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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Disfigurement is the state of having one's appearance deeply and persistently harmed medically, as from a disease, birth defect, or wound.

Disfigurement, whether caused by a benign or malignant condition, often leads to severe psychosocial problems such as negative body image; depression; difficulties in one's social, sexual, and professional lives; prejudice; and intolerance. This is partly due to how the individual copes with looking 'visibly different', though the extent of the disfigurement rarely correlates with the degree of distress the sufferer feels. An additional factor which affects sufferers of a disfigurement is the reaction they get from other people. Studies have shown that the general population respond to people with a disfigurement with less trust, less respect and often try to avoid making contact or having to look at the disfigurement. Disfigurements affecting visible areas such as the face, arms and hands are thought to present greater difficulty for sufferers to cope with than do other disfigurements.

Deliberate mutilation resulting in physical disfigurement has also been practiced by many cultures throughout human history for religious or judicial purposes. During the Byzantine Empire, the emperor was considered God's viceregent on Earth, and as such the physical wholeness of his person was an essential complement to the perfection of Heaven. For this reason, many deposed emperors were blinded, had their noses cut off, or their tongue split by their successors, as these permanent disfigurements disqualified them from ever reclaiming the throne.

A case of voluntary disfigurement is that of St. Æbbe the Younger and the nuns of Coldingham Monastery in Scotland. When the monastery was attacked by Vikings and they feared being raped, she and the nuns cut off their own noses and upper lips. In revenge, the Vikings burned down the building with the nuns inside. This is said to be the origin of the phrase "cutting off the nose to spite the face".

Disfigurement in fiction

  • In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the character Quasimodo is disfigured with an extreme hunch.
  • In most every adaptation (literary, stage, film, or otherwise) of The Phantom of the Opera, the title character (known as "Erik" or "The Phantom") wears either a full or half-face mask to conceal a disfigurement. Some adaptations infer that his disfigurement was present from birth, such as in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, whereas others infer or show it to be the result of a horrible accident such as burning from fire or chemicals. The Phantom's disfigured face is usually described as having caused him anguish and despair, thus influencing him to adopt the enigmatic "phantom" persona.
  • The DC Comics character the Joker, often a foe of Batman, possesses a clown-like grin and a grotesque combination of bleached skin, red lips, and green hair that are typically described or inferred to be the result of injuries and disfigurement in most media. A common origin of his skin and hair colors revolve around chemical burns as the result of the Joker character either falling into, jumping into, or being thrown into a vat of noxious chemicals. In Tim Burton's 1989 film adaptation of Batman, the Joker character, in this version a criminal originally known as "Jack Napier", receives his distinct "grin" as the result of a botched plastic surgery that he received after a ricocheted bullet that Napier intended to harm Batman badly injured the Joker's face. In most media, the Joker's mania and insanity begin as a result of him seeing his own disfigurement, the 1989 film being an example.


Conditions that can cause disfigurement include:

Plastic surgery or reconstructive surgery is available in many cases to disfigured people. Some health insurance companies and government health care systems cover plastic surgery for these problems when they do not cover plastic surgery for cosmetic purposes.

The term "disfigurement" is sometimes used pejoratively to describe the results of intentional body modification.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Disfigurement" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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