First prize for student essay on coping with disfigurement

6 July 2009

Second-year UCL medical student Charlie Khoo has taken the joint top prize in an essay competition open to health professionals, postgraduates and undergraduates on the the theme of coping with disfigurement.

Changing Faces logo

Charlie’s essay ‘Perceptions of Beauty in a Western Society’ won him £500 in the competition run by Changing Faces, a UK charity that supports and represents people who have disfigurements of the face or body from any cause.

Taking in Francis Bacon, artistic representations of Venus, Marilyn Monroe, the aesthetic focus of plastic surgery and Darwinian theory of sexual attraction, Charlie explored perceptions of what constitutes ‘beauty’ and examined how these apply to people with disfigurements. He also reflected on the social effect of disfigurement and proposed solutions and recommendations for further research.

Charlie said: “I first became aware of the work of Changing Faces when I was in 17. I was researching a school science project about facial transplantation and James Partridge, the Chief Executive of Changing Faces, was kind enough to let me interview him. Mr Partridge really emphasised how much the face is a mirror of our identity – when you think about somebody, you picture their face.

“The unfounded association between good looks and success has existed since ancient times, but today more than ever ‘perfect’ images in the media are playing a huge part in perpetuating this notion. As the media expands, we are exposed to these images on a daily basis. They fuel the idea that outer beauty is akin to inner beauty and promote unhealthy body values. This can have a number of consequences such as decreased self-esteem.

“For somebody who has a disfigurement, this can be extremely debilitating. I really feel that this is an unfair fight, so I wanted to try to make people aware that these pictures are unrealistic. In short, you should feel happy to look however you want to, and not feel like you have to conform to this beauty ideal.

“The patients I’ve come across whilst studying medicine at the UCL Medical School have provided me with some extremely useful experiences. The thing that really impressed itself on me from these meetings is that they had all adopted different coping strategies. For instance, some were happy to talk whereas others were much more private. What I really tried to bear in mind while writing the essay is that patients have to be treated as individuals, not characterised by their condition.”

To read Charlie's article in full, follow the link at the top of this article.