Appearance, body image and identity after a burn

This section covers:

  • Looking different
  • Changing appearances and covering up burns
  • Accepting scars and celebrating uniqueness
  • Body image and how you feel about the way you look
  • Personal identity and sense of self

Appearance was spoken about by many of the people we interviewed. A few told us that they had sometimes struggled with their appearance after having had a burn and that it could be difficult to accept how they looked. Some people said that, with time, they were more comfortable with their appearance and now had a more positive body image.

Holly, whose son was burnt as a baby, worries about how he will feel about his appearance as he grows up.

Life experiences, as well as appearance, can be important to people’s sense of self (who they feel they are). Some people saw themselves as a ‘burn survivor’, whereas others did not want to make the burn part of their identity.

Looking different

Looking and feeling different to others can be a difficult part of living with a burn. In the early days and weeks, the burn might look very “raw”, “gory” or “crusty”, and involve bulky bandages. Many people described how different burn scars can be in terms of where they are on the body, the colours, shapes, sizes, and textures. Some people had also lost parts of their body as a result of their injuries.

Saffron said that it was a “big concern” of hers that she “looked different from all of my peers and my family”. This could sometimes lead her to worry about what other people would think of her and if she would “stand out walking along the street”. Because of her scarring, India was “aware that she does not look like everyone else”.

Saffron said that getting changed in front of others as a child during sports was her “biggest challenge”.

Some had found having a burn or scars as a teenager and young person especially difficult. Natasha, who was burnt as a child, said she became much more self-conscious from the age of 16 onwards. Many thought appearance was particularly important at this life stage, and worried about other peoples’ reactions to burns and impacts on friendships, socialising, and dating and relationships.

Although a burn can affect someone’s confidence about their appearance at any age, a few people we talked to felt they had been less affected because of when they were burnt. Hadyn, who was burnt as an adult, thought “the fact that I was at that stage in life where I was married and I had a family, I think it [the impact on my appearance] wasn’t as big a deal as it would have been if it would have happened to me 20 years beforehand”. India, who was burnt as a child, thought that others like her might be more comfortable with their appearance because they’ve grown up with burn scarring for most of their life.

Sarah thought that having children and her body already having changed through pregnancy and birth meant that the appearance of a burn was less impactful than it might have been before.

Changing appearances and covering up burns

Some treatments aim to reconstruct body features or reduce the appearance of scars. Justyn had reconstructive surgery to recreate his earlobe. Raffaella had micro-needling in her skin graft area which “helped a lot with the texture” but less so with the colour of her scars.

Some people minimise the visibility of their burn injuries using make-up (such as special full-coverage skin camouflage products), clothing or accessories. Raiche’s hair didn’t grow for a long time after she was burnt, and she wore hats, bandanas and wigs.

Permanent ‘make-up’ tattoos, sometimes called micropigmentation or medical tattoos, are when someone gets a tattoo to look like an original body feature, such as an eyebrow or the outline of a lip. Justyn had a tattoo to look like an areola (the dark part of the nipple).

As well as wearing sunglasses to cover his burn in the early stages of recovery, Haydn found that projecting confidence actually made him feel more confident in social situations.

For some, strategies of covering up or distracting from their burn injuries helped them feel less self-conscious and avoid comments or questions from others. Tom “hid” the burns on his face and hands as best as he could when he went to his university graduation ceremony. Frazer would sometimes cover his burn by wearing a watch to “take attention away from it”.

Others said they were not interested in trying to change or cover up the appearance of their burn scars. Helen X recalled once using lipstick to define a bottom lip which was missing after her burns, but concluded, “No, I don’t need this”. Tara, who was burnt as a young child, said she had never really been interesting in trying to “reduce” and “cover” her scars, because she didn’t have an idea of how she looked “before” to compare with: “I don’t think about it that often because it’s just me”.

Accepting scars and celebrating uniqueness

Some of the people we spoke to viewed their burn as something that made them unique from everyone else. Rhian said her burn is now just a part of her that “makes me beautiful and stand out from others”. Parents of children with burns would sometimes speak about their child’s burn as a way to explain diversity and celebrate differences.

Jessica hopes that speaking to her daughter about scars will help her to realise that they are normal and everyone has them.

In time, some people were able to accept their scars as “a part of them” and valued their uniqueness. Saffron said that she was able to accept her scars through recognising what her body has achieved and overcome. Charlotte eventually felt “proud” of her scars, for showing she had “got through something, and I survived something, and I am now doing well”. She added that she was able to accept her scars “through experience and through age, and just realising differences are what make people special”.

Saffron was able to accept her scars through recognising the challenges her body had overcome.

Rhian said that her scars make her unique.

Raiche said she has become “attached” to her scars and doesn’t even notice some of them anymore.

After Justyn looked into micropigmentation (a tattoo procedure to make burn scars look more like the colour of the rest of a person’s unburnt skin), he decided it wasn’t for him. Instead, it was “a turning point” in seeing his scars as “beautiful” for telling a story about who he is and has been through.

Body image and how you feel about the way you look

Body image is how you feel about your body and the way you look. After sustaining an injury which changes your appearance, it can be normal to struggle with body image and adjust to living with an altered appearance. Some people experienced negative body image after a burn injury, though many eventually adopted a more neutral or positive body image.

Natasha tries to forget that her burn is there and tells herself “there’s nothing I can do about it”.

Tom told us that, during his recovery from his burn, he worried about his future “in terms of how I’d look”. He told us that the appearance of his burn is “not ideal, but I can live with it”; if he is having a bad day where he feels like he doesn’t look good, he will exercise as it “makes him feel better about things”. Helen Y felt self-conscious about the appearance of her breast after she was burnt and had surgery to make her breasts more symmetrical.

Some people said that they did not feel either positive or negative about their bodies, and instead used the term “body neutral”. Quite a few people believed that their appearance was one of the least important aspects of them.

India believes that it is enough to feel neutral about your body.

Adopting a positive body image was not an overnight process and, for some people, it took years to reach this point. Claire told us that in reaching a place of positive body image and acceptance, “you just get used to what your body looks like and the scars”. Raiche said that she began to “look at my body as a whole, not just in sections, and just appreciate everything”. Rhian said that “in one way I really do like it because it’s my bit of uniqueness”.

Raiche said it was a journey to accepting how she looks, but now she has learnt to love herself.

Personal identity and sense of self

Living with a burn injury often led to people feeling like their identity had been changed in some way. This often involved their appearance being different, but also their experiences of the burn and recovery. For some, being a “burn survivor” was part of who they were, and they felt positively about their burns shaping part of their identity. Other people felt like their burn did not define who they were in any way, and that their burn was just something that they had experienced but now wanted to move on from.

Frazer said the most important thing to him was not let the burn “become who you are”.

Sinead said that having a burn injury is only a small part of her daughter’s story.

Sometimes people struggled to decide whether they wished to identify as a “burn survivor” or not. Some people would compare their burns with other people and felt that theirs were not severe or large enough to warrant the title “burn survivor”. Simon, who’s son sustained a burn the size of a 50 pence piece, said “he is a burnt child, but he’s not what I previously would have considered a child with a burn”.

Raffaella said her identity doesn’t revolve around being a “burn survivor”.

India said that her burn injury was a small but important part of her.

Rhian said that although she thought of her burn as “a part of me”, she didn’t want to let it “take [over] your life”. She explained how it was a “traumatic experience” in the past, but now she needed to “move forward and see what happens” with her new scar. Marilyn also viewed her burn as a “closed chapter”. You can read more here about how people we spoke to described coping with the psychological impact of burn injuries.

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