By Hannah Tyler
In the first episode of Killing Eve’s second season, Villanelle ends up in hospital. Beside her is a child who has lost his parents in a car accident and in the process had his face disfigured. After telling her he doesn’t want to live like this, she snaps his neck.
Vilanelle’s actions are intended to shock and horrify you. But you are also supposed to understand why the boy, Gabriel, might not want to live disfigured. His face looks garish—all blood and an empty eye socket.
But that’s not true, is it? With a good plastic surgeon and a false eye you wouldn’t notice that much (although losing vision, even partial can have its own emotional toll). But, guys look cool with scars.
Maybe for two days every six months to a year, I get really sensitive about my scar. Most of the time I don’t think about it. I found a study, quite old, of how men and women were rated by their attractiveness with or without scars. I remember looking at the graph of women with scars, with the lowest rating, and feeling so hemmed in by that box. Like my personality had been wiped and flattened to fit. This weird bizarro version of me: woman with scar. I use scientific papers all the time for my writing, and here was a scientific paper declaring in black and white that I was less desirable. And it’s something I know to be bullshit, because I’ve never had trouble finding someone who thinks I am beautiful. But along with my discovery of that study came a more sinister, sneaky feeling that this was proof of all the signals society sends me. What the movies reinforce: that I am defective, that there’s something wrong with me. That I am, and always will be, marked.
Five years later I can’t find that study. It has been replaced with a paper from 2009 that proved that men with scars were more attractive than men without scars, at least as short-term partners. Women apparently are equally attractive now, with or without scars:
“For each picture, volunteers were asked to guess whether the scar was from a fight, an accident or illness. The men’s scars were often blamed on a violent encounter, while those on women were often attributed to accidents.
“When scarring is seen as the result of a violent encounter, it signifies strength or bravery in a guy, or it could be due to an accident, and so evidence of a risk-taking personality. Either way, it’s another way of assessing a man’s masculinity”.
Men are the makers of their own scars. Their scar is an accident from risk-taking behaviour. Women’s accidents happen to them. I will be read as female, and it will be assumed that my scar happened to me.
It is so ridiculous being advertised products to reduce the size of my pores or wrinkles when I have a fucking scar running down my cheek. In that way I’m free. Free from the messages constantly played over and over again to us by ads, by magazines. There is no miracle cream for a deformed face and I’m just fine. I’m the girl at the end of the ad who got the date. Who laughs casually in her expensive living room. Who goes out dancing with her friends. I’m the after.
I get reminded in weird ways. When headphones fall out of one ear, when I first got contact lenses and I struggled to fit them in my left eye but not my right. A passport photo, the only time where I’m symmetrical enough to show that my face caves in slightly on one side. My jaw isn’t deformed. It’s just the soft tissue. I think—I don’t really know anything about my own condition.
I found a Daily Mail article about a woman’s social media campaign and trip to the US to get reconstructive surgery. The title described her as having ‘half a face’ [Author’s note: I’m not linking to it, because it’s the Daily Mail]. I found a programme about two kids with Goldenhar’s meeting for the first time. One of them has a scar shaped just like mine. It goes out the side of his mouth, and curves up slowly. When I saw it, it made me really happy.
The first time I felt like this was when I met the son of someone I went to uni with. I recognised the look, the features sliding slightly down on one side of his face. The not-quite-formed ear. When asked about people I’ve met who look similar to me, I still think about him. Even though to anyone else, he looks nothing like me.
In the film The Favourite, Rachel Weisz’s character gets a scar across her cheek. This is the greatest gift to women with scars in films. But Queen Anne leaves her and she covers it up with black lace.
Goldenhar Syndrome is a congenital deformity named after the man who identified it in 1952. I got it in 1987. It was an accident of birth that happened to me.
My mother has always made reference to skin tags but I’d never seen them, or remembered seeing them, until I was looking through photos at my grandad’s. There are two growths of skin shaped like droplets hanging off the side of my cheek near my ear. It looks odd. I like it. I’m glad I don’t have them now.
My friend said it was so retarded to describe something being fucked up.
I asked if we could not say that word anymore please.
Next time I saw her she used it again.
I had a conversation with a friend from work about being annoyed that deformed is a word that we aren’t supposed to use anymore. I like the word. It’s true and it makes other people uncomfortable. He looked really confused and was very nicely trying to tell me that maybe that wasn’t a good idea until I realised that he had not noticed that I was deformed. He had never noticed my scar. I’m supposed to feel relieved about this. My face was sewed up so I would look normal. I’m supposed to want to look normal. But I just felt like a fraud.
Sometimes when I’m at work I see portraits of people from the First World War with reconstructed faces. They make me happy. Maybe they shouldn’t, because their difference is a result of violence, and I’ve never experienced anything like that. If I was a woman in a film, I would have got my scar in a tragic backstory that I had to overcome. I was five when I had plastic surgery. I don’t have a good long term memory, but I do remember my parents seeming very worried. I couldn’t work out why they were upset. I got a Care Bear toy with a rainbow on the front and I got to eat jelly.
I often think about what my experience would be like if I was born 100 years ago. Or 1,000 years ago. People have had needles and thread for a long time. Would my mouth have been sewn up or would it be open to the world? Would I work in a freak show? Or maybe I would cover it with a handkerchief when I talked? Would I have had lovers?
One of my exes, a good partner, told me when he first met me that he first liked me because I reminded him of a Bond girl. In the books, apparently, they always have ‘flaws’, like scars or birthmarks, in a way that only the villains do in the films. This is how you know they are evil. In the same way, villains often get queer coded, or have specific racial traits.
Several years later when we had broken up, his friend, a film reviewer, posted an article about the BFI no longer funding films with negative depictions of visible difference with the caption over the top, reactionary, and short sighted. The comments declared that it was ridiculous. I thought that maybe if I explained in the comments that I am facially disfigured! This makes me happy! And I explained my experience—one that they maybe had not thought of? had never considered?—that they would think about it and change their minds!
They took the time to explain how I was wrong about my experience. Over and over. This is something that I am told happens to people of colour, and other minoritised groups every day and I was merely getting a taste of it.
I don’t know if my ex-boyfriend saw the post. But he said nothing in the comments, or to his friend. I think about every time he had ever called me beautiful, and how useless it was. Because really I want to be ugly. I like to be ugly, I like to be broken and have people treat me like I am worth something anyway. Because I am defective, but the idea that it makes me any less whole doesn’t come from me. It’s external and invasive and comes from those coded lessons in pop culture, over and over. I would give back every time he called me beautiful for an eventuality where he stepped in and told all those people that they were wrong.
My current boyfriend has scars on his chest, and shunts in his head that stop him from dying. I don’t think about them most of the time. It was an accident that happened to him. I don’t think his scars show his masculinity or are proof of risk-taking behaviour. I think he is more than a short-term partner.
One time I saw a one-eyed kitten that was up for adoption pouncing happily around its cage. And I thought it would be a good fit for us, and the idea of the three of us together made me really happy.
Authors note: The piece has been changed to add some details that were unintentionally omitted on publication.