I have vitiligo. Like many of you who also have a variance in your appearance, I too have spent too many hours trying to hide my body from view. But if we were to compare today’s attitudes about the body to the norms of the Victorian age, we’re actually not as far from fearlessness as we think.
In Embarrassing Bodies, What Did The Victorians Have To Hide by Katherine Hughes for The Guardian, we take a closer look into the reasons why some of our most beloved figures of the Victorian era were known for hiding their flesh from sight. Perhaps what we have always thought as a zealous sense of modesty was actually a way of avoiding embarrassment.
Did you know that Charles Darwin grew a beard to conceal a severe case of eczema on his face? Did you know that English novelist and poet Mary Anne Evans, known by her pen name George Eliot, had a hand much larger than the other that she spent a lifetime hiding from view? When reviewing biographies of prominent Victorian figures, Hughes finds herself frustrated at the consistency with which the reader is denied information about their physical appearance. She quotes, “I want physical detail in biography: how did it feel to catch sight of them across a room or sit next to them at dinner?” It doesn’t appear that your typical Victorian mindset allowed for the celebration of what makes us unique.
I’ll never forget what it was like watching the gorgeous ebony model Chantelle Brown-Young grace America’s Next Top Model, turning her spotted, vitiligo riddled body into a work of art (seen in the thumbnail image). It exemplified the tendency today to celebrate that which makes us different. Or how that same season, Nyle DiMarco, model and deaf activist, made us all rethink the limitations we have projected on the hearing impaired by bringing his condition to the forefront of conversation. Our culture today is a stark contrast to an age when displaying what was unconventional about you was stigmatized and frowned upon.
Generally speaking, we are a more educated society. With information about abnormalities available to us as quickly as Google can provide them, we are a society more capable of understanding and sympathizing with physical conditions that are unfamiliar to us rather than perpetuating the stigma around it. This is an easy tie-in to the ongoing conversations we have in this class about how education cultivates sympathy and broadens our exposure to the world around us. The fact that modern day attitudes around what makes us different from each other is, in my opinion, a byproduct of a more educated society.
More and more we uncover how education influences the way we engage with our fellow man. But I think education can also influence the way we engage with ourselves.
It takes a strong sense of personal power to put your oddities out front for all the world to see. Being educated about who we are and why we are the way we are, we have the ability to become a walking education for others. As a liberally educated individual, we are willing to approach the unconventional aspects of ourselves, frame them in a more knowledgable fashion, and share them with the world from a voice they’ve never heard before, starting the dialogue, opening minds and bringing to light what is unfamiliar.
Consider how you could impact others if you were to be proud of what makes you different. What would happen if you suddenly didn’t care about pleasing others, blending in, acquiring the approval of others by appealing to their conventional sensibilities. What if you flipped the script on them?
I challenge you to stop giving a shit about what people think about you. I challenge you to celebrate what makes you unique. I encourage you to dive deep into this concept of individuality and come out being the most defined personality you can be. Your individuality is a stronger message to the world than your conformity. Start talking. You. Are. Beautiful.