Having strategies to draw on can also help if you notice people staring at you. In this guide, we share some tips and techniques that may help.
Many people find that one of the biggest challenges of having a visible difference is unwanted attention. You are probably familiar with people commenting on or asking questions about your appearance.
This may make you feel anxious, shy, embarrassed or nervous when out in public or meeting new people – or you may try to avoid these situations altogether.
Having a plan for what to do when someone comments on your appearance or asks you a question can really help. On this page, we take you through some of the tactics you can use in situations like these.
We also have a page on how to handle staring.
Sometimes, people can be rude and unkind. In general, however, when someone asks questions or comments on your appearance, they are being thoughtless rather than malicious. Most people are curious and don’t mean to upset you – they forget to think about how this might make you feel.
Dealing with these reactions day in, day out can be difficult and upsetting, and may mean you feel:
- Judged or criticised by others.
- Embarrassed, ashamed or awkward.
- Anxious and panicky.
- Angry and defensive.
- Self-conscious and conspicuous.
- Lonely and isolated.
- Sad and depressed.
- Worried and scared.
- Unconfident and unsure.
This unwanted attention may mean you feel permanently “on show”. Having a few tricks to pull out of your sleeve when someone comments on your appearance or asks questions can help make things easier.
Let’s start with some techniques you can use to help you handle comments:
If someone is thoughtless, rude or unkind, it can be very tempting to respond angrily. While this is understandable, it is unlikely to help the situation, particularly if they are looking to provoke a reaction from you.
These suggestions focus on ways of disarming and defusing the situation. The aim is to make the other person aware that you heard them while showing that you are strong and resilient.
If the comment seems to be a direct confrontation, it may be best just to walk away, particularly if you feel threatened or concerned. If someone can be unkind enough to make negative comments about your appearance, there is little you can say to change them. Walking away shows that you are in control – you are not going to bother to respond to their bad behaviour because they are not worth your time.
“When people made horrible comments to me about my eyes I would ignore them. I just thought, if they are cruel enough to make comments like this, they aren’t going to take any notice of what I have got to say and they don’t deserve my energy. I also didn’t want them to know they were bothering me so I just carried on with what I was doing.
Afterwards, if I was angry, I would ring my mum or a friend and tell them how angry I was and what I really wanted to say to them! This helped me let out how I felt about it. Sometimes I would just forget about the comment, other times it might bother me for a while, but eventually I would forget about it.
Now I just feel sorry for people who are so unkind they have to make these horrible comments, and I refuse to give their comments any thought. It has taken me a long time to get to this point but now I can just ignore comments and they don’t upset me.”
Plan a response
When someone comments on your appearance, you can respond using body language. The aim is to let the other person know that you are aware of the comment and that you don’t like it:
- Give the person a firm look for around one second and look away again.
- Look at the person and hold their gaze whilst raising your eyebrows to show you have heard their comment.
- Look and frown to tell them you are not happy.
You may feel assertive and safe enough to respond with a reply that disarms the other person or makes them aware they have been hurtful, to stop them doing so in the future:
- “I don’t think it is very nice to say things about someone’s appearance. I doubt you would like it”.
- “I heard what you said about my appearance, and I wanted you to know. It feels like the way I look is a problem for you, which is sad. I don’t have a problem with my appearance”.
If you are really upset when someone comments on your appearance, it may be helpful to use reassuring “self-talk”. Try saying some of these phrases to yourself:
- “This comment is their problem, not mine”.
- “I value people who are friendly and kind. By making these comments this person has demonstrated that they aren’t those things, so I don’t need to place any value on what they think of me”.
- “I would never be unkind enough to say something like that to someone. This person obviously isn’t worth me getting upset over”.
- “I am OK – I don’t need to judge myself based on this person’s unkind comment”.
- “There is more to me than how I look”.
- “The people who know me would never think or say things like that about me”.
Imagine this scenario, then complete the exercise underneath:
You are at the cinema. You see your friends waiting by the ticket office. You wave and begin to walk towards them. As you do so, you overhear someone else make a remark about your appearance to the person standing next to them.
Try to think of three kinds of answer and imagine what you would do and what you would say in each scenario. Think of:
- A quietly confident, but simple response.
- A slightly firmer response.
- An assertive and firm response.
Although it may be easier to come up with a softer response, having a firmer reaction up your sleeve can come in handy. Now develop the exercise:
- Write down four positive things you might say to reassure yourself in this situation.
- Repeat the exercise with other situations relating to circumstances you have found yourself in.
