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Saving Face

Disfigurement and the Politics of Appearance

Heather Laine Talley

Publication Year: 2014

Imagine yourself without a face—the task seems impossible. The face is a core feature of our physical identity. Our face is how others identify us and how we think of our ‘self’. Yet, human faces are also functionally essential as mechanisms for communication and as a means of eating, breathing, and seeing. For these reasons, facial disfigurement can endanger our fundamental notions of self and identity or even be life threatening, at worse. Precisely because it is so difficult to conceal our faces, the disfigured face compromises appearance, status, and, perhaps, our very way of being in the world.

In Saving Face, sociologist Heather Laine Talley examines the cultural meaning and social significance of interventions aimed at repairing faces defined as disfigured. Using ethnography, participant-observation, content analysis, interviews, and autoethnography, Talley explores four sites in which a range of faces are “repaired:” face transplantation, facial feminization surgery, the reality show Extreme Makeover, and the international charitable organization Operation Smile,. Throughout, she considers how efforts focused on repair sometimes intensify the stigma associated with disfigurement. Drawing upon experiences volunteering at a camp for children with severe burns, Talley also considers alternative interventions and everyday practices that both challenge stigma and help those seen as disfigured negotiate outsider status.

Talley delves into the promise and limits of facial surgery, continually examining how we might understand appearance as a facet of privilege and a dimension of inequality. Ultimately, she argues that facial work is not simply a conglomeration of reconstructive techniques aimed at the human face, but rather, that appearance interventions are increasingly treated as lifesaving work. Especially at a time when aesthetic technologies carrying greater risk are emerging and when discrimination based on appearance is rampant, this important book challenges us to think critically about how we see the human face.

Published by: NYU Press

Title page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

Faces are singular. No two are exactly the same. Yet faces often resemble one another, and in this way, they indicate our lineage or whom we come from. Likewise, this book is a sole project, but it reflects the contributions of a great many...

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pp. 1-6

In the summer of 1990, my tween friends and I invented a game. The rules were simply this: One girl posed a question, and everyone in the room had to answer . . . honestly. Our game worked differently from Truth or Dare, the ubiquitous slumber party game in which adolescents...

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1. About Face

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pp. 7-23

In 1994 writer Lucy Grealy published Autobiography of a Face, a memoir tracing her life as a self-identified facially disfigured person.1 The book chronicles Grealy’s experiences with facial difference resulting from Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancer of the bone and soft tissue. The cancer...

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2. Facial Work: Aesthetic Surgery as Lifesaving Work

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pp. 24-46

Metaphors that invoke the face abound. We take things “at face value.” Sometimes we “face the facts.” We make an “about face.” We “fly in the face” of tradition. Ultimately, the word “face” is remarkable in its capacity to communicate a wide range of meanings. This is not unlike the variation...

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3. Making Faces: Life Makeovers through Facial Work

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pp. 47-75

In 2002, ABC introduced Extreme Makeover, an innovative and controversial reality television show that chronicled makeovers facilitated through cosmetic surgery.1 In each of the fifty-five episodes that aired over the course of three seasons and in subsequent syndication on the...

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4. Not Just Another Pretty Face: The Social Value of Unremarkability

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pp. 76-105

The pictures of Arlene Lafferty’s face featured in a 2005 San Diego Union Tribune story are startling. Not unlike most women over fifty, her face exhibits signs of aging. Wrinkles and frown lines etch the contours where her facial muscles move thousands of times each day...

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5. Saving Face: Redeeming a Universal Face

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pp. 106-144

Each year, vaccination campaigns funnel over $1 billion dollars from international aid organizations and private foundations to eradicate polio in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.1 Travel cautions circulate, warning of impending global pandemics from Avian flu to the recently...

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6. Facing Off: Debating Facial Work, Constructing a “Vital” Intervention

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pp. 145-178

On November 27, 2005, a team of French surgeons, led by Jean-Michel Dubernard and Bernard Devauchelle, performed the world’s first partial face transplant in Amiens, France. Face transplantation (FT) is an experimental procedure in which a face is surgically removed from a...

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7. At Face Value

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pp. 179-200

While writing this book, I noticed a small blemish on my face. My complexion is not one that could be described as “clear.” In fact, every day I spend time monitoring my skin, applying acne treatment, lathering on sunscreen, and, honestly, picking and prodding in exactly the way...

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Losing Face: A Postscript

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pp. 201-208

Academics are so often asked why we study what we study. Some of us have clearly delineated narratives. We situate moments from our lives or facets of our identities in logical order, suggesting that we could think of nothing else besides what we research and write about. Others...

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Appendix: Methods, Methodologies, and Epistemologies

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pp. 209-216

We bury strange things in landfills—syringes dripping insulin, toenail clippings, old credit cards, and sometimes dead bodies. Of course, there are mundane things, too—junk mail, orange peelings, cotton balls, and expired coupons. If we tried to separate our trash into clear categories...


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pp. 217-234


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pp. 235-250


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pp. 251-258

About the Author

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pp. 259

E-ISBN-13: 9781479840052
E-ISBN-10: 147984005X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814784105
Print-ISBN-10: 0814784100

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2014