I was bullied for my facial differenceSeptember 7, 2021
Sitting in the back of the car one evening when I was 14 years old, I noticed two older girls laughing and pointing at me through the window.
Sadly, I was no stranger to situations like this so I tried to ignore it. However, a few moments later, I saw that they were trying to take a picture of me.
I froze, feeling embarrassed and not knowing what to do. It made me feel like I was some kind of animal in a zoo.
What may have seemed like a harmless bit of fun for those girls made me feel very upset and ruined my day – but the emotional impact of bullying like this during my formative years stayed with me for a long time. I’m only now starting to embrace my differences.
I was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate, meaning my face didn’t fuse together properly in the womb so I was left with gaps in my lip, gums and my palate. I also have a condition called amniotic band syndrome, which makes my fingers and toes look different. Some of them are shorter and shaped differently.
When I was just four months old, I had my first operation on my cleft to repair the gaps in my upper lip. This was just one of the nine surgeries I’ve had over the years.
My differences weren’t something that I thought about much when I was younger. I knew that I didn’t look the same as my friends and that not everyone had surgery almost every year, but I never questioned it because it was just life for me.
My conditions have caused me quite a bit of physical pain over the years due to surgery and difficulties using my hands and feet, but not as much pain as the torment of bullying. It was because of this bullying when I was about 13 years old that I became very aware of ‘looking different’. People would stare, laugh and joke about me with their friends.
Groups of older boys would dare each other to come up to me and make a sarcastic comment about how my face looked as if it was some kind of game. It was these situations that I found myself in every day that really caused my confidence to drop.
I felt as though everyone thought I was this weird girl and that my differences were something that I should hide. I couldn’t walk along the corridor without worrying someone was going to shout something at me or laugh as I walked past. I would just hold my head down and wait to hear the insults.
Although my parents were very supportive, I found it quite difficult to talk about at first because it used to make me feel very upset. I sometimes questioned, ‘why me?’ because I didn’t know anyone else with visible differences and this often led me to feel alone.
Some days, I felt completely overwhelmed because I found it tough dealing with my conditions on top of the stresses of school and just being a young teenager.
It is so difficult when you are trying to live a normal life and yet are constantly being reminded that you’re different by people staring and making comments. I became quite self-conscious and I always worried what people were thinking about me.
After the incident in the car at 14 years old, I decided to get in touch with the clinical psychologist who was part of the cleft team at the hospital. I was able to have a few sessions with her to talk through my worries and although it wasn’t easy for me at first, I gradually started getting used to it.
We spoke about some of the bullying I’d experienced and how it had left me feeling like I needed to hide my differences and she got in contact with my school to help me feel more supported.
During one of these sessions, I told my psychologist that I sometimes felt alone and that I wanted to meet someone like me, so she told me about the charity Changing Faces, which provides counselling and wellbeing support for children with a visible difference and their families.
When I turned 16, I joined the charity’s online support forum where I instantly felt welcomed. Soon after that, I attended one of the charity’s workshops for young people and I met lots of other children with visible differences who had been through similar experiences to me.
It made me feel so happy to finally meet people who understood me and I already started to feel less isolated. I was able to speak to a girl who was a similar age and who also had a cleft. We had so much in common and sharing experiences with each other was so comforting.
The more sessions I attended, the more I realised that there was nothing wrong with being different. I began to accept that my visible differences were a part of my life and this made them a lot easier to talk about.
Then lockdown happened. While I know the pandemic has been really hard for lots of young people, for me it gave me a break from the stresses of school. I had time to reflect on myself and I became a lot more self-aware.
I also decided to have some one-to-one counselling. Although I had come a long way since my sessions with the psychologist, there were still some things I found difficult like showing my hands and feet in public.
Having the chance to talk about my worries was so helpful, and I also learnt some valuable techniques for coping with comments and staring. For example, I learnt how to briefly explain my conditions if I am asked about them and to make the situation less uncomfortable.
Although visible differences are very much a physical thing, I think people need to realise how much of an emotional impact they can have too. I now live confidently with my visible differences and that’s why I’m speaking out.
I want other young people to be able to feel the same and realise that they aren’t alone. I also want people who may look different to be able to go to school without the fear of being bullied every day.
I think one of the main reasons why bullying happens is due to a lack of awareness. One in five young people say that they or someone they know has felt uncomfortable and walked away from someone with a visible difference and only a quarter say they would be friends with someone with a visible difference.
I feel that if more people were educated about visible differences, then things like this would not happen as often.
One day, I hope to live in a world where visible differences aren’t seen as something to fear or make fun of but something to celebrate.
Changing Faces is the UK’s leading charity for everyone who has a scar, mark or condition that makes them look different. For advice or support see their website here or call 0300 012 0275.
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