As always, I approach my summer holidays with the intention of reading lots of good books, and as always I end up reading a pile of easily digested – and easily forgotten – crime novels.
This summer would have been no different if I hadn’t come across a book that’s neither easy to digest nor easy to forget. And it isn’t a crime novel.
Facing Up To It is a deeply moving yet unsentimental memoir by Dawn Shaw, who was born with a fist-sized tumour protruding from her neck, the removal of which meant she lost half of her chin and rendered the left half of her face paralysed.
As a child, teenager and young woman she endured countless reconstructive surgeries in an attempt to achieve a ‘normal’ looking face. Each time she went under the knife she hoped and expected that the doctors would finally ‘fix’ her but each time she was left hugely disappointed by the very limited change in her appearance.
Following a failed operation at the age of 21, which nearly claimed her life, Dawn Shaw decided that she’d had enough of doctors and hospitals. She’d finally come to appreciate that there are limits to what the surgeons can accomplish and that she will always look different.
Yet well-meaning people often ask her if she’d consider having more work done on her face now that medical technology has advanced so significantly.
I’ve come across plenty people with facial differences who, like Dawn Shaw, get asked why they don’t have more surgery. There are at least two erroneous assumptions inherent in such questions, no matter how innocently they may be presented.
Firstly, there’s a mistaken assumption that plastic surgery can fix everything these days. It can’t.
Whereas in the make-believe world of television and the movies, car-crash survivors check into a posh clinic and emerge with a whole new, and perfectly shaped, face, in real life it’s almost impossible for a plastic surgeon, no matter how skilled, to completely remove every trace of a facial disfigurement.
In Dawn Shaw’s case, for example, her facial paralysis imposes limitations on what results surgeons can achieve, and as she concluded herself, the physical, emotional and financial cost of undergoing more surgery were no longer worth it for her.
“Besides,” she says, “I’ve reached a certain degree of acceptance. I’ve gotten used to who I am, and I am afraid that changing my face would change my identity.”
That brings me straight to the second mistaken assumption, namely that everyone with a significant facial difference, whether acquired at birth of later on in life, would want to do everything possible to restore their face to what society deems ‘normal.’
That’s simply not true. There are people out there with pretty significant facial differences who’ve consciously chosen to forego any surgery beyond what’s medically necessary and who go about their lives perfectly happy and well-adjusted.
How we feel about ourselves has a huge bearing on how we’re viewed by others, whether we’ve got a facial difference or not. As Dawn Shaw reminds us in her other book, Facial Shift: Adjusting to an Altered Appearance,
“Your sense of worth and your happiness should not be based on what anyone else thinks of you. If you are constantly trying to please someone else hoping they will like you better, then you are compromising your own identity…If you like yourself, then it follows that others will like you.”
At a conference last year, I met a woman whose ten-year-old daughter was born with the craniofacial condition known as Crouzon syndrome.
Apart from the operations necessary for the girl’s growth and long-term health, the woman told the conference, her daughter was adamant that she had no interest in pursuing operations purely aimed at improving her appearance, for she was perfectly happy they way she was.
This girl’s story shows, and as Dawn Shaw points out, that “it’s not how you look; rather, it’s how you feel about how you look that makes the difference in how you interact with the world.”
For more about Dawn Shaw, author and motivational speaker, see her website, http://www.facinguptoit.com