The story of the FrenchmanAs I was reading one of the older editions of the 'Reader's Digest', I had the opportunity to once again read the story of the world's first full-face transplant. The Frenchman, Jerome (his last name was not revealed), who suffered from Neurofibromatosis, was given a new lease of life when Doctor Laurent Lantieri successfully performed the operation that replaced his earlier face with a new one.
Those who do not have any idea regarding Neurofibromatosis will perhaps not realise the significance of this operation for Jerome. This disease which happens purely due to genetic reasons leads to abnormal tissue growth along nerves. The rare disease, which affects only one in three thousand individuals, leads to severe disfigurement, usually in the facial region. In other words, if you suffer from Neurofibromatosis, your life would become a living hell, only because of your disfigured face.
And so it was for Jerome too. Whatever talent he had (he had learnt film studies in the hope of getting a job in the movies or the theatre) was not recognised. Whenever he went to any public place, people would hurl various degrees of insults at him. Riding the metro was an even worse experience as his fellow passengers treated him a little better than animals. And after a lifetime of humiliation for no fault of his own, he decided to try out a surgery that could help in changing his face, but which also came with lethal risks.
What I saw and heardIt was a happy ending for Jerome, but what does his experience show? In fact, as I was reading Jerome's story, I remembered an incident that I had witnessed just a week or so ago. It happened when we were getting on the school bus after the last day of our board examinations (I have recently appeared for my Class XII examinations). One of my friends, Rajan (name changed), who did not board our bus soon became the topic of conversation. Everyone on the bus soon started to talk about what they thought of Rajan's physique. Rajan was quite thin and because of this, he was generally bullied by the rest of our classmates. He was also slightly hunched and because of that, he was given the name 'Ship of the Desert'. While this may sound amusing to an outsider, I was really hurt as well as angered after hearing all this. In fact, among the persons who were the most vocal in making fun of him, one was a visibly 'overweight' girl and another was a boy with an 'ugly' face! In other words, they, themselves, did not have the 'perfect' body which they expected to find in Rajan. I do not know how I managed to keep my emotions to myself on that particular day. And even though I, myself, am physically quite well-built, I still grew tense thinking about what these people say about me behind my back.
And it is not as if this physique-based bullying is only limited to students. I remember an incident last year when one of our teachers actually spoke harshly to a student while at the same time, mocking his small physical stature. After the class ended, he confided in me about the incident and how he never enjoyed those sorts of comments.
Our awful obsessionThese incidents, involving various kinds of persons, reveal a common thread. We, as a society, are excessively obsessed about the 'perfect' physique and face. We often conjure up an image of the perfect body and if anyone does not meet that image, then we spare no words in mocking him or her to the utmost. Granted, there is a difference between friendly banter and mockery. But even banter must not exceed certain limits. It is not anyone's fault (at least on most occasions) that a person is overweight or underweight, or 'excessively' tall or 'excessively' thin. Who can even define who is excessively thin or excessively fat? And what right do we have to mock a person who does not fulfill our criteria of a beautiful body?
This obsession regarding physique has in fact grown worse in the current era. The influence of mass communication media, especially the movies and television featuring actors with six-packs and actresses with a 'size zero' figure has made us more conscious than ever of our physique. To a certain limit, this is good, if we truly begin to care about our health. But the problem starts when our main concern is not simply acquiring a 'healthy' body but mocking all those who do not have one.
The effects of this kind of constant mockery can be extremely frightening, especially at the fragile teenage stage. Jerome, about whom we discussed at the beginning of this article, once asked his mother (at the age of twelve) why he was even born. He agreed to undergo a surgery that could potentially take away his life, precisely because he was tired of all that he had to face, day in and day out. A short trip to the nearby café could leave him depressed for the day. Depression, in fact, is the worst possible effect of such mockery.
What can we do to prevent all this? If we are parents, then we need to talk to our children regarding the fact that having or not having a 'good' physique or a face is no benchmark for success, if there is no actual talent within us (surprisingly, this is true even in case of models and actors). The greatest thing we can probably do is to think from the perspective of those who have to face such mockery. We should not give them pitying glances; a few genuinely friendly words should be good enough.