Appearance matters: how implicit bias hampers our response to bullying

Dr Jane Frances is the education, inclusion, and anti-bullying policy expert at Changing Faces, working with and for children and young people who have a condition, injury, illness or mark that makes them look noticeable or unusual. Follow Changing Faces @faceequality.

Implicit bias describes unconscious or unwitting beliefs or attitudes that influence our responses even though we consciously reject stereotypes or prejudice. Currently very much in vogue, implicit bias has been around since the 1990s when the effect of implicit stereotypes (in the US particularly concerning race) began to be understood and measured. So, for example, you might consciously intend never to discriminate against people according to their appearance. But when someone who has severe scarring from burns gets married you feel amazed – because your implicit bias tends to exclude people with disfigurements from being involved in loving relationships.

Changing Faces has been using implicit bias testing since 2007 to help people understand that even if you believe that you do not discriminate against people because of the way they look, in fact, you probably do – unwittingly. The latest appearance-related implicit attitude research found that two thirds of people who said they did not discriminate against people whose appearance is disfigured were nevertheless influenced by negative stereotypes. These stereotypes are everywhere – it’s hard not to be affected by them.

We are all ‘different’. But a large birthmark, for instance, or a repaired cleft, neuromas from neurofibromatosis, scars from burns or a dog bite, alopecia, missing fingers or different-looking hands, or a skin condition such as eczema, psoriasis or acne, or loss of skin pigmentation through vitiligo – all of these conditions and more can make for a noticeably unusual appearance. The Equality Act 2010 uses the generic term ‘disfigurement’.

Changing Faces has just published Disfigurement in the UK. This extensive survey found that, among those who were living with disfigurement by the time they went to school, almost half (49.5%) experienced bullying that targeted their appearance, but three quarters of these bullied children and young people did not feel supported by their school. Being bullied and unsupported at school is a truly terrible experience. A mother whose young son with unusual hands was called names at school asked me why she should continue to send him to school “to be tortured”. His teacher saw name-calling and being called names as a ‘normal’ thing that all children get involved in at one time or another.

It can be very hard for any child whose appearance is disfigured to get help that stops the bullying. The teacher is sure to ask what was said. Imagine the pain and shame endured by a child with a facial birthmark when describing how her classmates whisper things like “Lazy poo-face still hasn’t had a proper wash.” Plus, of course, there is the code of honour among many children at school that utterly deplores and rejects the “snitch”.

Next, if the teacher does obtain this information and understands the problem, what are they going to say to the children saying these things? In our appearance-obsessed culture, it often seems that a child’s unusual appearance causes them to be bullied. This implicit bias can make it seem that bullying a child who ‘looks different’ is somehow understandable and inevitable. We see this every time a child whose disfigured appearance is targeted by bullying is encouraged to “ignore it”. “Ignoring” bullying is unconsciously seen as an essential life skill for living with disfigurement because implicit bias positions disfigurement as a reviled, sad, and lonely affliction.

This implicit bias means that the teacher who tries to tackle the children doing the name-calling can quickly find themselves embroiled in strange appeals for understanding.

  • T: “You must not say these things. You must show respect.”
  • P: “But Miss, look at her face. It’s horrible. It looks dirty. It hurts me to see it. Why doesn’t she do something about it?!”

These kinds of responses to and difficulties with facist (like racist) bullying have their roots in implicit bias. The implicit disfigurement stereotype behind the bias tends to configure anyone whose appearance is disfigured as wishing they looked ‘normal’, needing surgery or other medical procedures to make them look more ‘normal’, and thereby escape the “social death” implicitly linked to disfigurement. Implicit bias means that disfigurement rules out a good career, fun with friends, loving relationships and a fulfilling life. (There are other stereotypes that link scars to villains in movies, but these we tend to reject consciously, while the implicit stereotypes persist behind the scenes.)

When we become aware of our implicit bias, we can begin to tackle facist bullying far more effectively. A child’s unusual appearance is never the cause of the teasing, name-calling, bullying, ostracism, or other horrible experiences that befall them at school, on the bus, or in the park. These anti-social behaviours have their roots in (a) facist attitudes endemic in our looks-obsessed culture that make how you look so important, and (b) inadequate or patchy implementation in school of an ethos and behaviour code that insists on equality for all regarding all kinds of difference including unusual appearance or disfigurement.

When we take on board the fact that loads of people with unusual faces lead successful and fulfilling lives with nice jobs, good friends, and loving relationships, it becomes much easier to say to the child who is doing the bullying:

  • T: “You must not say these things. You must show respect.”
  • P: “But Miss, look at her face. It’s horrible. It looks dirty. It hurts me to see it. Why doesn’t she do something about it?!”
  • T: What we’re talking about here is your disrespectful behaviour. As you know, our school requires us all to show respect to all other people in this school at all times, without any exceptions. We’re all equal and we’re all different. If you need help to do this properly I can arrange for you to have some extra input. Can you tell me what respectful behaviour looks like?
  • P: Er, yes Miss. Er, you treat others and their stuff as you would like to be treated yourself.

The theme for this year’s Anti-Bullying Week (13 – 17 November) is All Different, All Equal. This makes it a great opportunity to raise our awareness of implicit bias, recognise how it fuels bullying, especially name-calling and ostracism, understand how it makes tackling bullying harder, and learn how to overcome it.

Find out more about Changing Faces and their work here.