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Do I Freak You Out? Living With Physical Scars

Approach a person with an obvious physical difference like a child might — openly, and with compassion, says writer Mary Elizabeth Williams.
Approach a person with an obvious physical difference like a child might — openly, and with compassion, says writer Mary Elizabeth Williams.

"Do I freak you out?" It's a question that haunts writer Mary Elizabeth Williams and others whom she describes as "physically different, in ways both small and large."

Williams' surgery to remove cancer more than a year ago left a 5 centimeter bald spot on the back of her head. She doesn't mind it — it's a badge of survival — but her daughter, Beatrice, fusses about it from time to time.

One day, Beatrice came home and told her about a conversation she had with a friend, who was born without a left hand. The girl asked Beatrice: "Do I freak you out?" It prompted Williams to write a piece for Salon.com, " Look at My Scars." In it, she writes that "the things that make us stand out .... can remind us of the most dramatic, heroic moments of our lives, and of every small indignity and cruelty that has happened since."

Williams tells NPR's Jennifer Ludden that Beatrice handled the question beautifully. "She said ... 'Why would you freak me out? I love you.' And then [Beatrice] kissed her on her wrist and [they] played." She was really proud of both girls for having a conversation that adults don't always handle well.

When it comes to scars and imperfections and things that make a person stand out, says Williams, "we feel uncomfortable addressing it, either in ourselves or when we see it in others." But she doesn't think it has to be that way.

"Obviously, everyone is different," Williams allows. "You don't know how people are going to react." But, "when you're coming at a person with honesty, and you're coming out of a genuine curiosity and empathy ... that I don't find offensive at all. And I think many of us don't."

To her, "it says I'm looking at you, and I'm curious about you, and I wonder about what it's like to walk in your shoes." And looking away can be more offensive than curiosity. "I'm much more hurt when people don't want to ask me what's going on ... [because] it says I freak you out. It says I make you uncomfortable or I'm weird or I'm ugly."

But she says there is a compassionate way to interact with people who have obvious physical differences without talking about it, if that makes you more comfortable: "I think you can just always tell the difference when someone is trying to be discreet and someone is trying to be respectful and when somebody is just kind of grossed out. And that's something that really is communicated to people."

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