FACE IT: Facial Disfigurement and my Fight for Face Equality

6th July 2020


James Partridge, Director of Face Equality International and founder of Changing Faces has kindly shared the story behind his new memoir - FACE IT; a reflection on coming to terms with his facial disfigurement and the fight for face equality. This experience is no doubt familiar to many BAPRAS members and their patients, with much of James' reflections relating to his expectations and experience of the abilities of reconstructive plastic surgery at the time. Please take a look at the blog below to find out more.

In my formative adolescent years in the late 1960s, my conditioning about facial disfigurement was not positive in any way. It included visual images of tragic victims destined for a life in the shadows. Like the man with a burned face who made Susannah York shudder (and the whole cinema too) in the big-name Battle of Britain film of 1969. I later came to know Bill Foxley who played the part, a strong leader of the Guinea Pig Club and he was very far indeed from being tragic or a victim, but that was not the perception I nor the cinema audience went away with.


Then, prior to the Internet age, there were the movies and TV shows which deliberately used facial scarring to portray the evil characters. The Bond movies were notorious for this, most notably through Donald Pleasance’s portray of Blofeld, and horror movies also revelled in, even relied upon, the ability of those with facial scarring to scare.


Perhaps most tellingly, my understanding of what plastic surgery could do was informed by TV soaps like Dynasty where one of the heroes was severely injured in a helicopter accident/fire but returns a few months later to the show without so much as a blemish on his handsome features.


Thee unwittingly-held stereotypes would come to haunt me: facial disfigurement meant a second- or third-rate existence, was associated with moral depravity and nastiness, but could be ‘fixed’. They are still very strong in our society today, probably even more so.


My new book, FACE IT: Facial Disfigurement and My Fight for Face Equality, gives a no-holds-barred account of my struggle with these stereotypes, from being severely burned in late 1970, aged 18. In the space of 30 seconds in a car fire, my ‘near-perfect face’ which I prized so very highly — and my life — changed forever.


Instead of a gap year travelling, I was confined to a burns unit (Queen Mary’s Roehampton) and although I went up to university, every vacation and a whole year out were taken up with plastic surgery — and this went on for four years. I thought of my face as *IT*.

*IT* could not possibly be Me. From the first time of seeing *IT* in the mirror and for a long time, if I ever had to refer to *IT*, I refrained from talking of ‘my’ face. Inside me, it was *IT*. To others, I talked about my injuries, scars or skin grafts.


FACE IT describes my struggle to ‘face it’, to deal with other people’s reactions and my own sadness, loneliness, shame and anger, and how, over five long years, I found a way to break free of the stereotypes. By trial and error, I eventually found new self-respect and a new ‘me’ thanks to the support of friends and my family but with next to no professional counselling help.


Coming to terms with the aesthetic limits of the surgery I was receiving was hard and prolonged. The surgery was nothing less than brilliant — skilfully reconstructing some degree of normality and symmetry back into my face with clever skin grafting, Wolfe grafts and a huge long pedicle from my back — “a great result”. I was immensely grateful to the surgeons — Jim Evans, Tim Milward, John Clarke, John Gower and many others. But, and it was a gigantic BUT my face would never be anything other than ‘very not-perfect’. I had to face it.


There were many ups and downs over those five years of surgery and my frustration was sometimes uncontained. ‘Why have I been deceived?’ Lonely days spent at home or at university disliking *IT* were only endured by recourse to drink and recreational drugs. Going anywhere into the public eye reinforced my sense of being an outsider, a stigmatised person whose life would be forever on the margins.


What made a difference? There were no simple answers for me — FACE IT tells of my searching as like being in a wilderness. Part of my answer was to become a highly-informed patient. By asking incessant questions of my clinical team, I became an expert on what could be done to my face — and what could never be changed. The ‘locus of control’ shifted. I ceased to be a passive patient. I started to accept and eventually came to ‘own it’. “I’m very attached to my face” usually evokes some angst but I mean it… now.


But that was only part of my searching. By trial and error, I discovered I was still likeable, *IT* and all, lovable even; I found ways to manage the myriad of often-awkward social encounters that were necessary to endure the public gaze, the staring, the little children asking… Eventually after five years, maybe more, I debunked all the stigmas of disfigurement by finding robust self-respect and a new ‘me’. The stigmas have yet to be consigned to the dustbin of history but they could not touch me.


FACE IT is not just a Memoir. It is a self-help guide for anyone with a facial difference after accident, cleft lip and palate, facial cancer, Bell’s palsy, birthmarks, eye or skin conditions which draws on my 25 years of leading Changing Faces as we pioneered psycho-social interventions working closely with academics and clinicians. It is also a professional Manual for plastic and reconstructive surgeons and their teams — and how to help patients and families ‘face it’ too. Which even in the highly-visual world of social media with the vast internet of resources is no easier than when I set out.


Last but by no means least for the long run, FACE IT is a compelling Manifesto for face equality.


To order a signed copy of FACE IT: https://jamespartridge.wordpress.com/ordering-face-it-directly/


FACE IT is available from BookDepository, Amazon and other online booksellers in hard copy, e-book and audiobook formats.


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