‘If some­one likes you, they should like you for your­self ’

Find­ing love is tough – and dat­ing with a vis­i­ble dif­fer­ence is even harder. Boudicca FoxLeonard re­ports

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - CHARITY APPEAL -

Like many young women, Han­nah She­wan Stevens and her friends of­ten be­moan the state of mod­ern ro­mance. Any­one who has delved into the dif­fi­cult world of on­line dat­ing will, like them, have a hor­ror story or two to share.

Dat­ing to­day fre­quently starts with a snap judg­ment; a sin­gle photo that de­ter­mines whether or not you’re worth get­ting to know bet­ter. Who needs that?

“When­ever I meet some­one who has met their part­ner in real life rather than on­line, I’m like, ‘How? What magic did you do?’” says Han­nah. “When I was 18 I met all the peo­ple I dated in bars, but now the only way you can meet some­one ro­man­ti­cally is through an app. And it just feels so much scarier that way, be­cause it feels like you’ve got even more to hide.”

If her choice of words seems strange, that’s be­cause Han­nah would ap­pear to be just like her friends. But the 24-yearold is ac­tu­ally one of 1.3mil­lion peo­ple in the UK liv­ing with a vis­i­ble dif­fer­ence, tens of thou­sands of whom have been helped by Chang­ing Faces, one of the or­gan­i­sa­tions sup­ported in this year’s Tele­graph Christ­mas Ap­peal.

Chang­ing Faces pro­vides prac­ti­cal sup­port for in­di­vid­u­als liv­ing with dis­fig­ure­ments, through coun­selling and net­works, and wants to change the way those with a vis­i­ble dif­fer­ence are per­ceived gen­er­ally.

When she was 14, Han­nah started to no­tice a patch­work of marks on her skin. It took 18 months for doc­tors to re­alise that the marks were caused by an au­toim­mune dis­or­der called scle­ro­derma, which is caused by the im­mune sys­tem at­tack­ing the con­nec­tive tis­sue un­der the skin and around in­ter­nal or- gans and blood ves­sels. It’s left Han­nah with a “con­stel­la­tion” of scars on her stom­ach.

Han­nah’s teenage ex­pe­ri­ence is de­press­ingly com­mon among those with vis­i­ble dif­fer­ences. Nasty com­ments and bul­ly­ing at school in her home town in Suf­folk be­came a sad fact of life. While on hol­i­day she was so hor­ri­fied by the stares of strangers when she came out of the sea in her swim­ming cos­tume that she re­fused to wear one in pub­lic again for eight years.

Early en­coun­ters with boys, in­clud­ing one boyfriend who wouldn’t look at her marks, or talk about them, left her con­fi­dence and self-es­teem se­verely dented. “I wouldn’t take my clothes off in front of my boyfriends, I’d want the lights off – I just didn’t want to be looked at. I would put my hands over my stom­ach to cover up the marks. I was ashamed of how I looked,” she says.

When she started dat­ing on­line, Han­nah strug­gled to know what to do. “Forty-five per cent of my body is scarred, but if you look at me you can’t tell,” she says. “How much should you re­veal when you’re shar­ing some­thing on a dat­ing app? Do you put it all out there, or do you hold it back?”

Not ev­ery­one has that choice. For Han­nah’s friend Katy Lewis, whom she met through Chang­ing Faces, there’s no hid­ing her vis­i­ble dif­fer­ence. The 34-year-old from Beck­en­ham, south­east Lon­don, was born with a cran­io­fa­cial con­di­tion called Gold­en­har syn­drome, which af­fects the ap­pear­ance of her jaw and ear. She wears a pros­thetic ear, and also has sco­l­io­sis, which af­fects her spine.

Like 33 per cent of peo­ple sur­veyed by Chang­ing Faces, Katy has used a dat­ing app or web­site, and is one of al­most half whose con­di­tion is vis­i­ble in their pro­file photo. Of those, 90 per cent say they have re­ceived neg­a­tive com­ments or feed­back about their ap­pear­ance.

Katy, how­ever, who first tried on­line dat­ing five years ago, de­scribes her ex­pe­ri­ences with an eye roll. “I mostly got a lot of mes­sages from men in their 60s mes­sag­ing me and telling me I was beau­ti­ful.”

There was one (younger) guy whom she made a con­nec­tion with and ended up meet­ing for a date.

“I like to be clear about my con­di­tion and put the ball in the guy’s court,” says Katy. “We ex­changed emails and he said he was cool with my con­di­tion.”

How­ever, when they met in per­son, it was awk­ward. “He kept look­ing to­wards my ear,” says Katy. “I just tried to put it in the back of my mind.” Af­ter­wards, she mes­saged him, will­ing to give it a sec­ond chance. When he never re­sponded, Katy was left not know­ing whether there was sim­ply no spark, or her ap­pear­ance had put him off. “Ghost­ing” might be a typ­i­cal part of mod­ern dat­ing, but when you have a vis­i­ble dif­fer­ence, it can have a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect.

Katy hasn’t been on a date since – and she’s not alone. Ac­cord­ing to Chang­ing Faces, six in ten peo­ple with dis­fig­ure­ments have avoided go­ing on dates be­cause of their ap­pear­ance.

Yet she would love to set­tle down and start a fam­ily like her friends. “I’m the only one who hasn’t, and when we all meet up I can’t help but feel a bit like a third wheel. I’m so happy for them all, but at the same time I kind of wish I had that as well. You start think­ing, ‘When will it be my turn?’.”

How­ever, vol­un­teer­ing at Chang­ing

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