I remember once developing a large sore on my lip and being ashamed to have anybody see my face. As embarrassed as I felt, I took comfort in knowing this mar on my appearance was temporary. So I only got a small taste of what it must be like for people who are disfigured for a longer period of time or even permanently. Why can an alternation in our physical appearance so significantly affect our sense of identity and self worth? In part, we justifiably fear being less loved and valued if we’re no longer attractive. As Daniel Sulmasy writes,
“From childhood, people learn not to pity but to laugh at those who are not beautiful. Later in life, the homely and deformed are passed over in job interviews. They have trouble finding love. No one wants to be seen with them at work or in social circles. The ugly and the deformed have always been among the greatest outcasts in any society, but perhaps never so much before as in our own media-saturated twenty-first century.”
But there is more to it than that. Our appearance, the face we present to others and to ourselves in the mirror, is one of the primary ways that we are identified and known. When you think about a person, an image of his or her face comes to mind. When you want to know who somebody is, you look on Google for a facial image. So when your facial appearance is altered, one of the major ways that you are known is changed.
These considerations came to mind when reading a fascinating article in The Verge about people undergoing facial transplantation. In this procedure, victims of disfiguring injuries, such as severe burns, receive a face harvested from another person who suddenly died. Although individuals undergoing facial transplantation have already experienced a radical change in their appearance, researchers are studying the psychological impact of taking on somebody else’s face.
All of this confers greater significance to the stories in the gospels of Jesus healing people with the skin disease of leprosy. In that time and place, leprosy carried a severe stigma, rendering you “unclean” and banished from the community. In touching and healing leprous persons, Jesus was affirming their dignity and worth, removing their status as outcasts.
Pondering the subject of faces, my thoughts return to my son’s condition of autism and its relationship to early childhood development. We now know that newborn infants show a visual preference for faces over other complex visual stimuli. By 7 months of age they discriminate facial expressions, showing a different electrical brain pattern response to different emotional faces. Children with autism are observed to pay less attention to facial expressions and other social stimuli so that, usually unbeknownst to their parents, less learning is occurring at a crucial developmental period. If you were to observe the therapist that works with my son, you’d notice her emotional enthusiasm and vivid facial expressions. It’s something that seems to be present in most professionals who effectively work with young children. And I now understand why.