My Face is Not a Halloween Costume

2 years ago

When I was a small child, about three years old, I had a Snow White doll and a wicked stepmother doll. Snow White, of course, was beautiful: pale skin, ebony hair and a yellow and blue silk (probably highly flammable nylon) dress with puffed sleeves. The wicked stepmother had a disfigured face.

She was yellow, wrinkled and contorted, with a pronounced nose - complete with a wart on the tip - and long sharpened fingernails. I remember being scared of her, hiding my face when my parents brought her to me, playing with her less than Snow White, and even speaking badly to and of her. I stored her with her face down, not wanting to scare my other dolls with her face. She was a plastic doll, for goodness sake, but because she looked different, she scared me. She was, after all, the wicked stepmother, and her wickedness was depicted by her appearance. And, ironically, I didn't know any better.

Sometimes when small children see me, they are scared, and vocalize or gesticulate their fears.

They tell their parents they're scared or hide behind their parents' legs. Honestly, this saddens me; I don't want to scare anyone. I think that it's because they've not seen people with visible differences before, but I also believe it's because they have seen masks and screen characters who are depicted as evil. Think Freddy Kruger, Scarface and Two Face. Does this evil come about because the characters are lashing out over the misfortune of looking different and the associated social reactions?

(A side note: the IMDB lists 31 films featuring people with disfigurements. The film synopses show that some of the characters who are disfigured are perceived as evil -- some actually do commit evil acts -- but when others get to know them, they're regarded as normal, intelligent, and beautiful even. A few of the story lines see characters' appearance become "normal" upon finding love. Vomit.)

A friend of mine who has a cleft palate said:

I dislike it when horror movie characters are depicted as having facial abnormalities because of "inbreeding." I've lost count of the amount of times I've seen clefts & other facial anomalies depicted as being something that only happens to inbred weirdos, and that really bothers me because it's not at all true.

At Halloween, a largely celebrated, primarily American holiday (but one which is creeping into Australian culture) held annually on 31 October, some people costume up as blackface or similar cultural (mis)appropriation and (mis)representation.

There's a campaign started by Ohio University (and run at other American universities) called "I'm a culture, not a costume" educating students of the racial stereotyping through dressing up as a person from another culture.

Ryan Lombardi from the Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) program at Ohio University told CNN:

I think it's a clean way of raising awareness of how the costumes you choose might be offensive. In many cases, students aren't doing it maliciously, but they might not realize the consequences of their actions on others.

Furthermore, Jelani Cobb, a professor of Africana studies at Rutgers University, told CNN:

The more we look at people as caricatures, the harder it is to operate as democracy. What underlies this kind of costuming is the belief that these people aren't quite equal to what we are or aren't as American as we are, or that you as a person who's not a member of that group should be able to dictate how painful the stereotype should be.

Similarly at Halloween, an event steeped in supernatural and superstitious traditions, people don the scary face. They wear scary face masks and characterize themselves as well-known evil characters with facial disfigurements. Most of the scary face masks represent evil and are designed to shock. This store sells a huge range of Halloween masks -- to change Halloween goers' faces into scarred, burned, contorted, eyeless, skinless characters.

Image: Casey Fleser via Flickr

But what about the people who have to live with visible differences for their whole life? Our faces are not costumes, and nor should our faces be appropriated in them.

While I might be raining on the candy wrapper-littered parade, I am wondering why scary face is still tolerated. Sure Halloween is a bit of fun, with trick-or-treating and a chance to dress up in a supernatural theme (or a character), but what message is dressing up in scary face giving about people living with facial difference?

That people with disfigurements are to be feared, and mocked on this holiday? (As an aside, Asda and Tesco -- two English supermarkets -- sold costumes mocking mental health. The costumes have since been removed from sale after Mind, an English mental health charity, spoke out about the costumes.)

It's sad that some people's perceptions of visible difference may come from scary face at Halloween and on-screen.

My friend Roni, whose six-year-old son Corbin has a prominent visible difference (a lymphatic malformation of the face), told me:

I haven't seen much like that at Halloween. It's more been ghosts and zombies and the like, but I have always hated that villains from fairy tales were ugly or deformed, or that being ugly was a curse for ugly behaviour that was lifted when the character learned how to be "beautiful" on the inside, whereupon their outsides suddenly match. I do understand that fairy tales are medieval in origin, but still. Slight deviation from question, but I have been approached at comic cons and asked where Corbin got his mask from. I always wondered what they thought he was dressing up as.

Corbin and his family celebrated Halloween early, and I've seen some gorgeous pictures of him getting into the spirit of things - with face paint and zombie poses. Another friend with a visible difference told me seeing people dress up as scary face doesn't bother her too much. And Jack's grandmother said that while little Jack, who has Ichthyosis, loves trick-or-treating, a few people have asked him whether he's painted his face. (A question I sometimes get -- "I see you've painted your face tonight; a fancy dress party?" people ask me.)

James Partridge, CEO of Changing Faces, who has previously spoken about the impact of disfigured screen characters, writes about Halloween masks on his blog. He's decided that while there is a problem with facial disfigurement depicted as evil, some children with facial disfigurements enjoy celebrating Halloween:

The ghoulish and scary face masks that are sold in the annual mini retail boom around Halloween – none of them are branded as ‘let’s pick on people with scars, eye patches and asymmetry’. They don’t need to. Everyone accepts –- unwittingly, perhaps? -- that this is the time of year when children dress up to scare the wits out of others… and if the face masks are extreme, they simply reflect the idea that skulls and skeletons are ghostly and scary.

Is this OK?

Every year, Changing Faces has a problem with Halloween. We debate it but always end up concluding that whilst it is tiresome to have facial disfigurement associated with evil (again), we don’t want to be killjoys -- and, actually, some children with disfigurements find the whole event rather fun too, able to indulge themselves behind a mask without worrying.

Perhaps for some with visible differences, Halloween is a chance to hide behind a mask, to temporarily change our appearances. As a child, I hated wearing a mask because of how it scratched my skin and left me feeling dry. But at times, I did want to have a different face. I wonder if children with visible differences who celebrate Halloween wear masks depicting beauty, rather than scary face? Princesses and princes, and characters they admire and appearances they aspire to have?

Maybe scary face isn't harming anyone, though I see it so similar to blackface, cultural misrepresentation, and stereotyping of people with visible differences. STARS believes those who costume up as black face and other cultures aren't intending to cause offence, but aren't aware of the impacts on those affected.

I'd like to see scary face ruled out as a Halloween costume, like STARS is aiming to do with its racial awareness campaign. Maybe we can complain to costume manufacturers and distributors, requesting them to remove such masks from sale, explaining the offensive portrayal. Halloween revelers need to choose their costumes more cautiously. I know -- the fun police strikes again -- but there are so many ways to dress up at Halloween without being offensive. Personally, if I celebrated Halloween, I'd go with a unicorn onesie.

Most of all, I'd like to see facial disfigurements portrayed more positively -- as heroes, not villains.

Carly Findlay is an award-winning writer, speaker, TV presenter and appearance activist from Australia. She likes food, travel and Darren Hayes. Carly blogs about all of her loves, as well as what it’s like to live with a visible difference, at

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