Here is the full transcript of Robert Hoge’s TEDx Talk: Own Your Face at TEDxSouthBank Conference. Robert Hoge is the author of the book Ugly.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Own your face by Robert Hoge at TEDxSouthBank
You’re all ever so pretty. Most of us don’t own our faces. They might see that the front of our heads and go everywhere we travel but we don’t actually really own them and sure the usual suspects are to blame: Hollywood, advertisers, our peers, our lovers but you know who is most to blame? Me, you, us — the biggest obstacle to us owning our faces is us designing them. When we ogle a Photoshop magazine cover, when we click on the link promising celebrity photos without makeup, when we look away from the mirror that little bit too quickly, we are the Red Queen running, racing faster and faster, just to stand still.
Take my story, for example. You might see that I’ve got some facial deformities, and they’ve been around quite a while. When I was developing in my mother’s womb, I had a massive tumor formed at the front of my head, about my face, it was at the top of my forehead and went all the way down to where the tip of my nose should have been, it was about the size of my newborn baby’s fist, and it formed early in my development and pushed my eyes to the side of my head, like a fish.
Now back in the dark ages of the 1970s, there was no pre-natal scans. So my parents didn’t know this was coming. So my mother, when I was born, realized something was wrong. So her first question to the doctors and nurses wasn’t: is it a boy or a girl? Her first question was: is my baby OK?
“No, Mrs. Hoge”, the doctor said, “he is not OK. There is something wrong with his head and something wrong with his legs.” Now my mother didn’t see me before I was born — and when I was born. I was taken away to the nursery and she went back to the mothers’ ward, and she stayed there about a week, refusing to see me. She had visitors. Other than my father, I had none. She had people coming and asking her if she’d go and see her newborn baby, and she refused.
But eventually, she changed her mind, and she’s found herself standing at the side of my cart, looking down at this. And she rejected me. She decided then and there that she couldn’t connect with this face. She didn’t want to own it. She didn’t want to own me.
So she went back to the mothers’ ward and a week later, she went home. And I stayed in hospital.
So she was home and she was home for about another month, and she started talking to my father and her friends and her family and her doctors and her priest and having a discussion about me. And she was worried about the impact of bringing me home would have on my brothers and sisters. And over a month or so, her view started to soften a bit. And so she thought if she’s so worried about the impact of bringing me home will have on my brothers and sisters, she better actually give them a bit of a say.
So one Saturday morning they sat down at our kitchen table and had a family discussion. And they talked about my face and about my legs, and talked about whether they should bring me home. And my parents gave my brothers and sisters a vote and they asked: should we bring Robert home? And one by one, my brothers and sisters said yes. My younger sister Catherine was only four at the time, reckoned she only said yes, because everyone else said yes before her. So maybe peer pressure is OK, sometimes.
And home, I came and after I came home, my parents had to actually then take me out into the big wide world. And when they did, they started to notice people’s reactions and it’s quite funny. In terms of participation in society, it’s probably the fact that I have no legs that has more of an impact than my face. But people who meet me for the first time often don’t even realize I have prosthetics, we are judged on our faces.
So my mother would take me shopping and she’d see people staring. My dad would take me swimming and he’d listen to other kids ask about my squish nose and my funny face.
So by the time, I got to about four, doctors had spoken to my parents, and they said, “Look, we want to fix this. We want to do some pretty major surgery on Robert’s face to make it look a little bit more normal, so he can socialize when he gets to school.” Now I’d had a couple of operations before then, one to remove the tumor on the front of my face, so I was left with a flat face, and a few other minor things but this was going to be a pretty major operation.
And the doctors told my parents, they’re going to do about 40 different surgical procedures. First of all, they’re going to slice open my face, cut a V-shaped chunk out of my skull, push my eyes back to the front of my face. And then because I had no nose, they were going to use one of the deformed toes they were amputating to build me a new one. Simple, right? We’ll give it a go outside and afternoon tea.
So that all sounded pretty interesting to my parents, and then the doctors started talking about the risks. And look, there could be excessive bleeding, there could be an infection, we might stuff it up the operation, might not work. Oh and by the way they said, there’s a one in four chance your son may die on the operating table. 1 in 4!
Now my dad was a gambling man and he did not like those odds. He started arguing with my mom and my doctors and said: Why would we risk our son dying? Why would we risk him dying at that higher chance just for pride of appearance as he called it.