* All images from the author’s website. Social media use allowed. *
A few days ago I came across a post on Time titled “5 Things I’ve Learned from Being ‘Ugly’” written by Robert Hoge, a former journalist and political advisor from Brisbane, Australia. He is the author of Ugly: A Memoir, of which an international children’s version has been recently released. Ugly is Robert Hoge’s painful, honest and gloriously life-affirming account – of his experience and acceptance of his deformity and disability. The youngest of five children, Hoge was born in 1972 with damaged legs and a tumour the size of a baby’s fist in the middle of his face that had developed early while he was in the womb. It had pushed his eyes to the sides of his face – like a fish.
His mother, already aware that something might not be quite right with her newborn baby, refused to look at him for days. When she did encounter him, she decided she was not taking him home. In her diary, Mary Hoge recorded:
I didn’t feel anything for this baby. I had shut off completely. I had made up my mind I was not taking him home. One nun kept telling me he was my responsibility and that I had to take him home. The more she told me this, the more determined I became that I wouldn’t.
She talked to doctors, family, friends, priests and other people. Over time, her feelings softened and ultimately, she and her husband Vince, allowed their four children to vote on the issue. The family welcomed Robert and raised him lovingly as he continued to visit and be treated by any number of specialists – the plastic surgeon, the orthodontist, the optometrist, the ophthalmologist. Despite the risks of infection, the tumour was removed, the legs amputated, the cartilage from the toes used to build a nose – all this because his internal organs were fine and healthy. “Were I mentally deficient,” he writes, “they probably wouldn’t have planned any major operations to correct my facial deformities.”
As he has lived his life from hospital through school and college and work, enduring curious stares and nasty name-calling, Robert Hoge has realised a number of important things. Humans are social creatures who find meaning by existing in groups, he points out. Our initial passport into these groups is not our thoughts or feelings or wallets or family trees – but our faces. He understands this more intensely than most of us because onlookers, always, are more disposed to registering his unusual facial features than noticing his prosthetic legs, even though the latter happen to be a greater source of discomfort for him.
“It’s what’s inside that counts” – we like to say and listen to this. No, appearances do matter, Robert Hoge insists. Now a husband and father, he wants to give a direct and frank message to the world, especially to young people. When kids ask why someone looks different and we respond with “looks don’t matter that much,” he says, “we actually do that person a disservice by drawing a cloak of invisibility over their appearance.” Ugliness may not be equal to beauty but it is not the absence of beauty. Ugliness is its own, wonderful thing. Also, beauty is not just a high tip like Mount Everest but “a million points on the map” – it may take root in different environments, emerge in a variety of spaces, manifest itself in dissimilar forms.
Just as he has understood the importance of the face, Hoge has learnt the power and value of names: “Naming something is one of the most meaningful things we can do. Naming a child is something of beauty. But names at work, at school, in the playground, can signify affection or be something of an affliction.” He acquired a roster of nicknames – “Toothpick-Legs”, “Stumpy”, “Pinocchio”, “Retard”, “Cripple”, “Flat-Nose”. The one that hurt him the most was “Toe-Nose”. This one was too specific. It cut to the very heart of him, making him ashamed of the good work the doctors had done – “Sometimes I even wished they hadn’t bothered.”
For Robert Hoge, his ugliness is a great part of who he is. He writes: “If you try to separate me from my scars before even engaging me in a discussion about the issue, I may as well have never existed in the first place.” In and out of clinics and operation theatres he forever was. As a result, he became “a child who was both more outgoing, talkative and precocious than I otherwise would have been, but also happy with my own company.”
His doctors wanted to perform a major surgery when he was 14 so that he may better adjust in society, particularly with girls. They wanted to make him more “normal.” But the procedure was dangerous. Yes, he could finally feel “the pride of appearance” but he could also go blind in the process. Robert’s brother Michael asked, “What use is looking pretty, if he can’t even see himself?” In that moment, Robert made a choice. He would stop being a canvas for surgeons. He simply “owned his face”.
Watch his courageous and inspiring talk and interview. Timeless words – timely for our Photoshop-obsessed societies.
You can also watch a documentary on Robert Hoge on ABC.