If you’ve ever visited another part of the world much different from your own, you may have realized, quickly, that you did not blend as well as you hoped. Depending on your physical appearance, speech, and adornments, you probably collected your share of stares.
At first, you may have just found the attentive locals interesting. But soon you developed an unnerved feeling in your stomach. After a while, you may have become numb to the probing stares. Or, your frustration pointed you toward a hasty retreat home.
Now imagine you couldn’t go home. You had to live day after day with bystanders constantly observing, and perhaps commenting on, your differences. You. A person they’ve never even met. People with facial disfigurement — sometimes referred to as a craniofacial handicap — must wrestle with such circumstances every time they go out in public. How do they handle it?
Handling the Staring
“I was just coming into myself as a young man and struggled to accept both the impact [of] my disfigurement. I remember feeling remorseful, sorry for myself, angry, guilty, and depressed,” recounts Leo. He became disfigured in a fire while working at a clock shop. He was 14 years old.
“I now found myself struggling to adjust to the impact that my changed appearance was having on others – the curiosity, the staring and the name-calling that occurred on my return to school and everyday life.”
How did Leo cope with the unwanted attention?
- Accept the Circumstances
“When I eventually came to understand that I would have to live with the face I’d been left with…I was ‘scarred for life,’” says Leo. “It was a harsh reality that I needed to accept before I could get on with my life.”
- Remain Confident
It took Leo time to be confident in the face of onlookers. Step-by-step he challenged himself.
“I realized that if I stood tall and confident, looked people in the eye and ignored the stares, people eventually accepted me for who I was.”
CNN reported on a 2012 Dutch study examining how well people with facial disfigurements functioned socially. The study found that “their satisfaction with their appearance was more important than the objective severity of the disfigurement.” In other words, the mindset of the people with disfigurements made a difference.
- Focus on Things You Can Change
“During my early job hunting days, I had a few rejections because of my appearance. At the time it made me angry and upset, but in the end made me try harder to be accepted for my skills and abilities.” Eventually, Leo became a successful engineer, a senior manager for a multinational telecommunications company, and a bereavement counselor.” He also got married and had children.
- When Appropriate, Be Informative
People will have questions about your facial disfigurement. Some will be bold enough to ask. Children, Leo says, are especially curious. “They approach me with simple curiosity demanding an explanation for my unusual appearance. Embarrassed mothers don’t say anything but I find that a straightforward explanation keeps the child happy and teaches him/her that people who look different are okay.”
- Seek Support
A facial disfigurement may cause a person to withdraw, but Leo encourages open communication. One organization that he found to be particularly helpful is Changing Faces. “Changing Faces’ efforts to raise awareness and challenge negative attitudes to facial disfigurement have undoubtedly made a huge difference to the lives of many hundreds across society in the UK and beyond.”
Changing Faces is one of many organizations working toward “face equality.” Their goal is to see people “treated fairly and equally irrespective of facial appearance, creating a society in which everyone is valued for the unique contribution that they can make.”
While Changing Faces acknowledges that many negative reactions are unintentional, they know there is room for improvement. One independent study commissioned by Changing Faces found that nine out of ten people held negative attitudes toward people with disfigurements.
The Face Equality campaign is a threefold effort. It aims to:
- raise awareness of unconscious beliefs that drive prejudice and discrimination,
- encourage all segments of society to address these beliefs and commit to face equality, and
- help all to improve their thinking and behavior with regard to facial disfigurements.
The campaign seeks to spread the word about face equality through key populations. They reach out to health care professionals, the education system, employers, the media, and politicians. For example, they encourage health care professionals to address patients’ psychological and social needs, not just their physical ones. Learn more about their efforts on the Changing Faces website.
Leo concluded: “It’s possible to feel confident and comfortable with a disfigurement – but it takes great personal courage and the help and understanding of the man on the street.”
PHOTO: Public Domain / publicdomainpictures.net