17 January 2007

Losing face

Last week a spider bite made my face swell up. I looked like the Elephant Man. So is complete withdrawal from society the only solution?

Last week Wednesday I was bitten by a spider. Nasty little things, spiders. They’re fine while they keep to their corners, but if they come out to snack in the midnight hours, bang go all my greenie sentiments.

By Thursday lunchtime I could feel that my face was swelling up. By Friday morning I was unrecognisable – even by my mother. The worst thing was that I knew I should get to a doctor, but appearing in public would have been an experience comparable to a shopping trip on the last Saturday of the month for the Elephant Man.

I drew my curtains, switched off the telephone, drank my antihistamines and retired to my bed. I would have put the back of my hand to my forehead in true Victorian style – if I could find my forehead, that is. I did manage, however, to take a picture of myself with my cellphone. A picture that could be used to scare little children and to make adults run away screaming.

It made me wonder what life must be like for people who have permanent facial disfigurement – serious burns, a hectic skin disorder, birthmarks or a harelip. Going anywhere, or applying for a job must be a nightmare. At least these days people are no longer carted off to circuses to spend a lifetime being stared at and mocked in order to earn a living.

Mocking kids
But I don’t think we have come all that far. Just think what an albino child, or a really fat child or even just a child with bright red hair and freckles goes through during their primary school years. Some kids are strong and can deal with the mocking and the name-calling. But others cannot.

The fear of being made fun of and stared at keeps many people confined to their homes. In this way, they do not have to deal with anyone else except trusted family members and a close friend or two.

Right, I know it is probably just human nature to find something out of the ordinary worthy of a few stares. Not staring at people is one of the first things people try and teach their children. Often without success. There is a reason why the bearded lady was such a money-spinner at Victorian circuses.

If you want to know what people are really like, take a look at how they treat someone who doesn’t look the part, or is in a wheelchair, or is obese, or is mentally disabled. These people know a lot more about humanity than your average person in the street – or the lack of humanity.

Only one way to look
Our society is so set on what they think people should look like – even just getting old is a problem. Think about the advertisements you see on TV. Nine out of ten people are young, pretty, energetic. The only old ones are seen to be slightly batty, deaf, half blind or just downright helpless. They fart in lifts, can’t cross roads by themselves or are clearly out of tune with what’s going on around them. Not much chance of growing old gracefully if you judge by these ads.

But I was lucky. Unlike people with permanent disfigurements, I looked better by Saturday morning. By lunchtime I ventured to the post box in my front garden to take out the Friday post. And by Saturday evening I actually went to the corner shop.

But I would just like to spare a thought for people whose problem cannot be solved by antihistamines. I take my hat off to you. And to everyone else: don’t stare. It could have been you. There’s a human being in there. Let’s never forget that.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, January 2007)


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