My Colleague’s Disfigurement

By: Agathe Silvagni

Matt is my work colleague. We work at the same bank in the city of London. Few months ago, management announced a change in the dress code to casual. This doesn’t particularly catch my attention, until later...

On Monday we have a morning meeting. We are about a dozen in attendance. Matt is there, he is wearing a short sleeves polo shirt. For the first time, I see his skin. The skin of his arms. I can tell his right arm is burned entirely. I am very intrigued. It is as if I was seeing the cover of a book I now really want to read, a story I want to know. My perception of him immediately changes, and many thoughts and questions arise.He had a secret, all this time.I start to wonder: What did he think when dressing up that morning? Does he notice that we notice? Can we talk about it? Or is it taboo? Is he used to his disfigurement, or is the mirror always a reminder? Is he proud, because it's distinctive? Or ashamed?

I go home with all my questions. I would love to have answers but I am worried about Matt’s reaction. It’s not something we normally do: to point at people’s differences and ask about them. I am worried he will feel insulted, or that he will think I am intrusive, not professional. Maybe he will feel judged and observed? I don't want him to feel uncomfortable. Or maybe I am projecting my own discomfort on him?I start to think how I could bring up the conversation, smoothly, naturally, and this blog seems to be the perfect excuse. I have been reading and supporting it from the beginning, and now it is my opportunity to have one of those conversations.

One day, it is just the two of us on the way out from the office, and I seize the opportunity. I say: Look, my friend has this blog that I find extremely interesting about people with disfigurement, people with burns among other things. Listening to Maria Luisa, the blog author, I got passionate about the topic, about understanding these points of views. And I would like to have yours. Would you mind having a chat about your scars?

After a long pause, he says he would be happy to. Immediately, I feel much lighter.When we meet, I first tell him how I felt  that Monday, when I noticed his scars. Then, I ask him how he feels to be brought into this conversation. First, he tells me that the accident happened when he was a baby so he doesn't remember it. What he knows is that his parents still feel guilty. He also had to learn to write with his left hand. He remembers he was wearing a kind of wetsuit to protect the scars for a while. He grew up with it. He started to be aware of the scars as something that made him different when he would go to the beach, as a young teenager, because other kids would look at him insistently.

Today, Matt is very aware of people’s looks. He tells me some people stare and don't comment. He says that they probably don't even realise that their gaze is persistent. He is used to it by now. He recalls some stories. One time, someone touched his scars without asking. He finds it strange that people he doesn't know feel entitled to break this natural barrier set between strangers. Yet there is no judgement in Matt’s words. He simply recounts and is observant. He confides in me that up to this point, he has never had a deep conversation about his scars, the implications and what others could think of them. He said my questions were interesting and that he didn't feel uncomfortable.

The most common question Matt gets is “how did this happen?”. At this point he shares with me that he is surprised that I haven’t asked him this. That's what most people want to know, he says. I don't want to. I think that he is allowed to keep a part of his story to himself. And I find the question voyeuristic and intrusive.Matt raises an interesting point, however. People are respectful when they know you went through a difficult experience like a divorce or a bereavement. They show sympathy but respect the privacy and would never ask for more details. But disfigurement triggers different reactions. Why? Is it because it is visible? Because it is less common? More extraordinary in the way it happens?


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