themighty logo

Please Don't Describe My Face as 'Disfigured' or 'Deformed'

dawn and her horse

Would you rather be described as having “a disfigurement” or “a difference”?

A couple of years ago, a wonderful¬†organization in the U.K. called Changing Faces asked its Facebook followers if¬†using the term ‚Äúdisfigurement‚ÄĚ might discourage people from asking for needed¬†help. The responses were varied, and it is not my intent to disparage Changing¬†Faces, as they do brilliant work. However, their thread started me thinking¬†about semantics, connotations, preferences and alternative word choices.

One definition of “disfigurement”¬†is ‚Äúan appearance that has been spoiled or misshapen.‚ÄĚ Well, I don’t know¬†about you, but that is not how I’d want to describe myself. Related words¬†include “flawed,”¬†“deformed,” “blemished,” “distorted”¬†and “damaged.” When¬†I asked for definitions of “deformed,” I found ‚Äúto spoil the appearance of¬†something and make it ugly‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúchange for the worse in something’s¬†appearance.‚ÄĚ

Ouch. These words are not helpful¬†toward building up a person’s positive self-image. It’s a good thing I’ve rarely considered my face to be any of these¬†things.

When I describe myself, I generally¬†don’t say, ‚ÄúMy face is misshapen.‚ÄĚ Or “deformed.” Or “disfigured.” Or “spoiled.” Or “flawed.” Unless I am trying to make some distinct literary point. Or unless I’m¬†feeling really down about my appearance, which, thankfully, is fairly rare.

So what words might be friendlier to¬†one’s self-esteem?

I prefer the term “facial¬†difference.” One definition of “difference” is ‚Äúthe element or factor¬†that separates or distinguishes‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúa characteristic that distinguishes one¬†from another or from the average.‚ÄĚ I kind of like that. I’ve always preferred¬†not to be average, and instead of being described as “flawed,” I am “distinctive.”¬†Much better!

Besides, whether the differences are¬†visible or hidden, aren’t we all different in some way from one another?

Or maybe we can go with “anomaly,” which is defined as ‚Äúa deviation from the norm or from expectations, especially¬†of a bodily part‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúa deviation from the common rule, type, arrangement, or¬†form.‚ÄĚ To say “I have a facial anomaly” has more of a scientific ring¬†to it and seems to emphasize uniqueness. Yet it doesn’t sound quite right.

Another good option in specific cases¬†is to use the medical term or cause. For example, I am not offended if someone¬†describes me as having “partial facial paralysis.” However, I object¬†to my face being described as “disfigured” or “deformed.”

Connotations are¬†what it really¬†comes down to. What does a word imply to me or to others who hear or read it,¬†whether or not they have a facial difference? For example, when I saw a¬†Facebook post that said, “I feel disfigured,” my heart went out to¬†that person because I knew it wasn’t a positive feeling she described.

Words are usually chosen¬†deliberately to invoke a desired response. This is a description of a¬†television program: ‚ÄúA top team of U.K. craniofacial surgeons undertake an¬†amazing challenge to transform the lives of seven children with disfiguring¬†facial deformities in just one week!‚ÄĚ The promoters deliberately make the¬†children sound like they have a horrible affliction and the surgeons are made¬†out to be heroes for trying to ‚Äúfix‚ÄĚ them. I am not denying these surgeries¬†might improve the quality of life for these children on several levels. I am,¬†however, disappointed the program is being promoted in such a¬†sensationalistic manner that degrades the children.

When Changing Faces helped develop¬†law in England designed to protect people with a medical condition or injury¬†affecting the appearance and/or mobility of their face against many forms of discrimination,¬†they chose the word “disfigurement” because the legal language had to¬†be clear, and unfortunately that is a term that leaves no doubt in the interpretation.¬†Yet I still wish the organization would not make it so much a part of their common¬†rhetoric.

So how do I describe myself? ‚ÄúI am¬†easy to recognize,‚ÄĚ or ‚ÄúI have a unique appearance,‚ÄĚ or ‚ÄúI have one of those¬†unforgettable faces.‚ÄĚ If I’m meeting up with someone I’ve never met, I send a¬†photo and have no worries they can pick me out of a crowd. Being recognizable¬†does have its advantages.

When¬†choosing descriptors, it is important to remember we are dealing with human¬†beings who have feelings, many of whom understand words have multiple¬†layers of meaning. As author Neil Gaiman would suggest, it’s not about being¬†politically correct. It’s about treating people with respect.

Follow this journey on Facing Up to It.