The Mighty Logo

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

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

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 “disfigurement” 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 “an appearance that has been spoiled or misshapen.” 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 “to spoil the appearance of something and make it ugly” and “change for the worse in something’s appearance.”

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, “My face is misshapen.” 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 “the element or factor that separates or distinguishes” or “a characteristic that distinguishes one from another or from the average.” 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 “a deviation from the norm or from expectations, especially of a bodily part” or “a deviation from the common rule, type, arrangement, or form.” 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: “A 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!” 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 “fix” 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? “I am easy to recognize,” or “I have a unique appearance,” or “I have one of those unforgettable faces.” 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.

Originally published: June 30, 2016
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home