Yesterday while out in the field conducting home visits with a fellow social worker, one of our more hyper-sexual clients said to me in a surprised tone of voice “You’re a social worker, WOW! You should be a model! You look too good to be a social worker”. Initially I appreciated her acknowledgment and thanked her accordingly for the compliment however upon further examination I realized that her comment was mildly insulting. It for one suggested that all social workers are unattractive. For two, it insinuated that in order to be successful in this field, you have to look like the epitome of human suffering so that you are more relatable to the clients with which you serve. This client’s comment forced me to examine my own biases towards physically attractive people who are struggling but who do not manifest their struggles outwardly.
Truth is, I am good-looking and refuse to apologize, self-depreciate or preface it with false humility. I am beautiful and it takes effort to maintain my appearance. I engage in daily rituals just to ensure that I stay well-preserved and intact. I too have demons that I grapple with everyday but I am the kind of person that still tries to maintain my appearance even in the face of difficulties. I try not to let people see the suffering that I experience. Because of this people automatically assume that I’m this golden boy that comes from some charmed life off runways in Milan when in fact that is quite to the contrary. I have my share of troubles yet clients at times do not identify with me because I do not look like them. My brand of suffering does not look like theirs and in a world where everyone is trying to package and repackage their brand of suffering to elicit support and sympathy, my kind of struggles do not garner empathy. I see this daily with the client population I serve. Some of the clients on my caseload think that because I don’t smoke or engage in drug use I could never understand what it’s like for them when the truth is substance use, abuse and dependence looks different for everyone and because someone is using doesn’t make them qualified to understand another’s signature triggers and difficulties.
But I am no saint. I am guilty of the same thing. Making premature judgments about those whose pain I am not privy to on the surface. On an unconscious level I feel that if someone is not hungry, homeless or substance dependant, they are not worthy of my concern. Sadly the squeaky wheel always gets the grease. This is unfair. Why should maintaining in the face of obstacles be rewarded with judgment and indifference? Why should the accomplishments of those who struggle to keep themselves together be overlooked in favor of more quote end quote “severe cases”? Why isn’t there a prize for keeping yourself together in spite of having every reason to fall apart? Sadly we live in a world that rewards dysfunction therefore people have no real incentive to get their lives together. As long as people realize that they will get amenities, attention and benefits for being broken, they will continue to stay broken and even break themselves further in order to maintain the level of assistance they have grown accustomed to.
With this being said, I have adjusted my perception and dismantled my biases towards the beautiful and the tragic. Just because someone looks a certain way does not mean that they are no more or less damaged than someone who looks less well maintained. People do not always look the way they feel and people do not always feel the way they look. There is sometimes a dissonance between these two propositions that seeks negotiation and ultimately a balanced resolution. The old adages “can’t judge a book by its cover” and “looks can be deceiving” are indeed applicable in this case. There are people that hide well and others not so motivated to try. But the fact is suffering knows not of appearance. It is a private language that is dynamic, diverse and unique to all individuals. No one should ever not be cared about. We all deserve the dignity of our feelings and the right to services despite our physical presentation. Sometimes the ones who look the best need the most help. I am reminded of this everyday…..