‘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
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