Have you ever flinched at the sight of a disfigured face? I’m ashamed to admit this, but I have.
Many years ago when I was working at a customer information desk in a shopping mall, I was approached by a man who wanted some directions. At first I hadn’t really noticed him, until he gave me a full on look that exposed a frightening disfigurement. The left side of his face was partially shrunken while the skin that covered an imploded cheek bone was twisted into a network of knots and welts. I tried to suppress a horrified gasp from rising up my throat, but it came out before I could stop it: he walked away in silence with his head lowered, barely able to conceal his embarrassment. I had inadvertently belittled him with my reaction, perhaps destroying the fragile courage it must have taken him to go out into public. Instinct told me to apologise but having decided that would probably make a bad situation worse, I let it pass. However time never allows these things to go away and when the mind is later invaded by the memory of a buried event, the power of recollection becomes a painful hindrance.
My day of recollection was triggered by an accidental spillage. I was lying on a couch and drinking a mug of tea when the cup handle suddenly broke, splashing liquid across my lap and over the sofa cushions. After fruitlessly trying to remove the stains with soap and water, I decided to put everything in the washing machine: that was my first big mistake! No sooner had I begun to pull the cushions from out of their covers, when my face was hit by a fine cloud of dust and feather particles. My eyes immediately started to water, but it was the right eye that came off worse as it itched with a burning, persistent rawness. I remembered there was a small bottle of eye drops in my handbag and that was my second big mistake because the bottle’s contents were out of date, yet that didn’t stop me from using them. The situation progressively got worse, although it wasn’t until I looked in the mirror that I realised just how bad it was.
I almost didn’t recognise my reflection because, like the man I had unintentionally humiliated twenty years earlier, my face had a mismatched symmetry. Half of it had retained its familiar contours but the other half didn’t even feel as if it was mine. The right eye lid was red with inflammation and drooped so heavily that it could barely stay open, whilst the skin from below the eye to the corner of my mouth, had the stretched bloated look of an over inflated balloon. I ran my hand over my entire face perhaps in the ridiculous hope that this one futile gesture would magically restore it to normal. But luck wasn’t on my side and I felt utterly helpless. In two days time I was supposed to host a TV programme, but I wasn’t even likely to make it to the studio door with my face looking like this: no amount of make up, regardless of how professionally applied, could hide the disaster. Would this dust allergy, (which had never really bothered me much in the past), leave me with a permanently misshapen face, and how would people treat me once my looks were no longer acceptable? It was a long restless night but by the morning the worst of the bloating had gone and by the end of the week it had disappeared altogether. I was lucky as my suffering was temporary, yet I can’t stop thinking about the thousands of people in this world who spend every day of their lives living with the effects of a facial disfigurement.
Many are ostracised from their communities, reliant on the charity of strangers, while others are regarded as the victims of some kind of divine punishment, the unlucky recipients of a horrific pay back. A surgeon’s blade may be a good corrective, but it doesn’t always work. But then again why does cosmetic surgery have to be the end all solution? Maybe we need to start from the following, simple premise: there is no such thing as “The Perfect Face”, and those whose features don’t cut “The Norm” should be treated with as much respect and dignity, as those whose features do. Maybe if we tried living by that rule we wouldn’t flinch so much when we see a face that’s permanently disfigured.