An Insider’s Point of View

We live in a society obsessed with outward beauty. We are bombarded with media images of airbrushed celebrities who give us unrealistic expectations of the “perfect image”. If you have a facial or physical difference that causes you to look out of the ordinary, odds are that you have been the target of social challenges, negative comments and/or stares. As a result, this can leave you feeling embarrassed, self-conscious, angry and rejected. Visible differences include any kind of condition that affects the appearance of any part such as skin conditions, burns, cancer, cleft lip and palate, birth marks, craniofacial anomalies and injuries.

So why do people stare, and what are the emotions experienced by both the person staring and the individual who is the object of a stare? What communication skills and tips can reduce the anxiety related to appearance, stares and social interactions?

The science of staring

It’s normal to stare; it’s rude to glare! There is growing evidence to prove that we all stare at anything or anyone out of the ordinary, and there is nothing in the definition of a stare that denotes malice. However, staring is often perceived as hurtful and unwanted.

Some researchers have found that our brain uses more energy to process images that are unfamiliar while anthropologist Donald Giddeon has demonstrated that a discrepancy as small as 1/25 millimeter in the placement of a facial feature triggers our brain causing us to do a double take. Flawless skin is the most universally desired human feature (flowing hair runs close behind). Staring is also believed to be a defence mechanism of self-preservation and survival carried over for centuries.

Snapshots: appearances matter

Research suggests that we form opinions about one another in 90seconds, primarily by interpreting visual and auditory information.

One of my heroes, Kevin Michael Connolly, was born without legs. In 2006, he won a silver medal and a $6,000 prize at the Winter X Games. The athlete used his prize money to travel to 17 countries and snapped 33,000 photos of people staring at him. Each eye-opening photo has something in common the look of disdain on his subjects faces. Rarely did anyone greet him with a smile, which unmistakably portrays the global rejection of those who look different.

Getting a positive response from strangers

People are rarely taught what to do  when they meet someone who looks different, and so they feel awkward and frequently look away. Almost everyone admits to being curious and wondering what caused the difference, but rarely do they act with malice or intend to be rude.

Sometimes, strangers assume that a physical difference suggests a mental deficiency or that it is associated with challenging behaviors. Rather than avoiding difficult situations, use positive coping skills, take the initiative, and let good social and communication skills elicit a positive response from strangers. How you present yourself to the world is a signal of how you feel about yourself. Accentuate your good characteristics; work with what you have, and strive to develop skills to help you feel more confident.

If you know someone is curious or if they ask, What happened? you can simply say, I bet you wonder why I look different or I was injured in an automobile accident.  A simple statement usually puts the other person at ease. A key is to make the most of your appearance, grooming and posture to present a positive impression. It is encouraging to know that lasting impressions have been proven to be based on poise and self-confidence,with gestures, facial expressions and body language comprising 93 per cent of communication.

My experience

As a result of a private plane crash in 1994, sixty-four percent of my body, including my face, was burned. I prefer to put others at ease in social situations and take the opportunity to educate them and dispel false myths associated with disfigurement. This is particularly important when addressing the blatant but innocent stares of young children.

My charity, Facing Forward, strives to educate middle-school students about the challenges of living with a disfiguring condition and to foster acceptance of individuals who have physical differences through a program called Outside, Inside; You Decide.  Face It Online is a support tool developed by the Centre for Appearance Research (CAR) to help adults who have a physical difference manage their appearance-related distress more effectively. Facing Forward currently offers this comprehensive eight-week program free of charge.


Staring: reducing barriers

First, know that your “response” (not “reaction”) to a stare often determines the outcome. When meeting a stranger, use positive non-verbal body language, such as a simple smile, to display a reassuring sign of friendliness and approachability. Your smile helps put the stranger at ease. If you frown or look at strangers with scorn, you may cause them to feel awkward, annoyed or anxious. Also, becoming upset can drain you of energy. Instead, become an agent for change—first for yourself and, in the process, for society.




Redefining and Valuing Beauty

Article source, Lake Norman Women, Sept. 2014

The mind, body, and spirit are intimately connected.

People often tell me I’m Beautiful, yet my scarred appearance doesn’t meet any of the universal patterns of beauty. How is it that others find me “beautiful”? Society seems to relegate those of us with facial differences to the outskirts. Renowned plastic surgeon Stephen Marquardt recognizes society’s definition of beauty. Using the Golden Ratio, a classical mathematical pattern often found in architecture and art, he created a mask usable with any human face from any culture, race, or era, to determine how one’s facial features can fit the mold, so to speak.

