Reacting to Visible Differences

We teamed up with Face Equality International to help create a world where everyone is treated fairly, regardless of what they look like. During Face Equality Week, Phoenix Society is advocating for awareness and acceptance for those with visible differences. Part of this movement is educating the community on how to react to those with visible differences. 

We’re all different – whether you have scars or not. Some of our differences are visible, and some are not. As humans, it’s natural for us to notice our differences, but for those with visible differences, they can face unpleasant stares and discrimination. 


Look, Don’t Stare 

It’s completely normal to look when we see something different or unusual. As a burn survivor with visible scarring, I understand the curiosity around my burn scars. Chances are, I may be the first burn survivor that someone has ever seen. While I don’t mind if you look at my scars – it does make me uncomfortable if you stare. Looking or glancing at my scars for a brief second is ok whereas a fixed or elongated look is not. Looking for more than a second or letting your look linger can cause uncomfortableness for many with visible differences. You know that feeling when you think someone is talking about you? I get the same feeling when I feel someone staring, and it’s not a great feeling. Remember – we have differences, mine might just be more visible.

For many burn survivors, stares can cause discomfort and even anxiety. According to Changing Face’s 2017 Study “Disfigurement in the UK”, more than 80% of people with visible differences experience staring, comments or unpleasantness from strangers. We have the power to bring acceptance and awareness to those with visible differences by educating others on how to react. 


It’s Ok to Ask 

If you see someone with scars or another visible difference, it’s ok to ask them what happened but it is important to acknowledge that people have different feelings about their scars and may react differently to questions about them. If you’re not sure how to approach someone with a visible difference, here are a few tips:

  • Start with “Do you mind if I asked what happened?” or “Would it be ok if I asked what happened?” Be genuine in your approach.
  • They may not want to share: If they do not want to share what happened, smile and say, “I understand.” Some survivors are not ready to tell their story and it’s important to respect that.
  • One suggested way to respond if someone shares their story, “I’m sorry that happened to you, are you ok now?” or “Thank you for sharing, I hope you are ok now.”
  • If you don’t know what to say, say “I’m not sure what to say but thank you for sharing.”
  • Be empathetic: Put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself if what you’re about to say might be triggering or problematic – if you aren’t sure, refer to the first few bullet points. Be genuine and understand that they may not want to share. 
  • Say thank you: After you ask, be sure to thank them for sharing their story. Becoming comfortable and confident enough to share your story with a stranger is a journey. 


Tips for Parents

Children are naturally more curious and inquisitive, especially when they see someone or something that looks different. Children also have the tendency to speak out about what’s on their mind and for parents, it’s important to teach children how to respond to visible differences.

  • Teach children early on that we all have differences and that we should celebrate these differences: Remind them that being different is ok, and it’s also ok to notice and talk about it.
  • If your child is staring, have a conversation with them on why it’s not polite to stare rather than yelling at them to stop.
  • Don’t shy away from differences: If your child blurts out something like “what’s wrong with that lady’s skin?” don’t hide from the situation. It isn’t a secret when someone has a visible difference so help your child approach the situation in the correct way. Helping your child to ask the right questions will teach them how to approach someone with visible differences in the future. As mentioned above, they may not want to share, and we should respect their space. 
  • Remember: Children are curious, and they are allowed to be. Rather than teaching them not to stare or avoiding the situation, allow them to be curious but teach them how to do so respectfully.


For a survivor with visible differences, there are tips and strategies to help you navigate staring and curiosity. Phoenix Society has several resources to help you navigate these experiences. If you need additional support, please contact Phoenix Society.