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“Confidence is definitely a journey": Life with a visible difference

Bronwen tells Now Then about the impact of community and charity Changing Faces. 


Growing up with a visible difference has had an impact on Bronwen’s life. But while the multiple surgeries and treatments she has had for her cleft lip and palate and amniotic band syndrome have been a big part of that, she tells me that the emotional impact has been bigger.

Now aged 18 and set to go to university in a few weeks’ time, Bronwen explains what life is like when you have a visible difference.

I've gone through lots of bullying, I've been stared at, laughed at, pointed out, called names and things like that throughout my life.

Bronwen has had friends and family on her side, but strangers and bullies have always been present, too. Sam Killick, Wellbeing Co-ordinator for Children and Young People at Changing Faces, tells me that these are not uncommon experiences. Changing Faces is the UK’s leading charity for anyone with a mark, scar or condition that affects their appearance.

Dealing with other people’s prejudices has left Bronwen struggling with her confidence at times.

Confidence is definitely a journey. It's something that was really knocked when I was bullied.

I used to want to hide the fact that I was different, and I wouldn't ever want to talk about it. So it just made me really emotional. But over the years, I have really built up that confidence.

And I really think one of the biggest things that's helped me with that is practising talking about it and getting more comfortable bringing it up, and explaining to people what it's like and really speaking out. Even though it was really uncomfortable at first, the more I do it, the more confident I become.

Changing Faces offers a range of different services and runs media campaigns to highlight the prejudice and discrimination that people can face because of having a visible difference.

One of the services is workshops for young people with a visible difference, as well as offering counselling, workshops for parents, resources for schools, a skin camouflage service, and a support and information line.

Sam, along with colleague Julie Carr, runs workshops offering help and advice to deal with things like staring, bullying, awkward social situations, and low self-esteem. Using imagery of ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) and looking at how children and young people can celebrate themselves, as well as techniques such as ERD (explain, reassure, divert), attendees can leave with improved confidence and tools to help them navigate life as somebody with a visible difference.

Support from Changing Faces has been integral to Bronwen’s progress since she has attended these workshops, meeting other young people with a visible difference and ultimately becoming a Champion within the organisation.

I think [something] that has helped a lot along that journey has been just realising that I'm not alone. Because it did feel quite isolating at first, when I was a young teenager especially. I didn't really feel like there was anyone like me out there.

And when you feel that isolated, your confidence is of course going to be pretty low, isn't it? But the second that I did start to find other people like me online and then get involved with Changing Faces, and meet even more people like myself and just hear about others' experiences, it really empowered me.

And just knowing that I was a part of this community has totally lifted my confidence.

Of course, not everything is smooth sailing, and Bronwen tells me that things are not always great.

There's still days where I do just want to hide away. But it's definitely something that has improved from where I used to be.

I was interested to know what it’s like to be a young person with a visible difference at a time when everything is immortalised in selfies and group photos. Bronwen says that, while she’s not a big user of social media herself, she has sometimes found it difficult when friends take group snaps.

I'd always make sure that they asked me first because I just wanted to make sure that I was comfortable with whatever was going out online.

And don't get me wrong, I'm on this journey to self-acceptance. But there's been times and there still are days when I don't always like things about me.

Sam tells me this is not an unusual concern.

We do cover social media within the workshops, as well the role of social media, and ways to make that as healthy as possible. Because obviously social media can be supportive as well as negative.

Bronwen got involved with Changing Faces on the advice of a psychologist who was part of her clinical team, and her experience of meeting others with similar life stories has been profound.

It was honestly incredible. It has been such a life-changing thing for me. Because when I went to these workshops, it just felt like such a safe place where I could just be myself.

It really did change my life. I think the community feeling was just so important to me. And it was really helpful when it came to that journey of self-love and acceptance, meeting other people, realising that I'm not the only one going through what I am...

But these people still have a life outside of their conditions. And yes, we have these things that make us who we are. But we're also way more than that.

And realising that there was people who had my back and they knew exactly how I was feeling and just feeling less alone was just such a massive thing for me, and it changed how I viewed myself.

I managed to embrace my differences after that, and I realised that they don't need to be something that I need to hide away. I can actually celebrate them because I'm part of such an amazing community.

Bronwen is carrying that positivity forwards in her plans to study counselling and psychotherapy at university. Being a person with a visible difference has given her an insight into the difficulties people can face.

I feel like [my conditions] made me really understanding of people, I try and bring positivity everywhere I go and just spread kindness, really.

Because I know what it's like being on the end of something that's the complete opposite of that. And I really, really think that spreading more kindness and more awareness of what it's like to look different will help with that and help with people who are being bullied.

Learn more

Changing Faces' next ‘Step Up Your Self-Esteem’ online workshop is on 20 September. It is for 11-16 year olds who have a mark, scar or condition that affects their appearance. Email to register or find out more information.

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