Autobiography of a Face: Lucy Grealy Analysis

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The psychology of beauty is intricate because the notion of beauty remains undefined and is subject to individual perception. Beauty’s significance has been emphasized throughout history, with ancient civilizations like the Mesolithic cave people using castor oil and grease to soften their skin and plant dyes for tattooing. Lipsticks were even present in the ancient city of Ur, near Babylon, 5000 years ago.

Ancient Greek women used to apply herbal pastes made from crushed berries and seeds on their cheeks for cosmetic purposes. However, a risky trend emerged where white lead and mercury were used to attain a pale complexion, causing numerous deaths due to the absorption of these toxic substances through the skin. Despite the dangers, this beauty treatment remained popular throughout history. While many products may be essential, the pursuit of beauty should be particularly promoted, as it is a quality that few possess yet everyone desires.

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Beauty is not found in someone’s appearance, but rather in the balance between their personality and their chosen profession. In her book Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy examines societal stereotypes and perceptions, expressing that society continuously pressures us to conform and abandon our true identities. This is evident in the conclusion of her book, where she discusses how she was confronted with societal expectations and faced taunting and judgment from strangers due to her cancer. These experiences deeply affected Grealy’s concern for how others perceived her. “Autobiography of a Face” by Lucy Grealy is widely studied in high school and college settings. Grealy inhabits three distinct worlds: the hospital, her home, and the outside world.

Lucy Grealy underwent five years of cancer treatments. However, for the following fifteen years, her treatment primarily focused on managing her appearance, which set her apart from others. The most tragic aspect of her life was the anguish she experienced due to not perceiving herself as attractive. In comparison, the presence of cancer appeared insignificant. At the age of nine, Lucy Grealy received a diagnosis of Ewing’s sarcoma, an incurable cancer with only a 5 percent survival rate. After undergoing surgery to remove one-third of her jaw, she courageously returned to school and confronted the harsh mockery from her peers.

On page 124-125, there were comments about me being “the ugliest girl ever seen.” However, I knew deep down that their remarks were not directed at me personally. Instead, they stemmed from a need to appear tough and cool in front of their friends. As a result, I found comfort at the hospital where my face was treated like any other illness among the patients. Surprisingly, it was within this unlikely environment that Derek, my partner in crime on Ward 10, gave me my first kiss. Ironically, it is within the boundaries of the hospital that I feel most self-assured and satisfied.

Despite having a few friends and living with her four siblings, Lucy feels lonely. She is torn between desiring love for her true self and secretly longing for a flawless face. Her memoir does not focus on the fear of death but rather explores the struggles of not fitting in, the loneliness and confusion that bring immense pain, questioning the meaning of things, feeling scared and lost within one’s own family, enduring intense physical, emotional, and mental suffering, and ultimately finding one’s true identity.

In the book, Grealy illustrates her lack of awareness regarding her illness despite enduring years of radiology, chemotherapy, and reconstructive surgeries. As her peers start to relentlessly bully her because of her changed appearance, Grealy comes to the realization that she is singled out from the rest of society solely due to her looks. She declares, “Being different was the burden I had to carry, but being conscious of it was my recompense.”

When I was younger, before I became sick, I desired to be unique and stand out. Does this mean that I am responsible for my own current circumstances? (pg101)

It is her physical appearance, rather than her illness, that alters her perception of herself. Her face becomes the defining aspect of her identity and she constantly reassures herself that once her face is restored, she can truly start living.

She discovers joy and acceptance by pursuing her love for horses. Working at a stable and spending time with both the animals and the people there, she is treated just like anyone else.

But as Lucy grew from adolescence to young adulthood, she held onto the hope that each new surgery would finally transform her face into a vision of beauty, making her feel worthy of love. Those who have experienced feeling different or self-conscious about physical flaws while growing up will find common ground with Lucy and her experiences. Whether it be standing out for being too tall or too short, having a birthmark or prominent nose, misaligned teeth, unruly hair, or acne, those who didn’t fit the conventional standards of beauty or simply deviated from societal norms will empathize with Lucy’s journey.

Lucy’s perspective on beauty and its meaning will connect with readers, including myself. When she was 18 years old, Lucy earned a scholarship to study at Sarah Lawrence College, where she formed meaningful relationships with accepting people. Yet, there was still an emptiness that needed to be addressed. It was during her time in college that she developed a love for poetry and made the decision to pursue writing as a career. Following her graduation, Lucy furthered her education by enrolling in Iowa University’s MFA program, which revealed her talent as a writer. Despite facing obstacles along the way, Lucy’s ability to succeed serves as evidence that her personal narrative does not overshadow her skills.

Grealy poses the question of how we transform into our true selves, a question that eluded her for a long time due to the way she perceived herself or couldn’t confront in the mirror. The lasting effects of relentless bullying and multiple surgeries affected her deeply. She explains that at some point in our lives, we must find the language to acknowledge our personal hardships. During her extensive surgical procedures, Lucy developed intricate justifications to find purpose in her pain.

Two anchors, a passionate love for horses during adolescence and a love for poetry in adulthood, served as stable points in her life amidst all the misery. Over time, her external appearance and inner self became in sync. Describing her journey back to her true face as a lengthy one, this poetic narrative of a childhood illness and the resulting disfigurement offers profound insights into the essence of suffering. It highlights the disparities between our self-perception and how others perceive us, as well as how our identity formation can be impacted by shallow societal cues.

The impact of illness on complicated family relationships is effectively portrayed by Lucy. She provides insight into a child’s experience of chronic illness and hospitalization, as well as the defense mechanisms that someone with inner strength may use to cope with unbearable situations. The struggle between truth and beauty is a recurring theme in her memoir. Lucy recounts how she sought out sexual experiences to prove her own attractiveness, but ultimately realized that beauty encompasses more than just physical appearance – it also includes feelings of safety, grace, and well-being. Reflecting on this, she wonders if her eagerness to change her face somehow diminishes the years she spent accepting a life without love and beauty for the sake of finding comfort. On society’s expectations, women are particularly pressured to emphasize their external beauty instead of showcasing their inner qualities, conforming to societal norms. Consequently, in today’s society, beauty encompasses everything that appeals to our senses and aligns with our personal preferences.

Our perception of beauty is the result of projecting our needs onto objects and people that we find attractive. These beautiful things cater to our ideals and desires, reflecting our innate need to connect with appealing stimuli. As humans, our senses guide us, leading us to gravitate towards experiences and processes that are pleasing in both structure and form. Since beauty primarily relates to our sense of sight, we naturally desire to repeat the experience of beauty. This is evident in the prevalence of popular icons of beauty in videos and commercials on television today.

Grealy admits in her own conclusion that it is challenging to remember most truths and that consistent effort is necessary, even for the simplest things. Regrettably, she was unable to maintain essential elements of life like hope, personal connections, and self-fulfillment. Sadly, at the age of 39, Grealy died from a heroin overdose.

Works Cited

  1. 15 July 2009. Grealy, Lucy. Autobiography of a Face. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
  2. “The Psychology of Beauty. ” Buzzle Web Portal: Intelligent Life on the Web. 20 July 2009.

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Autobiography of a Face: Lucy Grealy Analysis. (2019, May 02). Retrieved from

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