The effects of distinctiveness

I think my daughter is cute, of course. She’s a little pixie-sized 2-year-old with an outsized personality. But she’s also farsighted, and this fall had surgery to correct her strabismus (being cross-eyed). She wears these little purple glasses that are constructed to withstand anything a 2-year-old can throw at them.

These glasses make her quite distinctive. Whenever people see them they comment on them. We spent 5 hours together at an outlet mall this Saturday while my husband and the boys were skiing, and I lost track of the number of people who exclaimed “Oh! Those glasses! They’re so adorable!”

I kind of wonder what life is like when every time people see you they feel compelled to comment on some aspect of your appearance. I know that people who are very tall get this. Or people with bright red hair. People with very distinctive names get this when they introduce themselves. How does it shape your personality?

On some level, it’s not a bad thing to have people recognize you and remember you. “You know who I’m talking about — the really tall guy.” A distinctive name helps in the Google era. All of these can be part of your personal brand.

At least in my daughter’s case, she has a slightly easier time of it. When she gets older she can probably figure out something other than glasses to correct her vision if she wants. And glasses don’t make you that distinctive once you’re over age 8 or so. Whereas if you’re really tall there’s not a lot you can do to change that fact.

Do you, or does someone you know, have something distinctive about your appearance or your name? How do you deal with the inevitable comments?

23 thoughts on “The effects of distinctiveness

  1. Owning a business that allows me to be a shameless net worker I flaunt my Tallulahness , as well as a fairly flashy hair color combination with an edgy cut – all in the name of personal branding. Blessed to have the choice to draw attention to myself when so many with unique attributes don’t.

  2. I have really fair skin and it flushes really easily. I’m not hot, not sunburned, not blushing, not upset, just red. When I was a kid I’d get comments about it all the time. It was super embarrassing. Now the only person who really comments is my boss, which is embarrassing, but I just go through the litany of “No, I didn’t get sun this weekend. No I didn’t eat spicy food for lunch. Yes, that’s just what my skin does sometimes,” because otherwise he’s a great boss.

  3. I have visible scars on my neck from teenage surgeries (thyroid cancer). In my experience, adults never, EVER comment on them, but kids do. I’m not sure whether that’s because kids don’t have the politeness filter, or if they just notice them more because they’re looking up at me, but I’ve always gotten a kick out of the different reactions. When kids ask, I always tell the truth about the scars- a simplified version, at least. It usually sparks an interesting discussion about other people they know who were once, or still are, seriously ill. I like that my scars can give kids an opportunity to talk about things that can sometimes be hard to discuss with adults in their families.

    1. @Leanne- if I recall correctly, in Tina Fey’s Bossypants, she writes about having scars from a random knife attack when she was a kid, and how everyone treated her so gingerly and like she was so special afterwards…which then turned out to be a confidence booster for going into comedy. Parts of our physical appearances can so shape our personality and our lives. I’m glad you’re able to use your scars to have a positive conversation with people.

  4. I had an unusual name growing up and it was terrible. No one could ever remember it, spell it or sometimes pronounce it (even though it sounded just like it was spelled). For an introverted person, all the discussion about my name made me uncomfortable. I started going by my middle name in college and it made a huge difference. For one, people had to find something else to comment on or get to know me a bit first. Part of it, I’m sure, is that it’s tiring to explain the unusual name thing over and over, especially when I have far more interesting things I enjoy doing and talking about. And I think people decided that my name was the most interesting thing about me so there was no reason to delve further.

    1. @Maureen – I like it! Having a distinctive name is such a different thing in the digital/personal branding era. It’s like the exact opposite of having a celebrity’s name. In the past that was kind of fun, but now you will never stand out on Google.

      1. “…now you will never stand out on Google.” Definitely a virtue in my book! I’m blessed in that the name I use professionally (maiden name) turns out to be a not-really-famous-but-popular-enough fictional character. On a par with, say, Kinsey Millhone. I have to admit, I delight in being relatively invisible on Google (and elsewhere), but then, I’m not someone who particularly needs to be well known to achieve the goals I have or succeed in my career.

        In terms of the original question, both my first name and my hair “stand out” as ever so modestly quirky, and I do think that not blending in 100% was probably good for me, when I was a kid, as I might otherwise (see above!) have wanted and managed to blend in completely.

  5. I am 5’9″ with red hair and very fair skin. I think that people notice all of those features but the hair gets noticed most. Whenever I get a new hair stylist they always ask if its my natural color, etc. My husband asked me on our second date if I called myself a redhead (since it does have blonde highlights)…lol!

    A few years ago I ran into someone who told me she ran into someone who a) was able to tell her the name of my dad’s doctoral thesis and b) also mentioned that he had two red headed children…too funny!

    I think you just get used to the distinctiveness over the years and even grow to appreciate it, as apparently it causes people to remember you, even years later.

