The term stigma originates in the ancient Greek practice of cutting or burning bodily signs to advertise that “the bearer was a slave, a criminal or a traitor – a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places.” The UK’s Equality Act 2010 promotes equal treatment of people with severe disfigurement within the protected characteristic of Disability. Yet discrimination is widespread, data is not collected, and media examples abound where disfigurement is used to denote someone bad, to be shunned.
This powerful, enduring, stigmatising “disfigurement trope” makes it hard to see anyone who happens to have a disfiguring condition or injury as an ordinary person like ourselves. Contemporary ideas about disfigurement invariably segregate and patronise, laugh at, or deplore. Personal reactions are characterised by a seemingly unavoidable tendency to stare. Is this driven by stereotypes in nursery stories, children’s computer games, tv and film ? Research indicates deeper origins in the individual and social unconscious, manifesting in ways that are universal and therefore very hard to spot: disfigurement is ‘naturally’ loaded with particular meanings.
Do disfigurement researchers therefore risk reinforcing this “disfigurement trope”, and how can this be avoided?