My facial scars are not your Halloween costume

“Do you wear makeup to look like scars?” an acquaintance turned to me and asked me one Halloween.

They hadn’t seen me since my car accident and apparently hadn’t heard about it.

I was stunned; I mumbled “no, they’re real” and then left the situation abruptly.

I wish I had answered something like “No – just my real face. But thanks, I’m glad you think it looks like a Halloween costume.

These kinds of comments are common for me and countless other people with facial differences to hear in October. Taunts like “Well, you don’t need a mask with a face like that” have been hurled at young people I’ve worked with in the past.

As for me, I could order a drink or just do my weekly grocery shopping when the question of wearing dentures comes up.

Every time I am left with the feeling that everyone is watching me. Pity the poor girl with the scarred, ugly, scary face.

“Do you wear makeup to look like scars?” an acquaintance turned to me and asked me one Halloween (Photo: Phyllida Swift)

Growing up, I loved fancy dresses. I fondly remember my whole family dressing up to see Star Wars at the movies a few years ago. In recent years, however, I’ve come to dread the arrival of October, when the supermarket shelves begin to be lined with make-your-own-mark kits.

Everything changed when I was in a car accident at the age of 22. It happened in 2015 when I woke up in a van on the side of the road in Ghana. Feeling like my face was completely cut up by glass at that point, I was too caught up in the thought of dying to really think about how I was going to live with the memory of that incident written on my face for the rest of my life.

Unlike people who put on scars, wounds and masks overnight, I can’t take my scars off at the end of the day. I can’t get rid of these “horror” marks.

I’ve actually looked in the mirror and encountered real blood, real wounds, real stitches, and felt like the face staring back at me could be a Halloween costume.

It’s completely exhausting when October 31st rolls around every year; I feel like I’m destined to relive this experience every time I see people dressed in a way that belittles what I’ve been through.

Growing up, I loved fancy dresses (Photo: Phyllida Swift)
Unlike people who put on scars, wounds and masks overnight, I can’t take my scars off at the end of the day (Photo: Phyllida Swift)

I get this jolting feeling every year and it used to crush me. I would feel anxious and exposed. Now I’m just angry. Why is the appropriation of facial differences commercialized by businesses, costume designers, film producers?

Why is it still okay for an entire community to undergo this every year? How the hell are we supposed to embrace our differences when the world keeps telling us they’re ugly and scary? I love my scars now – despite the messages I’m constantly bombarded with.

I also love fancy dresses and can totally get behind creative costumes. But sticking scars on your face and calling it dressing up is insulting. My trauma is not something I want to see used for “fun” or “scary” clothing.

I have to ask why are we again telling children to be afraid of facial differences or that we exist as a community only to be mocked and imitated? I recently spoke about the damage done to the facial difference community when our real-life experiences are appropriated in movies and television to cause fear.

I also love fancy dress and can totally get behind creative costumes (Photo: Alice Webb)
We’re human too, and portraying us as something to be feared doesn’t just hurt, it’s actually direct discrimination (Photo: Alice Webb)

Scars and differences have long been inflicted by actors to represent to viewers that they are the villains and that their faces are the visual cue that tells you they are untrustworthy.

This is an undeniably harmful message to our community that plays into the historically sustained myth that disfigurements must be the mark of a damaged person, as if we are guilty and deserving of prejudice.

These are not just fictional stories from our screens. These aren’t just harmless costumes. They play a role in our perception of facial difference. I want people to understand that we don’t have to live in a world that constantly tells kids that facial differences are scary.

You may be shocked when you meet us for the first time. Maybe you’ve never seen someone who looks different. You may not know where to look or what to say. We get it – it’s indicative of underrepresentation.

But we’re human too, and portraying us as something to be feared is not only hurtful, it’s actually outright discrimination against a marginalized community.

I think it’s quite human to be mean. Gore and gore are in horror movies for a reason. But when a costume mimics a real-life scar, a real-life condition, for no other reason than to create fear associated with that appearance, do we really need to add insult to injury? Pun very intended!

Last year, a friend of mine dressed up as a sexy Freddy Krueger at a Halloween brunch. This is a character that is a prime example of burn marks being characterized as a fear-inducing device. It was a bit awkward when we saw each other, but we talked about it and they understood my point the moment I expressed it.

I would expect the same from them if I ever did something to offend them. We are all learning inclusion and acceptance, now more than ever.

So there will be times when we get it wrong, but we must also use the opportunities to learn how to better understand how behavior that was accepted in the past is not acceptable now.

The world is changing for the better. Please catch up and stop abandoning the facial difference community.

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