I’m out and about a lot. I interact with people all the time and I’m sensitive to what I see out in the world. I see the looks and stares people make to those in wheel chairs. I observe the faces of those who see someone who has suffered a burn. I take note of those who pass a woman wearing a knit cap to keep her bald head warm. We’re a culture that is caught up in how people look. I’m not sure if it’s the difference that makes the gawk or the fear in their own hearts about what if this were them.
I can tell you that “the body is the body”. There is nothing to fear except fear itself (I believe someone famous said that). Unless someone has something contagious there is no need to fear another who due to illness or accident have an altered body. I’ll tell you a quick story and then I’ll play the other side of the fence for a moment.
Many years ago I was in graduate school and the first day of class walked in a guy who had obviously been in a fire. His face and hands were quite altered. Like everyone else I did a double take. It wasn’t out of horror or disgust, but probably pity. I felt bad that this individual had to live his life with the prejudices of our culture of beauty. Talking to him over the first couple of weeks of class I had an amazing realization, he didn’t pity himself. In fact, he was grateful for being alive. He shared his story and explained his road to recovery. His goal was to work with burn victims to give them hope that beauty is truly more than skin deep.
When we meet someone who has an altered physical appearance, what is our fear? The first fear is what if that happened to us? The other is, can I get past the physical and what will it take to get me there? I was at a conference hosted by the National Psoriasis Foundation. Dr. Brian Sperber talked about the history of psoriasis and how those with the disease were treated in ancient times. He shared that many with psoriasis were thought to have leprosy and banished to colonies never to be heard from again. Others with psoriasis were thought to have these lesions as a sign of the devil or of being a witch and were burned at the stake.
Obviously we don’t continue those practices today…at least not literally. The question is how do we interact or treat people whose bodies have changed? What misunderstandings do you have about someone you’ve seen in the store and without knowing made a judgment.
It’s courageous for those facing body image issues due to illness or injury to walk proudly in this world. Trust me, they know people are staring, but courage will trump fear. If your body hasn’t been impacted by illness or injury be conscious of your good fortune. If you are facing those challenges, change will only occur as long as you’re comfortable in your own skin (figuratively and literally). When the body issues rise to the surface, get some support from someone who understands. As someone with severe psoriasis I’ve had people afraid of contagion, afraid to touch me or turn their heads when I caught them staring. It can be a long hard road, but once you achieve a level of comfort you’ll stop radiating the vibe of fear and get on with you life.