?” she raises chocolate-button eyes to your face and replies with the immense dignity of two: “I bootipull”.
She is beautiful of course. I’d say that even if I weren’t her aunt. She’s clever and loving and determined too, and she has that precious sense of self of a child who knows she is cherished and adored. That she is “bootipull” is, to her, a given, despite the soup and felt-tip marks all over her little face, her bare bottom and the gloves transferred from feet to hands because “my cold”.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest that we all try to emulate a two year old. There is little to be desired from grown ups declaring loudly that they are beautiful, let alone doing so while naked from the waist down. Seeing her yesterday, though, I realised how quickly even my own children are losing the ability to say or accept positive things about themselves. They beam when praised or complimented, but there’s a blush too, a slight duck of the head in discomfort. I’m already very conscious of not being overly self-critical in their hearing, but I know that there is more to do to raise them to be comfortable in accepting what is good about themselves rather than magnifying what is less so.