Our society must recognize the inflated value that we give this unattainable notion of beauty and the extremes we endure to acquire and maintain it. The media suggests women’s beauty has an expiration date, driving them to drastic measures to counter signs of aging. It seems more forgiving of aging men (turn on “60 Minutes” any given week), though men readily seek anti-aging opportunities as well. In the U.S., more money is spent on beauty than on education and social services. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgery, cosmetic plastic surgery procedures have risen more than 450 percent in the last 10 years, and 13.8 million procedures were performed in 2011.

The fashion industry and media define beauty but recently, several impressive groups of young women have mobilized to demand magazines discontinue Photoshopping images of females they feature. Fed up with unrealistic, unattainable ideals of beauty, these girls are challenging the “beautiful” stereotype.

Author and attorney Deborah Rhodes reminds us that appearance is not just an aesthetic issue, but a legal and political one. Political activism can pressure businesses, government, and media to acknowledge appearance-related issues are as serious offenses as gender and racial discrimination. Statistics show 16 percent of employees report appearance discrimination. Unattractive people are less likely to be promoted or hired and earn less than attractive co- workers performing the same jobs; and unattractive defendants get longer prison sentences than the attractive.

Dove’s Campaign for Beauty found in a study of 3,000 women, only two percent describe themselves as beautiful. Ginny Olson’s study of 548 middle and high school girls found 59 percent are displeased with their bodies, and 69 percent said magazines influence their ideal. Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty start stereotypes early. If “normal” women and girls don’t feel good about their appearances, how can females with facial differences caused by birth, disease, or trauma feel good about their appearance?

While beauty has a place in society, it shouldn’t become privilege that discriminates against and excludes others. “Beauty” should value our unique, enduring characteristics, inside and out.

An Inside Look at Being Outside of Ordinary

“Of all the things that you wear, your expression is the most important.”
–Janet Lane

If you have a facial or physical difference that causes you to look out of the ordinary, odds are that you have been the target of a stare. Your “response,” not “reaction” to a stare often determines the outcome of that experience. If you use positive, nonverbal body language like a simple smile when you meet a stranger, you express a desire to interact and put the stranger at ease. Worldwide, a smile is a recognized, reassuring sign of friendliness and approachability. If you frown or look at the stranger with scorn, you may cause the stranger to feel awkward, annoyed, and anxious.

We live in a society obsessed with outward beauty, perpetuated by the media in magazines, television, films, and social media. Daily, we’re bombarded with unrealistic images of celebrities who have been airbrushed and photoshopped to present ideals that are unrealistic and unachievable. Yet, people continue to strive to emulate these images that emphasize perfection.
Despite society’s obsession with beauty, those of us who are disfigured must make the most of our respective circumstances and learn essential communication skills – both verbal and nonverbal – to defuse stares and ease social interactions. Becoming upset or angry from strangers’ stares can drain you of energy. Instead, you can become the agent for change, first for yourself, and in the process, for society.

In this article, we’ll explore research about the social challenges of living with a disfiguring condition, why people stare, emotions experienced by both the person staring and the individual who is the object of a stare, inaccurate beliefs associated with disfigurement, and communication skills that can reduce anxiety related to appearance, stares and social interactions.

Disfigurement can be a barrier to social interactions..

. In 1974, Frances Macgregor, a psychologist who worked primarily with people who had experienced disfiguring burns, succinctly described the primary difficulties associated with a disfigured face:

“In their attempts to go about their daily lives, people are subjected to visual and verbal assaults, and a level of familiarity from strangers … (including) naked stares, startled reactions, ‘double takes’, whispers, remarks, furtive looks, curiosity, personal questions, advice, manifestations of pity or aversion, laughter, ridicule and outright avoidance.”
“Other disfiguring conditions often labeled by healthcare professionals as ‘minor’ such as birthmarks, skin conditions including acne scarring and eczema, vitiligo, facial scars from minor accidents, dog bites, etc., may easily be dismissed as less important, yet evidence of psychological distress has been well documented.”

