Shine A Light

Some people look unusual — get over it

James Partridge, whose appearance was transformed by fire when he was 18, campaigns for greater social acceptance and understanding of facial and body diversity. Now he's taking on the film industry

James Partridge
23 April 2012

There has rightly been growing concern over recent years about the impact of global advertising and imagery on people’s – particularly young people’s – beliefs about the looks of faces and bodies.

What are publicised as ‘good-looks’ are often, in reality, unreal, air-brushed, and unhealthily thin. And yet they are believed to be passports to happiness, wealth, status and much more in our celebrity-driven media. The global epidemic of eating disorders is one highly undesirable consequence – another, less scorned as it contributes to economic growth, is the rising interest in never-risk-free cosmetic surgery.


The author, founder and Chief Executive of Changing Faces

Politicians like UK’s Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone, have now got involved. The Campaign for Body Confidence, underwritten by her department, which gave its first Awards last week, is the latest manifestation of the counter-blast.

An All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image enquiry has heard academic diagnoses of the problem, most of which indict the deluge of advertising imagery which is almost impossible to avoid especially in this era of exploding social media. The Group is due to report its findings June.

Interventions directed at children and young people especially to counter the trend have also been suggested – but sadly, these tend to be lacking the resources required to have impact. Dove’s Self-Esteem Fund has promise but does it have the necessary funds behind it?

Schools and colleges have a massive role to play in promoting facial and body diversity just as they do in tackling the problems at the other end of the spectrum – around obesity. Changing Faces offer some guidance for teachers and schools (here and here) and some tips on how to react to disfigurement here.

‘Good looks lead to happiness’ beliefs can also have nasty effects on people with facial and body disfigurements. Scars, birthmarks, asymmetry, skin and eye conditions and paralysis are estimated to be significant psychologically and socially for at least 1.3 million people in the UK – and that doesn’t include those whose appearance has been affected by arthritis, amputation or mastectomy.

So deeply-rooted is the good looks / happiness myth that people with these conditions are liable to self-exclude themselves from happiness believing the flipside: ‘not-so-good-looks lead to unhappiness’. I certainly did in the years after my face was transformed by severe burns at the age of 18. Debunking that myth took me years. Changing Faces helps hundreds of individuals and their children every year to challenge that cruel deception, partly by allowing them to meet those who, despite or perhaps because of their appearance, have found happiness, made intimate relationships and achieved success.

Frustratingly, we also have to counter negativity promulgated in prime-time TV titles like Channel 4’s The Undateables. This is the latest in a long line of such titles, justified as “being needed to attract a big audience” and perpetuating the very stigma they purport to be challenging. Although the programmes themselves have been moving, they too missed the opportunity of introducing the viewers – and the participants too, I suspect – to one or two of the thousands of successful couples, one of whom looked unusual or had a disability.

People with facial disfigurements have another cultural stereotype to live with – and Changing Faces has decided that the time has come to get it out in the open.

Since its inception, cinema has used the pernicious shorthand of facial scarring, bad teeth, eye-patches and asymmetry to depict bad guys – and girls – villains and horror characters. Such associations have a nasty way of sliding into real life. Clients of Changing Faces frequently report that their lives – or those of their children who look unusual – have been tainted and inhibited by name-calling using some of the characters – Scarface, Two-Face, Freddie, Cyclops, Scar, Orc, Vamp…

Take the Orcs in the children’s blockbuster movies of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Tolkein himself described an orc in one of his Letters as “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes”. In the films, they are scarred and disfigured as if from fire and violence.

What the global cinema industry has done, perhaps unwittingly, is to take this to a higher level – and with hardly anyone noticing, it seems. That’s been one the main reactions to our Face Equality on Film campaign which has just launched.

Our view is that it’s time to treat everyone with respect and dignity whatever they look like. We hope the film industry around the world will take note, avoiding the stereotypes and promoting people with unusual faces into normal roles. We intend to point out very publicly when it fails, and celebrate when it succeeds too.

See what you think. Watch ‘Leo’ and find out about our new Face Equality on Film campaign. Join our conversation on Facebook and join the new campaign for ‘face equality’ by signing the petition.


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