Now let’s move on to ways to help you handle people asking questions about your appearance.
You are probably familiar with people asking questions about your appearance. This is often OK but sometimes you may not feel like answering – or feel annoyed – or just not feel comfortable talking about it. Remember that people are generally just curious or interested. Most will be happy with a very brief explanation and will take their lead from you. Also, people may be unsure whether to ask or not – and not want to seem as though they have ignored your condition or avoided talking about it.
Things to consider
To help you prepare, spend some time thinking about the following questions.
- How much do you want to say about your visible difference and what happened to you? You can choose how much detail suits you.
- Who are you talking to? You might have different responses for different people depending on how close you feel to them.
- How are you feeling? What you say can depend on how you are feeling at that time. If you are feeling nervous, upset or just not in the mood to talk, you may choose not to give much information.
- What is the situation? If you are in the street or supermarket you may feel it is not appropriate to go into much detail whereas you may feel more comfortable talking in a café with a friend.
- How do you feel when talking about your visible difference? You may find it difficult to talk about your visible difference. In this case, only share what you are comfortable with.
Here are four ways you might choose to respond to questions about your appearance:
#1: Say you do not want to discuss it
A short, clear response, making it clear that this is the end of the subject:
- “I’d rather not talk about it. I’m sure you can understand”.
- “I was burned when I was younger. It was a long time ago and I don’t talk about it much now”.
#2: Provide some details
You might want to give more information about your visible difference – this may encourage more questions about your appearance:
- “I was burned when I was younger, and I am going in again soon for more plastic surgery. It’s very interesting. They are going to take a graft from my leg”.
- “I have a condition called vitiligo. It affects the amount of pigment in the skin. I’ve had it for about five years now. It is quite unpredictable and sometimes new patches appear”.
“I am proud of the person I am… I normally am quite able to cope with reactions and stares. When I did my photography course the tutor showed us how to hold the camera correctly, with the left hand, which for me is very difficult, as I have arthritis in both hands and am also missing the middle three fingers on my left hand from the first joint. When I explained and showed her my hand, she recoiled in horror. To be honest, it was very over the top, and it took her a good few minutes to recover her composure. I carry a photograph on my phone of me on the day I was born… I was born with many conditions including a bilateral cleft lip and palate, the hand issue, missing my left big toe, hydrocephalus, a heart murmur, to name but a few! I plucked up the courage to show her. Her reaction was hellish. Her comment was, ‘WHAT IS THAT? Oh my God, why would you have a photo of THAT?’
I replied quite casually, ‘Because it’s me!’
She then realised why my face was as it was and said, ‘Is it because of a cleft thing?’ I gave a VERY brief explanation of why I looked as I did in it and then changed the subject. The other two people in the class were totally the opposite – they were really lovely about it. I was amazed really that a photographer would show such horror to me, as yes, I do look different but I am proud of the person I am and how I’ve dealt with the health problems I have. Had it not been for my family and friends’ support, I may not have been so lucky.”
#3: Move the conversation on
Offer a brief response and move onto another subject or a more general discussion:
- “It’s just burn scarring from an accident I had a long time ago. I love it here, don’t you? It’s such a nice place”.
- “I was burned when I was younger, but fortunately smoke alarms have greatly reduced the number of injuries like mine”.
#4: Introduce the subject yourself
You may choose to bring up the subject yourself to give yourself more control over the situation – and relieve any worry you may have about being asked:
- Give a small amount of information to indicate it is OK to discuss your condition: “You have a wonderful tan! One of the problems with my condition is that you have to stay out of the sun”.
- Be light-hearted, inviting the other person to ask about you: “I see I’m getting the usual interested looks from the people at the bar. Do you think they’re admiring my style?”
- Give more personal information, whilst also complimenting other people: “I’m having a good time tonight. Often, I find these events difficult because my appearance can attract unwanted attention, but everyone here seems very nice and friendly”.
Imagine this scenario, then complete the exercise underneath:
After work, four of you go to the pub – one person is new. The other two go to get drinks. Suddenly, in the middle of a conversation, the new person changes the subject and asks you about your visible difference.
In a notebook or your device, note down what you might say or do if you were to respond in each of these four different ways:
- Say something to indicate that you don’t want to talk about it and introduce another topic.
- Give a small amount of information and then change the subject.
- Give information about yourself and introduce a more general topic relating to your visible difference.
- Give more information about your visible difference and show that you are happy to discuss it.
Now rethink the scenario as if you were to introduce the topic yourself. What might you say? Give a few examples.