Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1998
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JUNE 1998




S C I E N C E    &    T E C H N O L O G Y

"When Life Imitates Science"
Author's Notebook
By Melissa Hendricks

Faces evoke immediate, knee-jerk emotions. Some instill fear or horror. Others charm or seduce.

We're told from a very young age not to judge a book by its cover. But the fact is that we do, and only through effort and experience do we learn that the "cover" can be wrong. A person with a severely deformed face could have a heart of gold. A starlet's glamorous looks could mask a venomous soul. Likewise, if we're wise, we also learn to recognize that facial expression can disguise emotions. (What if politicians were not masters of facial control, so that every lie or prevarication immediately registered on their countenance? It would change the course of world history!)

In doing the research for this story, I amassed booklets and pamphlets that contain photographs of children and adults with various craniofacial disorders. Given this liberty to stare without offending anyone, I forced myself to look long and hard at these pictures. There's no denying that many of them are disturbing. Many at first made me flinch.

But the longer I stared at these images, the less I recoiled, and the more I saw a person, not just a face.

Joan Richtsmeier was unabashedly honest when she said that she wants her daughter Faith to look normal. Faith would have an easier time of growing up if her appearance fell within the "normal" range. That's reality.

Today, it is somewhat impolite to use words like "normal" and "abnormal" when describing someone's appearance. However, there is a "normal" range of facial geometry. Perhaps because of something primal or something we learn at a very young age, we recoil from faces that are outside of this range.

People probably always will form an immediate emotional response to a person's appearance, and that response is not necessarily kind or fair. But I also think there is a positive note to these ramblings. I believe that we, as a society, are learning to pause and reflect on our initial reactions before forming a lasting judgement about a person's character. In other words, we're taking longer to judge the "book" after seeing its cover. We're slowly debunking the old myths and taboos about people with cleft lip and palate, for instance. And certain medical journals, which once used the term "FLK," or "funny-looking kid" to describe children with craniofacial disorders, I'm told, no longer use this term. We're getting better at getting beyond the cover.