As our final Festival of Facialities guest post we’re delighted to hear from Phyllida Swift, a Campaigns Officer at Changing Faces. Whilst studying a degree in Model Making she volunteered for the charity as a media champion, and after graduating she has gone on to work for the charity in a permanent role.
There are no two faces that are exactly the same. Even identical twins have a freckle or two that make them different. On a day-to-day basis we encounter countless different faces, and the remarkable nature of this facial variety is what sets us apart as humans. According to studies, the endless variety of human faces is a vital evolutionary method that allows us to recognise each other and facilitate social interaction. So why is it that there are certain faces and certain traits such as a scar or a birthmark that we feel less comfortable with, and where is the line between just another average face that you pass in the street and cease to remember, and a face that warrants a second look, a stare, or even a comment?
We are so attuned to taking in an immeasurable range of faces every single day and yet the moment we see someone different, with some form of mark, scar or condition, known as a ‘disfigurement’, we are inclined to judge, make assumptions and often discriminate. It seems we are so broadly accepting of new faces, and yet we don’t know how to encounter a ‘different’ face in a respectful and considerate manner. A respondent to the recent survey, Disfigurement in the UK which was run by Changing Faces remarks, ‘People think that it’s okay to ask, stare or comment and it makes me very wary about meeting new people and strangers’. Being stared at can be a regular occurrence for someone who has a disfigurement and can have significant effects on the individual’s self-esteem. Yet it seems the more ‘different’ your facial features are the more society feels free to gawp.
Scientists recognise that the genes that dictate the structure of our faces vary far more than DNA in other areas of the body, suggesting that facial diversity is part of our intricate evolutionary make-up. Darwin had a great deal to say about the human face and the social evolutionary advantage of visible emotional expression, etc. As time goes on our adapted facial features are no longer crucial to being able to survive in a certain environment. For instance, having thick lips with a larger surface area to help evaporate moisture and cool the body is no longer necessary when the majority of the world has access to electrical devices to keep them cool. If our features are no longer instrumental to our survival, all of these different traits remain, and a far more diverse pool of attributes can survive and continue to diversify. Not to mention with globalisation and worldwide immigration, our facial features are no longer definitively indicative of our origins. Over the past century, despite our murky past with racial prejudice, we have learnt to celebrate this diversification. Yet despite all of this diversity, our implicit bias against certain facial attributes and disfigurements is undeniable. A recent implicit attitudes test on behalf of Changing Faces found that 66% of participants found it difficult to link an image of a person with a facial disfigurement to a positive attribute, with younger people showing far less bias than the older participants. This poses some interesting questions around our implicit attitudes in terms of nature versus nurture, and the ways in which the way we perceive and identify faces is shaped by our life experiences, media and culture, and societal attitudes.
We are not the only species that uses each other’s faces to recognise one another, or attributes certain psychological information to an individual. Even sheep distinguish each other by their facial features. However the distinction with humans seems to be that we meet certain faces that we feel an affinity with, and others that we struggle to identify with. Why do we find certain faces more attractive than others and where did our idea of beauty come from? Ancient Greek beliefs suggested that physical beauty is linked to inner beauty, both of which were gifts from the gods. They used the word ‘kaloskagathos’ which encapsulates the idea of being ‘good’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘virtuous’.
It seems there is a tendency to associate good looks with a good person. With an ease to make a snap mental decision as to whether a person is attractive or not we then translate this into whether we like the person or not. Modern dating technology is a testament to our ability to make these assumptions. Disfigurement in the UK also found that 60% of respondents had avoided dating or going on a date because of their appearance: ‘I’ve been told that someone couldn’t handle being with someone who looks like me’. So why is it that choosing our partners is so heavily dictated by our looks and the method for measuring compatibility is nowadays so heavily based on ‘beauty’?
Cultural differentiation between ideas of beauty is something that many people can identify and respect: the Kyan tribes of Myanmar’s practice of elongating women’s necks with metal collars for beauty may seem strange to western viewers, but it is likely that many western plastic surgeries would seem similarly bizarre to them. How different cultures perceive and understand facial disfigurements also differs over time, as the Effaced from History project explores. But it does seem that many cultures hold negative associations with some disfigurements; for example, in India, Hindu practice dictates that a cleft lip and palate is a sign of the sins of a past life, whilst in Africa it is believed to be the work of evil spirits or a curse.
Does western media perpetuate the misconception that disfigurement goes hand in hand with negative character traits like untrustworthiness, unattractiveness or even villainy? It’s a very tired and uninventive tactic to cast a villain in a film with a scar to add to the overall ‘menacing’ character profile. But humans predate the media. So the notion of the perfect human having a symmetrical, mark-free face and a slim, toned physique must have come from somewhere. Is this something that we have been conditioned to believe or is this deep rooted in our primal survival instincts to ostracise those who are different?
Upon each encounter with a new person we subconsciously categorize them by gender, race, age, sexuality and various other classifications in order to establish a sense of who they are. Is this is a natural human instinct? It is the preconceptions we hold about these groups that are more contentious. Gordon Allport identifies in his book The Nature of Prejudice (1954) that the human brain uses stereotyping as a normal cognitive function.
It may be difficult to pinpoint where our preconceptions about disfigurement come from. Could it be that disfigurement brings out our primitive nature to weed out the riskier or weaker members of our society? Or it could be that we are simply conditioned to be prejudiced towards anything or anyone that is ‘different to the norm’? It is difficult to pinpoint the origins of where our innate ability to persecute people who have a disfigurement comes from. Does it stem from the same beginnings as racial, LGBT and disability prejudice, or with a general fear of anything deemed as ‘other’?
However it has become hard to distinguish, with society’s increasing understanding of intersectionality which trait might cause incidences of prejudice and it is important to fight against our urge to categorize an individual into one single means of discrimination. What is abundantly clear is that the stigma towards disfigurement is still prevalent in society. There is still a pressing need for further research and understanding to challenge this stigma and to equip organisations such as Changing Faces to campaign effectively for social change.