How one Irish girl's vlogs literally saved my life, and inspired me to create content of my own.
A Light Trigger Warning - mentions of suicide, self-harm, and some weird pictures of me with a balloon face. Proceed at your own risk.
In 2020, we talk a lot about representation in the media. In movies, TV, and video games, we want to see ourselves mirrored in the characters we watch. Whether its characters who share our racial identity, gender expression, or the same sexual orientation, it is refreshing and empowering to see the things that make you unique - things that might even worry you to some degree - normalized by someone on a screen.
But what happens when something about you is so unique you can't find any fictional characters, let alone real people, who share your special attribute? What happens when you feel all alone in your abnormality?
I'll answer those rhetorical questions for you...
It's a f*cking nightmare.
Ten years ago, when I was 12 years old, I was diagnosed with a Class III Malocclusion - otherwise known as an underbite - by my orthodontist. It's when your bottom jaw extends farther than your upper jaw, instead of the normal opposite. Your bottom teeth are tucked over your top teeth, usually with a gap between them. Some people, like my brother, get lucky with a small, unnoticeable gap. Mine was wider than an oceanic trench.
My orthodontist told me I could get surgery to correct my jaw when I grew older, but being a naive twelve-year-old scared sh*tless of medical procedures, I promptly said "no way!" and decided I'd live happily with my so-called "deformity." I lived two years of uncaring childhood bliss...until the social pressures of puberty hit.
I never worried about my underbite until I watched a video of myself singing along with my high school show choir, around the time I was 14. My crooked mouth moved differently than everyone else's, and I noticed how long my jaw was because of extended bottom teeth. I tried to use the internet to find some solace and pride in my disfigurement, but when you see jokes like these all over Google images...
...it's really hard to feel positive about your not-so-normal appearance.
Time only made my condition worse. By junior year, I had horrible chewing problems; I couldn't bite into apples, bagels, and other foods. My dad almost had to do the heimlich maneuver on me at a sushi place thanks to useless molars that made me choke on food. I also endured constant TMJ clicking pains, a tiny lisp, and of course, zero self-esteem.
While all my gal pals had boyfriends, dating was out of the question for me. Not because I didn't want or have time for a boyfriend, but because I knew I was the ugliest girl in school. As I've mentioned before, there are very few characters in film and TV - particularly female characters - with underbites or extended jaws. Unless they were evil witches or animated, no one on screen looked like me.
Well, except for one character: The Crimson Chin from The Fairly Oddparents. That was the nickname high school boys in my grade christened me with.
Of course, finding out about that moniker was a huge blow to my self-confidence. The nickname was oddly accurate. When I'd get home from school every afternoon, I'd stare into the mirror for hours, seeing a monster in my reflection. After "checking" my face for any changes, I'd press my palms into my chin and push really hard. 16-year-old me thought if I could break my jaw with force, I would be rushed to the emergency room and surgeons could quickly change my face for the better. But pushing on my bottom jaw only made it all the more sore - and left a painful crimson mark on my chin. The red glow felt like a scarlet letter.
High school finally made me contemplate the double jaw surgery my orthodontist mentioned when I was twelve. But by then, my parents had stopped caring about it. They told me the procedure was too much money without health insurance. I should just live with my problem. I was being too emotional, they said. No one noticed it. According to one religious friend, I needed to stop caring about the painful problem I wasn't born with because "God doesn't make mistakes." God willed me to feel like a monster, apparently.
Obviously, I was depressed by my situation. And yes - I had suicidal thoughts. I even experimented with self-harm. The boiling point came when I revealed to a friend I didn't want to live anymore, and he confided in a teacher. I was suspended from my private Catholic school for two days because of the danger I posed to myself and others.
While sitting at home sucked, it gave me necessary time to realize I needed to change my outlook on life. If not for myself, then for my friends who didn't want to see me in a coffin. That's when I did some research. There had to be people with my disfigurement out there...I couldn't be the only girl in the world with a severe underbite.
Besides finding chat rooms filled with people who also endured class III malocclusions, I found a video on Youtube made by an Irish fashion vlogger named Leanne Woodfull. When I watch this today, I can still recite everything she says word-for-word because I replayed it so many times as a teenager. It quite literally changed my life.
From this testimony before Leanne's double jaw surgery, I learned and realized a few things...
ONE - No one in my immediate circle of friends or family was going to understand my pain and trauma. As Leanne says in the vlog...
