Reflections on Losing Face
Amelia Tearle wrote this insightful article about her experiences with Bell’s palsy.
A recent freedom of information request revealed that portraits of MPs have cost the British taxpayer thousands of pounds, with the bills for portraits of Diane Abbott and Sir Menzies Campbell exceeding £10,000 each. Governments, it seems, place a value on faces. Featuring on the Fortune 500 list of US firms with the largest revenues, Facebook employs over 5,000 people and boasts in excess of 600 million daily active users. Its prolific rise suggests that governments are not alone, and society too values the human face.
In Belgium and France, covering the face, and thus the wearing of the burka, is illegal. Debates about cultural and religious assimilation aside, issues which raise the corruption or obscuration of the face undoubtedly have a prominent presence in the press. It is perhaps unsurprising then that Marks and Spencer chose to include Katie Piper, the campaigner and acid burns victim, in its star-studded campaign featuring Britain’s ‘leading ladies.’ In an attack which gripped media attention, a woman has just been found guilty of throwing acid on her friend’s face whilst hidden, ironically enough, under a burka.
Suffice to say, faces are more than a symbol of vanity; faces are what make the world go round, and are invested in by society with great value, power and importance. But as a twenty-one year-old student with my dissertation and impending Cambridge finals to think about, I had given little consideration to any of this. Little consideration, that is, until I woke up one morning, shortly before Christmas 2012, with Bell’s Palsy, a medical condition which left me paralysed in the left-hand side of my face.
Although treatable and non life-threatening, doctors have little idea when or even if the face will recover from Bell’s palsy, and I was left to contemplate a sudden inability to drink without a straw or blink without closing my eyelid with my hand. I was unable to sniff to prevent my nostril streaming if I had a cold, unable to stop my left eyelid blowing around in the wind, and worse of all, unable to smile.
The impracticalities of the situation were as nothing compared to the psychological trauma. As the weeks passed with little improvement, the sense grew that not only had I lost faith in my own body, but also in my ability to relate to others. I was faced, too, with the not insignificant prospect of never pulling again.
As I sought to drag myself out of the self-pitying rut into which I had descended, a number of questions, which I feel have wider significance, presented themselves. Is the value which society places on the face ungrounded? Was it wrong of me to consider my situation catastrophic when others face serious illness with such dignity? Had I not learnt from the greatest Paralympics in history that physical disfigurement is no bar to happiness or success?
Perhaps now that my face has largely returned to normal, and the devastation I felt every time I caught a reflection in a shop window is long gone, it would be easy to conclude that none of it mattered. With the support of my family, I started to come to terms with my face even before it began to recover. Surely then, the argument might run, caring about our appearance is mere vanity, the construct of demoniac cosmetics and media companies, and a menace of capitalist society.
Those arguments are rash oversimplifications. Our appearance, and our faces in particular, are fundamental to the identity through which we engage with the world. Portraits and Facebook profiles may not be wholly accurate representations of those they depict, but the value we invest in them is indicative of the way perceptions of our face and body are crucial to our identity. Katie Piper is so remarkable and such a potent symbol not because she has undergone trauma, and not because her face has changed, but because she has been able so successfully to project her identity through her new face.
It may have taken the best part of six months for my face to recover, excepting some residual quirks, but the lessons I learnt then and subsequently will remain with me for much longer. My feelings about what happened develop as time passes, but the most potent message, and one which has great relevance for wider society, concerns identity. The key to being comfortable with our appearance, even if it changes dramatically and unexpectedly, is to reconcile our own identity with the one which we project to the world through our face and body.
Article written by: Amelia Tearle, originally published 25 January 2014.
In 2014 Amelia took part in an interview along with Maria Munir and Facial Palsy UK Trustee Vanessa Venables raising awareness of facial palsy in connection with the Fixers Charity. The film is shown below.
In March 2015 Amelia also shared her story with the Ham&High Newspaper during the first Facial Palsy Awareness Week.
Last reviewed: 18-11-2016 || Next review due: 18-11-2018