Society can focus on facial disfigurement, ignoring those with a bodily condition, write Kathryn and Michelle

Body matters

Kathryn Browne and Michelle Cole write…

Living with a condition, mark or scar that affects the face can be difficult. The face is indelibly linked to identity. When we think of someone we know, invariably we think of their face. It’s where a lot of our senses are, we use it to connect with and read others and it is almost always visible. The repercussions of having a face which is visually different can be complex, and the experience can be immensely challenging.

It is unsurprising, then, that many of the clients who access Changing Faces’ services have a condition, mark or scar that affects their face. Perhaps more surprising, however, is the equal split between these clients and those with a visible difference elsewhere on their body. Around half of all Changing Faces clients have a disfigurement to their body, and it is important to consider the specific challenges that this can bring with it.

A disfigurement to the body can often be concealed relatively easily with clothes. If you have a scar on your leg, you can wear jeans, tights or trousers to cover it and no-one will know. In order to avoid societal pressure, having the ability to ‘hide’ a difference can often be considered an advantage. But is it always an advantage, or can the question of whether to conceal or not conceal become an issue in itself?

The problem with covering up is that there will be times when it is just not possible. Clothing, prosthetics or skin camouflage may allow you to navigate through life avoiding the prejudice and discrimination that is often heaped upon those who are in some way ‘different’. But what happens if you cannot or choose not to use skin camouflage and you want to go swimming, or in the summer when you want to wear fewer clothes? What happens when you are becoming newly intimate with a partner? There are numerous social situations where, to put it bluntly, we need to take our clothes off. This could lead to people not participating in such situations, which could have considerable consequences for their health and quality of life. For people who are concealing a disfigurement, perhaps one that even their friends and family are unaware of, this can lead to a great amount of anxiety surrounding their fear of being ‘found out’.

In the same way that our faces are strongly linked to our identity, so is the appearance of our body as a whole. If you suddenly reveal a disfigurement, will this change people’s perception of you? Is it your job to mitigate their potential anxieties and concerns? Do you sit them down and explain it to them before revealing, or do you rip off the band aid and bare all, without a word? The responsibility of making these decisions and the worry that your identity may be forever changed in the minds of others can be stressful and complex.

The reactions of other people and society in general may be a huge factor in the anxiety around concealing a disfigurement. At the same time, one may experience anxiety from feeling compelled to constantly conceal part of one’s body. What does ‘hiding’ something do to your psyche? What if you have a visible difference to both your face and body? Perhaps there could be more of a desire to control who sees your bodily difference, if you are already dealing with issues around having a facial disfigurement.

Changing Faces frequently hears from clients who express their concern that the difference on their body is not as important or as ‘worthy’ as it would be if it were on their face. This apologetic approach is unfortunate as it may prevent people from accessing support from which they could benefit. There are a wealth of different experiences, anxieties and thoughts that people with a disfigurement may have to deal with. There are people with disfigurements to their face and/or body who are entirely happy and content with their appearance but there are those who are not. It is important for us all to recognise that our own judgement about the severity or positioning of a visible difference is immaterial, and can be potentially stigmatising or damaging.

Living with a condition, mark or scar that affects the body can be difficult. Let’s not forget body matters.

Kathryn Browne is the Operations Team Manager for the Skin Camouflage Service, and Michelle Cole is Team Support. Viewpoint represents the views of its authors only and not necessarily the policies or views of Changing Faces, its staff or trustees.

This article first appeared in the April 2016 edition of Viewpoint, Changing Faces’ monthly email for supporters. Sign up here.

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