Summer is upon us and many people across Yorkshire and the Humber are counting down the days until their holiday. But how do people with a visible difference or disfigurement feel about holidays? Is there the same sense of glee at the abandonment of the shackles of work, school, the 9-5 routine? Or is that marred by anxiety or dread?
Sun, sand and sea inevitably means wearing less clothes and maybe no makeup – protective mechanisms effectively whipped away from individuals with a visible difference.
Changing Faces’ recent Disfigurement In The UK report (PDF 4MB) results showed that 14% of respondents with an unusual appearance had experienced discrimination on holiday in the UK, and a further 14% in Europe – a worrying statistic, especially given that a holiday is supposed to be about relaxation, fun and enjoyment.
Furthermore, the report highlighted the negative behaviour respondents had felt out and about – in the street, on public transport or shopping, with more than 80% saying they had experienced staring, comments or unpleasantness from a stranger. All situations that are intensified whilst on holiday in a different environment, or culture.
At Changing Faces in Yorkshire and the Humber, we found a very mixed range of responses from our clients and supporters about their experiences of going on holiday and how they cope with looking different to the perceived ‘norm’.
Tina, 50, does not currently go on holidays and would find eating out on holiday really challenging. She has a partial facial paralysis and says, “I wouldn’t want people to be put off their food by my dribbling and I would feel anxious about people staring at me, which would make me not want to eat.”
Tina also walks with a stick. “I would be mortified if I had to go to the pool with my stick, especially if there was a tall, dark and handsome man around!” she adds. Tina currently receives support from Changing Faces and has accepted that for now she cannot travel, but hopes she can take holidays again in the future.
Ahmina Akhtar, Changing Faces Practitioner (CFP), explains that client therapeutic work uses positive affirmations, such as words of strength and courage which a client can say to themselves as a mantra in a challenging situation. Ahmina says, “We also use a jigsaw analogy as one of our exercises. A client looks at their whole self, all their strengths and skills and explores the idea that physical appearance is only a piece of the jigsaw.”
Mindfulness, another technique used by Changing Faces, helps clients feel more in control of situations where they might feel uneasy – an example being on holiday in unfamiliar surroundings. Mindfulness helps to centre a person and gets them to concentrate on the present, their own feelings and the world around them. This awareness helps us notice signs of stress or anxiety earlier.
Esther, 44, has a facial birthmark. She looks forward to holidays “where I can just relax and lie about in the sun next to a pool with a waiter bringing me cocktails. I also like holidays where I’m visiting new places and exploring.”
She says, “Because my visible difference is visible all the time I don’t really get any more anxious about meeting new people when I go holiday than at any other time. But usually I wear makeup which helps to tone down my birthmark, and when I’m sunbathing and it’s hot I don’t really want to wear it.
“I don’t really have any different coping strategies for holidays though. I just be myself and chat to people. I’ve been on holiday with friends and family, but have also booked onto group holidays where I don’t know anyone else before I go.”
Esther’s approach shows how confidence and being yourself can go a long way to helping make a holiday a positive experience. CFP Emily Wheeler says, “Feeling self-conscious about not wearing any makeup on a beach is a common issue, whether you have an appearance-changing condition or not, especially in our Photoshopped, beauty-obsessed world. For some individuals with a visible difference, baring all is too much, and skin camouflage products can really help.”
Skin camouflage products are waterproof and therefore ideal for use on holiday in the sea and pool and can help cover and reduce the appearance of a range of skin conditions, including scarring, leg veins or rosacea.
Amy has extensive vitiligo, and uses skin camouflage to help reduce discoloration on her skin. She says, “I have found it especially useful on the beach on holiday as I can still swim and sunbathe without drawing too much attention to myself.”
Other tips to feeling less “on show” in a beach setting can be wearing a sarong, a tankini, a Burkini or a wetsuit.
Kate, 42, has a two-year-old son with a prominent birthmark on his arm. Kate says, “On holiday I tend to dress him in a toddler wetsuit as it protects his birthmark from the sun, but it also stops people from staring. If he does wear T-shirts and people stare, I just look back and smile. I think quite often they are just inquisitive.”
Kerry, 34, likes being able to relax and spend time with family and friends on holiday. She echoes the feeling that people can often stare because they are just interested. “When I go to certain places, I definitely feel like people look more. When I’ve been in Italy, travelling on my own, I definitely found people looked a lot more. I used to care but I don’t now because I know people are sometimes just curious and it doesn’t affect what I’m doing.”
“Curiosity can often be a factor in why people stare at an individual with an unusual appearance,” says Emily Wheeler, CFP. “There often isn’t any malice, or negativity behind it, however the impact can be huge. We help clients to learn controlled breathing to try and reduce anxiety in a difficult situation and also to have prepared words to say if someone is giving them unwanted attention. Using different tactics like humour or distraction can help, or explaining a bit about your condition can often give reassurance to both parties.”
Sometimes a holiday can bring a sense of liberation from being away from the confines of everyday life. Mark, 50, has facial scarring. He says, “I live on an estate and I often feel self-conscious as people know I was attacked. I get asked a lot about why I look the way I do. When I’m on holiday no one knows me. I can be anonymous and not worry about what people think about me.”
Faith, who’s eight, looks forward to holidays, “I like going on adventures and eating lots of food. If it’s really sunny I need to wear lots of sun cream for my albinism and I worry about people asking lots of questions.” Faith looks to her mum and dad for support if she feels a situation is uncomfortable for her.
“At any age, having the support network of your friends and family with you on holiday can really make a difference to a person’s confidence and is an important coping strategy,” says Emily. “It’s also important to recognise that a coping strategy on a particular day on holiday might work when you are feeling confident, but might not work on another when you are feeling more self-conscious. It’s important that you are flexible to how you might feel and not to have one approach. Go with your instincts and reward yourself if you do go out of your ‘comfort zone’ and have fun.”