"It's impossible to explain the pain and everything in a video because if you haven't gone through something like it, you really just have no clue. I'm not being rude saying that, but when people don't understand something or empathize with something they can be very quick to brush it off."
TWO - I was not crazy for having body dysmorphia. I was not crazy for dabbling with self-harm. I was not crazy for having suicidal thoughts. My face was not my real face, and I was not over-emotional like everyone was telling me.
THREE - It wasn't even crazy I was getting bullied in school. Leanne had her nicknames as well: "Leanne Pugful," "Leanne Bulldog," and "Jaws." No matter where you're from, people can be cruel. Whatever I look like, I am always beautiful. People's opinions don't matter. All that mattered was loving myself.
FOUR - Because she detailed her experiences before double jaw surgery with such depth, I knew what I needed to do before getting the procedure myself. I would have to remove all my wisdom teeth and wear braces with surgical hooks. There would be constant orthodontist and surgical appointments until my jaw stopped growing, and post-surgery, I'd have to prepare myself for several weeks on a liquid diet.
With time, my father and mother were convinced surgery was the best option for me. We booked consultations with a surgeon in Staten Island. For almost two years, I went through all the necessary steps before the operation. Watching Leanne's post-op videos kept me hopeful for the future that was going to come.
Because of Leanne, I also decided to document my double jaw surgery through Instagram and Youtube. I mainly did it so I have something to look back on when I want to know what my jaw surgery was like several years from now, but it turned out to be a good resource for people also seeking out double jaw surgery. I would often get questions about the liquid diet and what kind of medicine I took post-op.
Leanne's videos even helped me during a very difficult part in my pre-op process: when my original surgery date got canceled because Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, my parents' health insurance, denied my case THE DAY BEFORE I was set to have surgery. They denied it because apparently my surgery was purely cosmetic in nature (ummmmm, did you not look over those chewing problems and TMJ my surgeon informed you about?) and they withheld information about me having to see a speech pathologist before the operation. (Which my surgeon and other double jaw surgery patients have said is TOTALLY OPTIONAL. But whatever.)
Also, they had someone in medicine look over my case. Not, like...someone who understands how jaws work.
After all the crying and yelling that came with having my summer surgery hopes crushed, I watched Leanne's pre-op video again and felt comfort in knowing her surgery also got pushed very far back for a similar reason. It's just the way it is with complicated jaw surgeries like ours.
Having Leanne to watch on my computer screen was better than therapy. Her videos made me feel less alone in my struggles. It was so wonderful to have someone who knew exactly what I was going through - physically and emotionally. That is the power of representation. Not just in fiction, but in documentary filmmaking and on Youtube too.
On December 12th, 2016, my double jaw surgery was a success.
After a brutal but shorter-than-anticipated recovery, I made a two-part series about everything I experienced with my underbite: from the years before the operation to four months after the procedure. Those videos got more views than I anticipated, and it was nice to know that not only did my audience enjoy them, but they learned a lot from what I had to say. I've dedicated my life to raising awareness about jaw disfigurements and body dysmorphia. Youtube has been one of the many ways I've gone about it.
After her full recovery from jaw surgery, Leanne eventually retired from posting about it and focused on fashion and travel vlogging. I've done the same, and now use my Youtube channel as a place to dump short films and reels from my acting career. While I respect my past and am happy to talk about my jaw surgery, I can't let my underbite define me for the rest of my life. Eventually, one must get on with it.
And what's more? All these years later, I've finally gotten my wish for a fictional character on-screen with an underbite! Last year, Netflix released its popular fantasy series, The Witcher. One of the female leads, Yennefer, starts the series with a severe underbite and hunchback. She discovers she's a witch, and like me with surgery, she seeks out a procedure that allows her to fix her ailments. And it gives her more power.
She is bullied and not taken seriously in the beginning of the show, but comes out the other side confident and revered. Her past only makes her stronger.
While I'm so grateful for Yennefer, I hope for a day when more actors and actresses with real facial disfigurements are cast in films and TV. Whether on Youtube or on a movie theater screen, the reflection of a character or person with your specific attributes can do more good than a mirror's reflection.
I hope wherever Leanne is today, she's doing well. I'll never forget how her videos made me feel less alone. And while there are so many awesome vloggers out there, she may just be my favorite for her bravery and willingness to help others. Jaws may unite us, but they don't define us. :)