One of my favorite heroes, Kevin Michael Connolly, was born without legs. In 2006, Michael won a silver medal at the Winter X Games and received $6,000 in prize money. He used the money to travel to 17 countries and 33 cities; along the way, he snapped 33,000 photos of people staring at him. Michael said that the 33,000 photos had something in common – it was the look of disdain on the faces of the strangers. Rarely, did a stranger greet Michael with a smile. This eye-opening collection of photographs, displayed at prominent galleries nationwide unmistakably portrays worldwide rejection of an individual who is out of the ordinary.

Appearance matters. Research says that we form opinions about one another in 90 seconds, primarily by interpreting visual and auditory information. So you need to make the most of your appearance, grooming and posture to present a positive impression. It’s encouraging to know that researchers say that lasting impressions are based upon poise and self-confidence. Gestures, facial expressions, and body language comprise 93% of communication.

Understanding the science of staring

It’s normal to stare; it’s rude to glare! We all do it! You’re probably thinking, “What, that sounds preposterous!” There’s growing research to prove that we all stare at anything or anyone out of the ordinary, and there is nothing in the definition of a stare that denotes malice, yet, a stare is often perceived as hurtful and unwanted.
While some researchers have found that it takes more energy for the brain to process images that are unfamiliar, another researcher and anthropologist, Donald Giddeon, discovered that a one-twenty-fifth of a millimeter discrepancy in the placement of a facial feature triggers something in the brain that causes us to do a double take. Moreover, neuroscientists have identified the precise location of the brain that responds to faces; it’s called the fusiform face area (FFA). A tiny network of neurons in the FFA appears to process facial information. Much research suggests that staring is most likely a defense mechanism of self-preservation and survival carried over for centuries.
The law of asymmetry plays a major role in appearance. “As a rule, humans do not like asymmetry. When we look at someone’s face, we judge beauty in large part according to how symmetric they are.”

Zoologist Desmond Morris discovered that, “Flawless skin is the most universally desired human feature and flowing hair runs close behind.” I will never have ‘flawless skin” or be considered beautiful by society, but I know that I am beautiful in my own way. I accept and love myself, just as I am. This self-acceptance and confidence comforts me in public. Rarely do stares bother me, or interrupt my daily activities. However, a behavior that does irritate me occurs when beautiful girls and young women treat me like I’m “invisible.” This response is hurtful and rude. My handsome husband reminds me that sometimes coworkers or strangers treat him as if he, too, is “invisible.” This can happen to anyone!

How does it feel to encounter someone with a facial or physical disfiguring condition?

People are rarely taught what to do when they meet someone who looks different from them, unless they learned this valuable skill from their parents or teachers. In my workshops, “What to Do When People Stare,” conducted across the country and in Canada since 1998, participants without visible differences consistently report that they feel awkward and frequently look away to avoid making eye contact with people who have physical differences. Some experience nervousness, fear, nausea, and are afraid that they will say or do the wrong thing. Almost all participants are curious and wonder what caused the difference, and sometimes think, “What if that was me?” Rarely, do they act with malice and intend to be rude, although, there are certainly instances when this is true.

Sometimes, strangers assume that a physical difference suggests a mental deficiency or is associated with deviant behavior. With few exceptions, this false perception is perpetuated by the film industry that casts disfigured individuals as the villains in movies, television, and plays. “Children are influenced by the negative attitudes toward people with facial and physical differences that pervade children’s literature and contemporary media.”

In my workshops, individuals who are the objects of stares consistently report feeling embarrassed, self-conscious, uncomfortable, angry, hurt and rejected. Yet, as noted above, rarely are stares intended to be hurtful.

Positive coping skills and good social and communication skills influence positive responses from strangers

How you present yourself to the world is a signal of how you feel about yourself. Accentuate your positive characteristics; work with what you have, and strive to develop strong communication skills to feel more confident in social settings.

Those who cope well and report fewer problems tend to use “positive” coping strategies; they have good social skills, are assertive and take the initiative in new settings. “Negative” coping strategies include aggression, use of alcohol, unrealistic pursuit of surgical solutions and above all, avoidance and withdrawal from difficult situations.

“These empirical studies are important in demonstrating unequivocally, that the behavior of the individual rather than physical appearance can be instrumental in influencing the response from other people, and in doing so can substantially reduce the perceived threat. Social skills are a better predictor of a successful outcome than disfigurement, and social skills training can therefore be seen as a logical and potentially very powerful strategy in the clinical setting.”