  6. I have an illness and I have to wear gloves fairly often and I am in two walking casts frequently. All that coupled with bouts of low weight can make me look pretty freaky.This has been going on since 2004 so I’ve dealt with ten years of comments. When I walked around Disney for six days in two leg casts, I got lots of stares and many declarations of my insanity. The reactions never made me feel bad, just uncomfortable. Just because I’m sick doesn’t mean my children’s childhood stopped or regular life stopped. The good part was no one ever questioned why we were in the handicapped line to get in to the rides and my children could see the upside in my disease. I got one, “Why are you here when you are so obviously not up to this?” Not up to it? I was there to make memories with my kids regardless of my discomfort with disease or stares or comments. I didn’t deal with the comments. I just carried on.

    1. @Elizabeth – I am trying to picture the sorry person who thought it was OK to ask you why you were at Disney while not in a state of complete physical perfection. Crazy.

  7. Women probably get more feedback on appearance than men and boys. Height for a man seems to be this big thing in terms of giving them an advantage and there seems to be research to back this up. For women and girls, I try to comment on aspects of little girls that do not relate to their appearance. It is difficult to do and I do find myself correcting for it and making a comment to a little girl “You are so cute” then adding to it or trying to correct it. “You really did an excellent job of picking out that striking outfit today or you really have a way of thinking about that etc.” or “What a perceptive observation.” or “Good job getting yourself under control in that situation etc. ” Looks are very important for women so it is good to not stress them in girls in the sense that they have such a short window to be girls and children.

    1. @Cara – my mother just sent me a note (maybe she’ll comment here?) that I was an extremely fat baby and everyone would comment on it when she was walking around with me. I don’t think that has anything to do with gender, though. I was big. I grew out of it!

      1. OK, Laura, I’ll comment! I hesitate to comment too often, but I read and enjoy your blog every day!

        You were always a friendly baby sitting in the shopping cart at the grocery store so maybe that was why strangers would come up to us and say, “What a fat baby!” And sometimes they’d ask, “What are you feeding her?” It was hard to know how to respond–“Thank you?”

        As soon as you started walking, you slimmed down just fine!

  8. I hated having a “quirky” name when I was a kid and teen, and all I wanted to do was fit in. As an adult, I’m fine with it and like having a more unique name. I think that’s common for many people — to hate the uniqueness when young but growing to like it or just let it be part of their identity.

  9. i had hideous cokebottle glasses growing up – never a great thing to be ‘called out’ for, but i definitely did. begged for contacts and my parents finally relented- at like age 12, which in my opinion was about 5 years too late. if my children have bad vision and ask for contacts i will say yes even if they are ridiculously, inappropriately young. wouldn’t hurt to try as long at the dr was on board.

  10. I have really big eyes. You would think this would be a good thing, except sometimes I get asked if I have a thyroid disorder. Its so amazing what people think is okay to say out loud. 🙂

  11. My daughter has a port wine stain over her one eye (as well as glaucoma in that eye). Kids ask her about it all the time, which I don’t mind, but you’d be surprised at the number of adults who ask me, in her presence, “what happened to her eye?”. We politely explain that it’s a birthmark she was born with. She tells the kids that ask her that it is an angel kiss that she got in heaven before she was born.

  12. I have white hair. It really annoys me when people comment on it (which happens ALL THE TIME) because it seems so fake to me. “Oh I LOVE your hair.” I call BS. Do you want my hair? I am guessing you do not. In that case, you don’t “love’ it, you’re just commenting because a) you think it’s actually ugly and aging, b) you want to know how old I am, c) you lack any imagination in terms of thinking of a polite way to start a conversation, d) you want to find out if I am a crunchy hippie/feminist (the horror). On my ObGyn rotation a staff member asked me if the drapes matched the carpet. Several women have told me outright that it was ugly and that I should dye it.

    The way I respond depends on how it’s pointed out. In the case of the people who told me it was ugly, I told them they had no social skills, using those words. Normally I just say, “Thank you, yes it’s natural. I’ve had it since I was 13.”

  13. I had terrible astigmatism and amblyopia as a kid…to try to get some sense of binocular vision and depth-perception back, I had to wear an eye patch as a toddler, and then moved on to a prism lens on one side of my glasses. I HATED IT so much I would take off my glasses as soon as I got to school. I was quiet and shy, and already teased for having a weird name and brown skin…I could not stand other people noticing my glasses and mentioning it (even the teachers often thought my glasses were dirty and would loudly tell me to clean them…and then I’d have to explain) more than I cared about any aspect of my vision. Eventually the eye doctors and my parents gave up…now I can’t see much out of my left eye, and I have no depth perception, but remembering how I felt at age 6 and 7, I don’t think I would change my behavior even if I could go back.
    Maybe if I were a spunkier kid, I’d have handled it differently, but that was so not my personality!

  14. With a name like’Holland’, I always got… Is your sister named Germany? Can I call you Netherlands? Were you conceived there? Are your parents from there? I typically smiled and answered politely always wishing I had a normal name such as Nancy, Ashley, etc. but have come to really appreciate a distinct name as I got older.

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