More than Meets the Eye

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Several weeks ago, I was chatting with two friends when a woman looked at me and blurted out, "What happened to your face?" It is a question I get asked a lot, by a variety of people, in a variety of situations. On this occasion, I was hurt and angered by this woman's insensitivity and audacity.

I was born with a rare condition that affected the bones in my head and face. As well as the physical impact, my appearance affected my interactions with others. Starting in my late teens and into my adult life, I've had reconstructive surgery that has significantly altered my looks. But I still look "different".

I've learned to deal with the stares and rude remarks, trying not to let such incidents erode my sense of self-worth. The connection between physical appearance and self-esteem is a complex issue, and one that has involved many varied and sometimes conflicting emotions in my own life.

As a woman with a facial difference, I'm very aware of the high premium our society places on the perfect face and our societal preoccupation with a certain cultural standard of beauty. Consider the inter-relatedness of self-esteem, physical appearance and social attitudes, and one can understand how women are affected, in varying degrees, by the images of perfection which surround us daily in advertising and other forms of mass media.

Critics maintain that this pressure to conform poses a serious threat to the well-being of women. A woman who doesn't fit the ideal image often experiences negative judgements and hatreds that make it difficult for her to love and accept herself as she is.

Our society has defined what is attractive or "acceptable" appearance, and, in doing so, has excluded women with disabilities. Indeed, in our culture, disability has often been equated with incompetence and inferiority. How-ever, in spite of stereotypes and misconceptions, it is possible that one's disability can be viewed as part of a complete and integrated whole. A disability can be incorporated into a positive self-image.

Despite the difficulties that having a "different" face can pose in this culture, I do take pleasure in my appearance. It is not my face that causes me difficulties or discomfort. It is the faces of others which display negative reactions, for they have internalized our culture's narrowly defined image of beauty. I enjoy being creative with my clothing, hair and accessories. (Some days I feel more creative than others!) I adapt and use my appearance for my comfort and benefit under various circumstances.

All women can use appearance as an extension of our personalities. We can experiment with diverse aspects of our appearance to create different images. We can work within and outside the societal definition of beauty, using it in whatever way we are most comfortable. Although we can't always control how others interpret our appearance, we can influence perceptions and assert our individuality and strengths. Real diversity can be a source of strength if we learn to acknowledge it.

Lorna Renooy is the Communications and Marketing Manager of AboutFace.

AboutFace is a support and information network concerned with facial differences. For more information, contact:

4th floor - 99 Crowns Lane
Toronto, Ontario
M5R 3P4

Phone: (416) 944-FACE or 1-800-665-FACE (3223)
Fax:(416) 944-2488