Although studies tend to focus on specific conditions, burns, cleft lip and palate, port wine stains, vitiligo, similar emotional and psychological issues apply to any disfiguring condition.

If you are uncomfortable with your disfigurement, it may be difficult for you to approach social interactions with confidence, but don’t despair, because research shows us that we can “literally” fake it, until we make it! “When imagination and logic are in conflict with each other, the imagination invariably takes over. A thought, even when false, can affect us if we believe it to be true. The world is but a reflection of your inner self.”
I think it’s important to address the onlooker’s curiosity issue right away. James Partridge, author of Changing Faces suggests developing a short and long version of what happened or what has caused your difference. If you choose to, you can simply say, “I bet you wonder why I look different?” or, “I was injured in an automobile accident.” A simple statement usually facilitates dialogue, and puts the other person at ease.

My experience as a woman who looks different

As a disfigured woman, burned over 64% of my body including my face as the result of surviving a private airplane crash in 1994, I prefer to put others at ease in social situations. I view interactions with strangers as an opportunity to educate an uninformed public about disfiguring conditions, and to dispel false myths associated with disfigurement. This is particularly important when addressing the blatant but innocent stares of young children. Unabashedly, they often ask, ”What’s wrong with your face?” Their questions and comments are so spontaneous; it’s difficult to imagine that their intent is malevolent. I always greet their inquiry with a smile and stoop to their level to make eye contact and say, “I was in a fire and that’s why I look different. Have you ever seen anyone who has been burned?”

My charity, Facing Forward, strives to educate middle school students about the challenges of living with a disfiguring condition and to foster acceptance of individuals who have physical differences through a program called, “Outside, Inside; You Decide.” It’s essential to introduce and educate children who are not out of the ordinary to children who live with disfiguring conditions. Research associated with this workshop shows that this program has a powerful effect on the students and contributes to acceptance of students with disfiguring conditions.


10 Tips to Take Control

Conducting workshops all over the United States and Canada, I have found that no matter the cause of a disfiguring condition, those who have them report feeling better equipped to manage stares and more confident about communicating after participating in “What to Do When People Stare.”

Participants discuss and practice verbal and nonverbal communication skills, and explore specific actions to take control of social situations:

1. If you are physically able to, smile whenever possible. A smile is a universal passport. There is almost an innate response to return a smile.

2. If all or part of your face is paralyzed, you may feel uncomfortable about smiling, or if you have only one eye, be as direct as you can – don’t hide your mouth or look down. Use gestures, posture, and body language effectively.

3. Instruct others to listen carefully, if your speech is not clear, tell them, “It’s okay to ask me to repeat what I just said.”

4. Make eye contact whenever possible; it expresses interest and acknowledges the other person.

5. Initiate a conversation first to control the direction of the interaction, for example, “Is that your son on first base?”

6. Direct the focus of the conversation to your environment: “Is this the first time you have attended this conference?”

7. Discuss your similarities and what you have in common, not your differences; “Does your daughter also attend this school?”

8. Maximize your appearance with careful attention to grooming, dress, makeup, tasteful jewelry, and accessories.

9. Approach every social situation with a positive attitude and expectation. If you think people find you unattractive, they will.

10. Stand erect, head up and shoulders back, if you can. How you feel about yourself is reflected in your stance, gait, grooming, body and verbal language.

The more you practice these techniques, the easier it will become to interact with others. After a while, these techniques will become routine and easy. Use those that are easiest for you and make you feel comfortable.

If, after extensive practice, you are still struggling, please contact me to enroll in a comprehensive and new online eight-week program, FaceIt Online. In addition, read Changing Faces, participate in workshops or retreats for disfigured individuals, enroll in a communication class at a local educational institution, or contact a therapist experienced working with individuals who have physical differences.

For more information, please see the listing of resources at, or contact me at
–Charlene Pell

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Faceit Online is a support tool developed by the world renowned Centre for Appearance Research (CAR) to help individuals over the age of 18 who have a physical difference manage their appearance-related distress more effectively. Visible differences include any kind of condition that affects the appearance of any part of the body or face such as skin conditions, burns, cancer, cleft lip and palate, birth marks, craniofacial anomalies and injuries. Currently, the comprehensive eight-week program is being offered free of charge. To register, contact