05/09/2013 11:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Beauty And Biblical Plagues

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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk above.

There is nothing like a biblical plague landing on your face to make you question the importance of physical appearance. I was 24 years old when I noticed a massive knot on my face that caused my left eye to close slightly. I was sure that something horrible had bitten me and was equally sure that some topical cream and an antibiotic would cure it. But when my normally personality-less dermatologist sat down beside me, put his hand on my arm and said, "You are so young and pretty. I am so sorry," I knew I was wrong on both counts.

At the time the plague descended, I was a trainer for a mid-sized bank, which called for me to present in front of people on a regular basis. I was also getting married soon... that special time in a girl's life when you prepare for that walk down the runway that church folks call an aisle.

Sparing the more vivid details of cystic acne, I will tell you that it is a cruel skin disease that can ravage the skin with huge, painful cysts. See? Biblical plague stuff. Fortunately, mine hit only one place on my body. Unfortunately, that place was my face.

The doctor offered a round of Accutane, but he advised me to wait until my childbearing years were over because it was new to the market and could lead to serious birth defects. I opted out for the next five years, until both kids were born and my tubes were tied.

The result was a variety of deep, dark scars on my face that caused my young daughter, years later, to look at me and say, "Mom, why do you have cwaters on your face?" She was learning about the surface of the moon in kindergarten and, innocently, saw the similarities.

During those years when it took considerable deep breathing to gather the courage to stand in front of friends who remembered the "before" picture, I learned that I was a lot more than my looks. I found that leaders listened to my ideas during training even though my face made me feel a little Quasimodo-ish.

Before the acne:
donna highfill

After the acne:

donna highfill

donna highfill

My friends and family acclimated to the new look and soon overlooked it entirely. More importantly, my soul was still the same, my heart was still the same, and my compassion for others grew five times its normal size.

I learned that my outer body was a shell that was vulnerable, so I tied self-esteem to that potential pearl within. My acne acted as my irritant, and I began to spin a life around it.

I discovered that although we all love to look on things of beauty, there is a difference between authentic beauty and beauty based on trends and fads.

I would like to slap the photographer/marketer/promoter who created Twiggy. Her popularity led my generation of women to stay perpetually hungry. -- Donna Highfill

Fad beauty comes from fear and insecurity. It begins when a noteworthy person creates a look that others decide is beautiful. The gossip line begins, and we all whisper in one another's ears that to look like [fill in the blank] is cool. It's sweet. It's what will ensure that you are accepted.

Fad beauty can be everything from Rubenesque voluptuousness to elongated necks. It can include tattooed eyelids or lotus feet. What is overlooked is that fad beauty is often created by masochists who establish control over others by making them believe that they are never enough.

I would like to slap the photographer/marketer/promoter who created Twiggy. Her popularity led my generation of women to stay perpetually hungry.

I believe that fad beauty is more about blending in than standing out.

Frequent the halls of a middle school, and you will see the same young lady pass you 100 times. She has the same hair, the same clothes, and the same habit of eating lettuce for lunch. Why? Because some fashion guru prefers his clothing draped on a human hanger, and has declared that thin is in. And she wants to be "in" more than anything else in the world.

As a woman who grew up in the literary arms of Pippi Longstocking, I was never really worried about blending in. My parents couldn't afford to provide the accoutrements of cool -- designer bags and Polo shirts -- and my fang bicuspids and stringy hair dashed any other hopes for coolness. I was mocked like so many during my awkward stages, and I quickly learned that the worst thing that could happen to me would be to so fear standing out that I blended in.

My skin disease in my early twenties reminded me of the fact that real beauty is something different from fad beauty. Real beauty radiates from the soul, and its light can make others forget that you have big knots all over your face.

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