woman looking in hand mirror
Photo: Greg Segal
I was born with a large hole where the left side of my mouth, lip, palate and nose should have been. From the start, my disability seemed to define me. "Is it a girl or boy?" my father asked the obstetrician who delivered me. The doctor's reply: "It has a cleft lip and palate."

When I was two days old, I had my first operation, to close my upper lip. A week later, I had surgery again, to strengthen that lip so I could drink. I was in the hospital for more than a month. Each feeding took several hours because my mother had to use an eyedropper; if she'd used a bottle, most of the milk would have run up into my nostrils.

In those days, cleft lips and palates required successive surgeries over a number of years, so I entered grade school still looking disfigured. My schoolmates called me a monster. At recess I'd stand alone at the edge of the playground wishing I could disappear. Over the years, I had a dozen more operations: At age 5 doctors created a pharyngeal flap to keep air from leaking from my mouth into my nose so I wouldn't sound so much like Donald Duck. At age 7 I had surgery to build up the tissues in my nose; at age 14 I had the first of numerous rhinoplasties and skin and bone grafts. The hospital became my temple, the surgeon my god. And with each repair, I thought I'd finally be transformed into someone pretty, happy, confident. Normal.

By age 30, I'd undergone 18 operations and looked good enough that colleagues at the magazine where I worked as a reporter-researcher were surprised to learn of my history. But I still felt ugly. My mother, who'd been battling terminal leukemia for several years, had been begging me to stop with the surgeries since I entered college. She told me I was beautiful. I couldn't see it.

After she died, in 1995, I found the nation's best cleft surgeon, took my savings, and traveled to Florida for yet another operation, this time to repair my nose and lips. But afterward, in the mirror, all I saw was imperfection. A few years later, I asked the same doctor to operate again. More disappointment. "I just want to be someone else!" I told a friend. I didn't know it then, but her reply would transform me much more profoundly than any scalpel: "What if, instead of having another surgery and trying so hard to change, you embraced all your Jeryl-ness?"

Initially, I couldn't fathom that there was anything about me worth keeping. Then I started working with Inner Faces, a group of young adults born with craniofacial conditions. We wrote stories about our disabilities that we turned into plays and performed around New York. Once, after I told my story at a high school, a student wrote me this: "You have made me think about what it means to be a beautiful person, as you are, both inside and out. You have taught me more about life." Could I really have done that? Slowly I gave up trying to make Jeryl disappear and began to focus on what was good in me.

All that time spent viewing the world from the outside had turned me into an avid observer, so I became a full-time writer. All those moments spent alone during my childhood made me love my own company, so I started traveling more on my own—biking through Puglia, hiking in New Zealand, climbing in Tasmania—and writing about it. As it turned out, what my friend had told me years ago wasn't quite right: I did need to change, just not in the way I'd always thought.

5 women share how they learned to love their imperfections and feel beautiful

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