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You Don't Know What You've Got Till It's Gone03:14
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Barbara Beckwith: "One thing I've re-learned, too late in my life to do anything about, is that sunbathing is bad for pale skin." (hebe/Flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
Barbara Beckwith: "One thing I've re-learned, too late in my life to do anything about, is that sunbathing is bad for pale skin." (hebe/Flickr)

There’s an indentation just above the mouth and below the nose with a name of its own. Physiologists call it the philtrum, which is Greek for "love potion." The Greeks considered that delicate groove to be one of the body's most erogenous spots. Martial artists call it Jinchu, the perfect pressure point for a sharp jab that renders an opponent senseless. Acupuncturists know it as a prime spot for applying needles to alleviate facial pain.

Without my angel’s mark, I’m aware that I appear more serious than I feel, which leads me to counter my somber look with excessive smiles and wry asides.

Some parents tell their kids that this indentation, so prominent in newborns, was made by an angel's finger. The story goes like this: We are born knowing everything, but then an angel comes down and touches us, right there above the lip, to make us forget what we know. It takes us all our lives to re-learn what we were born knowing.

One thing I've re-learned, too late in my life to do anything about, is that sunbathing is bad for pale skin. That lesson sank in only when a surgeon cut basal cell carcinoma -- skin cancer — from my face. In the process, she flattened my lipline and erased my philtrum. Without my angel's mark, I'm aware that I appear more serious than I feel, which leads me to counter my somber look with excessive smiles and wry asides.

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The women's liberation movement led me to cut my long red hair and to give up make-up. I've ever since considered myself proudly plain. I've never worn make-up: I joke that I'm WYSIWYG, computerese for “what you see is what you get.” But now I realize that, all along, I did think I was cute, and that what made me cute was that mid-face groove in my upper lip, a groove now gone.

I've just got to get used to it. I was raised to keep a stiff upper lip. So, okay, now I have one for real. My friends who have life-threatening cancers have changed how they look, wearing wigs over bald heads or loose shirts over absent breasts. My kind of cancer is rarely fatal; it's merely lip-shifting. Still, mine is in the middle of the most public part of my body.

…now I realize that, all along, I did think I was cute, and that what made me cute was that mid-face groove in my upper lip, a groove now gone.

It helps to have known my uncle's second wife, whom relatives refer to as “Isabelle-who-used-to-be-beautiful.” My aunt lost various parts of her face to cancer, but she lived with grace and charm — and her glorious reputation as a former beauty.

These days, to protect the rest of my face against the sun, I wear a hat so wide-brimmed that it serves as an umbrella in the rain. I slather on enough zinc oxide to make my nose resemble a snow-capped ledge. And even on the hottest summer days, I wear pajama-like pants that make me look like someone who forgot to get dressed.

I've given up vanity. I didn't have any when I was born, lived most of my life without it, so why bother now?


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Barbara Beckwith Cognoscenti contributor
Barbara Beckwith writes articles and essays on topics ranging from white privilege and prejudice, to body basics, bliss and blues.

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