When I was five, my family moved from the state of Washington to Florida, where my dad had taken a temporary position at the Naval facility at Cape Canaveral. My parents opted to make the trip by car, sending our belongings on ahead. Not only did my poor parents choose to embark on a road trip with three children under the age of ten, but they also extended the distance by using it as an opportunity to visit friends and relatives as well as national parks, amusement parks and historic landmarks. We traveled from Washington to Arizona, then across to New Hampshire then down to Florida, traversing the country in the shape of a very big Z. Then they did it again two years later when we moved back to Washington. I celebrated my 8th birthday in New Hampshire at my grandparents’ home.
Why does this matter? Well, I was along for the ride, and I have an asymmetrical face. You know, the kind of face people notice. The kind other kids stare and point at. Yet my parents had no hesitation about taking me out into the world, and for that I am extremely grateful.
I was born with a fast-growing tumor protruding from the left side of my face. In order to remove it completely so it wouldn’t grow back, the surgeons had to also remove bone, nerve and muscle, essentially leaving the left half of my face paralyzed. While a number of reconstructive and cosmetic surgeries helped, they failed to give me the “normal” face I so desperately sought in my youth. I have since come to realize that such a face for me is impossible, in part because when the face is involved, it takes such a small amount of difference for people to notice that something is “off.”
My parents had no hesitation about taking me out into the world
Sure, I was teased, and occasionally bullied, but I refused to allow having a different face to ruin my life. I focused on and improved my talents, and came to discover that there was plenty more to me than my lopsided visage.
One thing I am passionate about is helping people overcome their fear of going out into the world because they are concerned about how others will react to their difference, regardless of what that difference might be. There are people who isolate themselves, hiding in their homes and behind their computers. Even those with jobs keep their world very small, limiting their interactions and avoiding socializing. Yet there is no reason to perpetuate such loneliness.
If you are someone who is uncomfortable venturing out on your own for whatever reason, start by going out with a friend or family member. Try attending a movie, where it’s dark and most people have their backs to you. Restaurants are good because people will focus mostly on eating rather than on other patrons. When you start to branch out, choose events you are really interested in, because the other people in attendance will mostly share that interest and that will be the focus instead of you. I met my husband because I volunteered to do technical work for community theater, and we’ve now been married over twenty years.
I have learned that if you expect to be treated like anyone else, then that is generally how people will treat you. If you expect that everyone will stare at you, that is what you will see, whether that is the reality or not. In the movie Deadpool, the main character had his appearance radically altered, including his face. During one scene, he walks down a public street for the first time since his alteration, and everyone is staring at him. I’m in my theater seat getting angry, thinking people don’t really do that! Later, it occurred to me that the scene in the movie was portraying his perception. But people with physical differences are fooling themselves if we believe that people aren’t supposed to notice. Of course they will – I notice other people who have physical differences. It’s what both parties choose to do from there that matters.
Some people will stare, sometimes without even realizing it, and kids will point and ask the adult they are with what happened. Curiosity is normal, but there is never an excuse for being rude. Rude behavior might include continuing to stare, laughing, making comments, bringing someone else’s attention to a person who is different, or not addressing that person directly (making assumptions that they cannot speak for themselves).
If you expect to be treated like anyone else, then that is generally how people will treat you
Children should be encouraged to politely ask the person directly about their difference, because that teaches them not to be afraid of someone who is different and also helps humanize that person. Adults accompanying a curious child should never assume or make up an answer.
My usual response if I catch some staring at me is to smile, wave, and maybe say “hi.” Sometimes I invite a child to ask me about my face. Engaging in a positive and friendly way not only diffuses a potentially unpleasant situation, but also points out that I am just a person. I generally don’t mind if someone asks me about my face, as long as they do so in a polite and respectful manner, but not everyone is of the same mindset. Not everyone feels that it is their responsibility to educate.
For people who fear reactions to their visible difference, learning how to be out in the world takes time.
I’m not suggesting you ever get used to the way others react to you, but over time it is likely you will notice it less. People I’m with will tell me “that guy is staring at you” and I’ll respond, honestly but without looking “really? I hadn’t noticed.”
People call me brave for putting myself “on display” to the rest of the world, but that’s not how I see myself. I go out and live my life, because the alternative is unthinkable. I believe that the more of us who have some sort of visible difference are out and about in the world, the more commonplace we will become and the less we will be treated like something unnatural or strange. And the better our quality of life for going out and experiencing new things.
Personally, I can’t imagine NOT going out into the world. How limited my life would be if I denied myself such experiences as going to movies, out to dinner, traveling, and going to rock concerts. No one should deny themselves doing what they enjoy just because they are worried about what other people think. After all, that’s the other person’s problem! Go forth and live!
Author and professional motivational speaker Dawn Shaw understands adversity and embodies resilience, which she believes is the key to bully-resistance. She was born with a rare tumor, the removal of which left her face half paralyzed, so she grew up looking “different.” Despite the insecurities and unfair treatment this sometimes brings, she learned to accept and even embrace her difference and lives a happy and productive life. Her inspiring memoir Facing Up to It, published in early 2013, shares her stories and experiences during her challenging journey to confidence and self-acceptance. Her second book, a Kindle exclusive titled Friending the Mirror; Changing How You See Your Reflection, is a guide to finding beauty through happiness. Her third and most recent book, Facial Shift; Adjusting to an Altered Appearance, assures the reader that even though their physical appearance may have changed, they can still live happy and productive lives.
Dawn currently hosts an online video series, also titled Friending the Mirror, in which guests educate and share their personal stories about appearance-related issues and insecurities, disabilities, and physical differences. She has taken her inspiring message to television by agreeing to appear on an episode of the Discovery Channel’s Body Bizarre, which will air later in 2016. When not writing or speaking to youth or adult groups about such topics as developing resilience, not allowing “what others think” to unduly affect decisions, and how to make yourself attractive regardless of your looks, Dawn indulges in her affinity for live music, attending concerts primarily by independent rock bands with Ian, her husband of over 20 years. She also runs a small Icelandic horse farm in Grapeview, Washington, which is home to several well-loved cats and dogs and an ever-changing number of Icelandic horses. For more information on Dawn including information on ordering her books or booking her as a speaker, visit www.facinguptoit.com. You can also find her on Facebook and on Twitter @facinguptoit.