By Dr. Allison Belger
A few weeks ago, I was chatting with my daughters (ages 10 and 12), and the subject of an eighth-grade girl at school came up. She regularly wears quite a bit of makeup—the thick foundation kind—and has apparently gotten a dicey reputation around this. My older daughter was saying how nice the girl is and how the story goes that her wearing so much makeup has caused her to have a really bad case of acne. I agreed that this girl seems like a nice kid, based on my exposure to her over the years. Then I grabbed the teaching moment for what it was:
“Did you ever wonder,” I said, “if the acne actually came first, and that’s WHY she wears so much makeup? My guess is that she’s embarrassed by her acne, so she tries to cover it up with makeup. I’ve watched her grow up, and I’m pretty sure that’s the case.”
It was one of those “Aha” moments for my girls. We talked about how stories about people get created, told, and retold, so that the stories end up being believed and socially accepted in a seductive and powerful way. These are the stories that follow people and become their lore, in spite of what their actual and true experiences might be.
Every once in a while, we read a quotation or saying at just the right time, so that it resonates and sticks with us, gathering evidence and momentum along the way. This recent one from my Facebook feed was spot on:
“Don’t judge my choices when you don’t know my reasons.”
How often do we make judgments based on limited information, not knowing or understanding the full picture? How often do we say things like, “I can’t believe he did that,” or “How awful; I would never do that.”
Few situations in life are black and white; mostly, life is nuanced and grey, and what can be seen on the surface is but one part of a complex, mostly hidden equation comprised of a variety of experiences and emotions.
If we think we can make legitimate and fair assessments of another person’s choices based only on what can be seen on the outside, we are doing both ourselves and others a disservice. In general, we need more information about people in order to assess something significant about them. But don’t be fooled; one source of information might not be enough. Much like information we might find while searching the internet, stories told by others, about others, are not always accurate. If we are invested enough in a person to make a judgment about his or her actions, we should also be invested enough to find out more. Demonstrate your capacity for critical thinking and empathy; investigate further and avoid making judgments.
That girl with the thick coat of makeup? In truth, she is tortured by her acne-pocked skin and has been since fifth grade when the hormones hit, earlier than expected. The makeup is but one attempt to fit in during a particularly challenging time. Instead, her story has been written backwards by the young authors of social lore. Now, she not only suffers from acne, but (so the story goes) she even caused it, brought it on, herself, by using too much makeup. Poor, pathetic girl.
No doubt acne scares lots of middle schoolers. Nobody wants to be the one with the spotted face. It’s likely that the anxiety associated with being puberty’s next victim fuels the fire for those who blame the makeup—and, therefore, the girl. It makes the other kids feel better; it reassures them that if they don’t wear too much makeup, they will be spared. We often calm our own anxieties by convincing ourselves that we won’t share the suffering of others, because we don’t do what they do. This gives us a sense of control, however fleeting and tentative.
Delve beneath the surface, if you care. And if you don’t, then why are you judging? Maybe you’re trying to make yourself feel better. Don’t go there; you are better than that.
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