On November 10, while walking her dogs, Carrie Underwoodtripped and fell outside her Nashville home, according to Vanity Fair. As a result of her fall, the country singer suffered a broken wrist and injuries to her face that were so severe, she required surgery and at least 40 stitches.
After the accident, Carrie cancelled appearances and stopped posting pictures of her face on social media. With the exception of occasional comments about how her face no longer looked the same as it had before her accident, the country star refrained from the spotlight, causing fans and media outlets to speculate about the reasons behind the singer’s seclusion. With few details to go on, many assumed it was due to acquiring a facial disfigurement.
“When I am ready to get in front of a camera, I want you all to understand why I might look a bit different,” Carrie wrote in a statement to her fan club in January. “I’m hoping that, by then, the differences are minimal, but, again, I just don’t know how it’s all going to end up.”
On Sunday April 15, the mystery of her appearance was finally solved when she performed live at the ACM Awards. After her performance, where she debuted her newest song “Cry Pretty” — a song about “when emotions take over and you just can’t hold them back” — Carrie received a standing ovation and media outlets applauded her bravery. But many, who due to the singer’s vague Instagram posts and an abundance of media reports all focused on facial differences she was rumored to have acquired, were expecting the singer to return to the stage with a face that was severely scarred or disfigured. As a result, her return sparked confusion amongst fans. Because aside from the slight scar near her mouth that was barely visible, Carrie looked exactly the same.
While my intention in writing this piece is not to minimize Carrie’s experience, her story emphasizes the importance of amplifying the voices of those with facial differences, who are all too familiar with the pressure to adhere to societal beauty standards. And ultimately, the scrutiny on Carrie’s recovery seemed to ignore those who live with facial differences every day. Media outlets and fans not only emphasized the importance of physical beauty for someone in the spotlight, but their focus on how the singer would “look different” also made it clear to people with facial differences that society still has a long way to go in terms of how physical differences are viewed.
For Emma Johnson, who was born with Crouzon syndrome, the way Carrie’s facial injury and recovery were addressed by media outlets called attention to the difference between acquired facial differences and congenital facial differences.
“An acquired facial difference would be one that someone develops at some point during their life,” Emma explained. A congenital facial difference — which is what Emma has — is one someone is born with. According to Emma, this distinction makes all the difference.
“Because Carrie had previously been perceived as traditionally beautiful, her story seems to be presented as much more tragic,” Emma said, pointing out that for someone like Carrie, who didn’t already have a facial difference, her beauty is viewed as something that was taken away.
This line of thinking emphasizes societal pressure to meet restrictive standards of beauty. For Emma, it also signifies the idea that just because someone has a facial difference, it doesn’t mean they are any less beautiful. “Now she has a scar, and she’s still beautiful, but you know what? So am I,” she adds.
According to Mike Moody, a trans woman who also lives with facial difference as a result of Crouzon syndrome, Carrie’s desire to avoid the public and hide her temporarily-disfigured face during the months that she healed is likely due to disfiguremisia — a word Mike coined last year to describe the ingrained, systemic prejudice against people with facial differences, as well as the overall erasure of disfigurement.
“Cultural expectations of beauty are intense, and spotlighted even more so when you’re in the public eye in the way Carrie, a perpetually-perfect white, blonde country pop star, is,” Mike told me. “There’s no room for disfigurement in her line of work. The way her industry is set up, her journey following this accident was basically rote.”
For Dana Ironside, a 22-year-old with Hemifacial Microsomia, the public’s obsession with Carrie’s appearance was not surprising. “Everything I’ve seen about her since her injury only talked about her looks,” Dana explained about how Carrie’s accident was discussed as a threat to her beauty. “I didn’t see a lot of concern for her well-being, just her face.”
“The whole attention to this issue shows how far we have to go in our understanding of what beauty is,” sociologist Faye Wachs, who not only lives with an acquired facial difference but also studies facial paralysis, told me.
Jenny Kattlove, who was diagnosed with hemangioma during childhood — a condition that caused the growth of benign facial tumors — agreed. “Carrie was known for singing, and now she’s known for what she looks like. She didn’t get a standing ovation for how her wrist healed. The standing ovation should be that she’s healthy, that she healed, and that she’s able to sing again.”
While Mike agrees with the fact that societal beauty standards consider facial differences undesirable, she also believes Carrie’s accident highlights the role of shame in the life of someone with a facial difference. “We want symmetrical, blotchless, equally-proportioned faces. Faces which diverge from that paradigm are, of course, mocked and insulted and bullied, but actually, even more of the time, they’re erased and hidden,” she explained.
For Jenny, the sense of shame many people with facial differences feel stems from the fear of making other people uncomfortable. “When I go out in public and people stare at me, I feel responsible for making people uncomfortable. That’s when I feel a sense of shame,” she said.
This sense of shame and fear of discomfort extends beyond just personal insecurities, however. In her research on facial differences, Wachs found that the overall role of people with facial differences in our society was impacted by their appearance. This included the jobs they were able to get. She even encountered people who said they were forced out of their jobs due to acquiring facial differences. “The people I interviewed all said the same thing,” Wachs said. “They said ‘I didn’t have any bad performance reviews before, but I think they were uncomfortable by me developing facial difference.’”
Wachs’s research also found that for many, this sense of shame and resulting ostracization often leads to isolation. “I interviewed so many people who didn’t leave their house for a very long time or only left the house because they had kids or pets or had to go back to work,” she explained.
Acquired facial differences are a specific kind of trauma because their fear can often be overlooked. “To go from having never having experienced facial difference to suddenly having half your face paralyzed is scary,” Wachs said.
This shame and fear of being ridiculed only fuels the physical and emotional trauma of looking different. Carly Findlay, an appearance activist living with ichthyosis, points out that Carrie’s story demonstrates the fear many people have about the loss of beauty in general — as if they are projecting their own insecurities onto her accident. “It’s no wonder people like me — with more severe facial differences — are met with fear when we face the world,” she said. For people living with facial differences, this sense of fear toward facial differences is all too familiar. This can, in part, be explained by the mainstream representation of facial differences and disfigurement as villains in popular culture.
Wachs has firsthand experience with navigating the prevalence of harmful stereotypes surrounding facial differences in entertainment; after being diagnosed with Bells Palsy in 2009, the sociologist and researcher was forced to confront stigma and adjust to life after acquiring a facial difference.
Although the way Carrie’s facial injury and recovery were addressed by outlets like Life & Style highlights issues impacting the facial difference community, the conversation has also contributed to the overall awareness of facial difference-related issues facing those who feel as if they will never be able to blend in to mainstream society. Her story speaks to people with facial differences who not only can’t alter their appearance to become more in line with societal expectations, but don’t want to. “I can’t just fix my face,” Carly added. “And why would I want to when it’s for the benefit of others, not me?”
For others, the response to Carrie’s return to the stage signifies the importance of not playing what Jenny referred to as “the oppression Olympics.”
Wachs agreed, and also reiterated the importance of not assuming Carrie’s medical diagnosis through an Instagram post or behind a computer screen. “I don’t know if Carrie has Synkinesis, which is where the nerves regrow to too many places,” she said. Wachs believes the fact that people embraced Carrie’s return was lovely, but admits to feelings of reticence surrounding the tendency of our society to only celebrate extraordinary people.
“You shouldn’t have to be extraordinary to be treated with human decency and respect,” she said. “There’s something to be said for trying to help make people feel valued and appreciated, regardless of whatever challenges they face — whether it’s a facial differences or not.”