I don't want you to tell me I'm beautiful in spite of my scars

Recently, on one of my first trips back to a real-life pub, a stranger ran out after me when I left. 

‘Hi! I just wanted to say how beautiful and amazing we think you and your scars are.’

She chased me up the road, all to tell me just how wonderful she thought I was, before revealing that her group of girlfriends had been sitting at the table next to mine, discussing me and how I looked.

Was I flattered? Sounds complimentary, and something to be grateful for, right?

Sadly, no. I just felt exposed, anxious, and unable to go about my night without the memory of being gawked at. 

In 2015, when I was 22, I was in a car accident in Ghana on the first full day of a volunteering trip that left me with significant facial scarring. Basically, the entire left side of my face got cut open by what I can only assume to be glass, given that little shards are still working their way to the surface and popping up to say ‘hey’, six years later. 

Due to the first surgery being done on a table in a waiting room simply to stop me from bleeding, the scarring is interesting, to say the least. It’s not nearly as red and bumpy as it was originally, but it’s still very obvious when you see me, particularly in person. 

So, I get it. I get that it’s probably a bit of a shock to behold. It’s not often you see someone who looks like a real-life Bond villain – or at least the female version of one. 

What I struggle with is the need to reassure me that I can still be deemed attractive. Even with something branded on me that society undoubtedly tells us is ugly, I don’t need to be reminded of the fact that my face doesn’t fit within current beauty conventions. 

Over time, I have grown to embrace, respect and often even love my scars, helped by a strong support network and the defiant spirit within me that wants to prove the world wrong. 

I’ve effectively built my entire career out of them, given that I am now CEO of Face Equality International and have previously worked at other charities working with people who have facial disfigurements.

But for some reason, I reject the notion that others might deem me to be beautiful. Perhaps it’s because I find it insincere or patronising. Maybe I’m not as healed as I thought I could be. 

Or, maybe, I reject the idea that we feel the need to comment on the appearance of others and rate each other based on looks. 

I appreciate the well-intentioned nature of comments like, ‘you’re still pretty even with your scars’. 

But there’s always an ‘even though’, an ‘in spite of’, or an ‘aww, bless’ (the worst of the bunch) attached to these compliments. Even when those additional words aren’t actually said out loud, in my head, it’s always the sub-text. 

Be it from a stranger, a friend, or a family member, I can’t help but resent when people compliment my looks and feel as though I’m simply just being humoured.

I definitely reject the way that society equates beauty with human value. And I reject the need to feel beautiful ‘in spite of’ my ‘flaws’. I feel beautiful because of my differences. 

Before I got my own scars, I might have been that person randomly commenting on someone’s level of attractiveness. But whether the comments about my face are good or bad, they simply draw attention to the fact that they don’t think it’s normal, no matter how well-intended. 

To me, what was effectively being said to me outside the pub that day was: ‘Aww, we can’t believe she’s out socialising, with confidence and a smile on her face, given that we would never want to look like her!’ 

We live in a world that sadly does not yet fully understand or accept perceived differences of any kind. But I am not going to pretend to be flattered by the fact that I am going about my rightful business without shame and without hiding.

The first time I got involved with charities in the facial disfigurement space and shared my story in the media in 2016, the headline quote read: ‘Appearance cannot be the measure of human worth’.

The comments both on the article on social media predominantly read, ‘you’re gorgeous’ and equivalent sentiments. 

I was thankful for the positive response, and still am to this day. Sharing my story has been such a cathartic experience, and connecting with others has truly helped me come to terms with ‘looking different’. 

However, I want to explore how we, particularly as women, can lift each other up while not simply commenting on each other’s appearance. 

I’m all for showing some much-needed love and throwing out compliments, but how do we define the grey area between empowering comments vs. those that can be loaded and triggering? For instance: ‘You look great, have you lost weight?’ – the implied message being that thinner is better.

So, to anyone who has ever called me beautiful, or anyone reading this and feeling the need to: I appreciate your intention, and your concern. I acknowledge that this comes from living in a society where we often comment on appearance. 

I just don’t need it. The world doesn’t need it. 

If the first thing you think to comment on is my physical appearance, then please try to move away from these loaded remarks that are solely based on narrow perceptions of what looks good.

Perhaps instead open up a meaningful interaction by simply asking how I am and meaning it. But if you have to comment on my appearance, then tell me you love my clothes – I’ll take that, happily. 

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected] 

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