A Borders man with facial palsy is appearing in a powerful film made by the charity Changing Faces as part of their Stop the Stare campaign.
Changing Faces is the UK’s leading charity for anyone with a disfigurement or visible difference – a scar, mark or condition on their face or body.
Atholl Mills (28) from Berwickshire was born with cystic hygroma and has facial palsy, following surgery which he says has brought about stares and cruel remarks.
This is Atholl’s story: “I’m Atholl, I’m 28 years old, and I’m a Changing Faces campaigner. I’m also a big user of social media and have a growing following on TikTok, where I share my thoughts and experiences on everything from fashion and music, to living life with a visible difference.
“I have cystic hygroma – a condition that causes cysts to form where you have lymph nodes. For me, it effects my head, ear, jaw and neck on my left side. I also have facial palsy which is permanent paralysis on the left side of my face caused by surgery when I was a baby.
“It wasn’t until I was about seven that I realised I looked different. A nasty comment from a boy in my class awakened my understanding that other people viewed me differently.
“From that moment I noticed the people staring in the street. I went from being an outgoing child to a teenager who hid away, even avoiding family days out.
“For me, stares are just as bad as abusive comments. When you’re on the receiving end of a stare, it can make you feel incredibly anxious. Is this going to escalate to verbal or physical abuse because of the way I look?”
“Being part of the Stop the Stare campaign means a lot to me. It’s so important that people realise that behaviours, like staring, can have a harmful impact on someone with a visible difference.
“I was taught as a child that staring is rude. There’s a difference between someone noticing you and a stare. So, I don’t think it’s ‘woke’ or being ‘a snowflake’ for people with visible differences and disfigurements to be reminding people that they really shouldn’t stare.
When you’re on the receiving end of a stare, it can make you feel incredibly anxious. Is this going to escalate to verbal or physical abuse because of the way I look? I’m left wondering what the person is thinking when they’re looking at me. That stare, that they might not ever think of again, could be played over and over in my mind -hours, days, even months later.
“If we all embraced and celebrated difference a bit more, I think that would help prevent negative behaviours like staring.”
Heather Blake, Chief Executive, Changing Faces says: “We had hoped the shared experience of the Covid-19 pandemic might promote a more understanding society, but for those with a visible difference or disfigurement, there’s actually been a marked increase in being on the receiving end of stares, comments and abuse when they go out in public.
“It’s simply not acceptable that people are experiencing negative behaviours, abuse and discrimination because of how they look.”
The charity is sharing the film, alongside tips for the public on how to avoid staring in the first place, as well as advice on what to do if you do catch yourself staring at someone with a visible difference.
Anyone dealing with the impact of staring, or other negative reactions, to their visible difference can contact Changing faces Support and Information Line service who can listen and direct people to the best support for them.