25 November 2012

Let's count all the ways. "Are you sunburnt?"

As summer approaches, and particularly in the heat of the season, the questions and comments (and stares and laughs) about my sunburn rise like the mercury. Sometimes in the winter, I get asked if I have been to the snow. Yes, for a few hours back in 1993, when I spent more time in the gift shop than on the snow fields. But the reactions are definitely more prevalent in the hotter months. Summer starts next week. I'm getting ready for the onslaught of questions. They don't upset me, unless someone is incredibly rude. And I have come to accept the questions will be asked due to looking so different.

It's like people just develop a condition where they say whatever they're thinking. Their thought bubbles become speech bubbles. Blunder bubbles. Clumsy, presumptious and often unapologetic.

While these questions may be considered to be out of curiosity and concern, and if children ask the questions, it does help their education around diversity when I provide a simplified answer, most of the time it just gets tiring. I just want to get on with my day. And I wonder, why ask? How's knowing what's "happened" to me going make a difference to someone's day?

There are a few ways that people ask or tell me I'm sunburnt. I answer on autopilot. "No I was born like this", which usually brings a sigh of relief and a "thank god you're not sunburnt" as though my day to day dealings with this condition and the stupid questions people ask is far easier than temporary sunburn.

Usually it's just an "have you been sunburnt?". Straightforward. Many times after I've told them its not sunburn, they go on a bit more about how their relative/friend/colleague's boyfriend's rabbit has had sunburn "this bad" and so they thought their question was justifiable. Um no.

I get asked "what happened?". I fell into a bucket of red paint. That's what.

Sometimes it's "Shit/Fuck! You're sunburnt." Shit/fuck! Keep your thoughts to yourself.

Sometimes it's a snigger or a point and laugh. Other times it's a "look over there" through gritted teeth and a nod in my direction between friends. I can see you.

When faced with drunk or drugged people asking if I am sunburnt, particularly at music festivals or pubs, it can be hard to reason with them, so I end up just walking away. When I last went to the Big Day Out, the security were so angry that I had been irresponsible in the sun that it was difficult to enjoy myself.

In New York I got a bit of a panic stricken "Oh God, oh God", part concern, part over reaction.

There's the assumption that I've been so stupid to fall asleep in the sun. When I go to the beach, which is rarely, I'm covered up like I was in the picture above. I even wore stockings and thongs there!

I get asked if I've been burnt a lot too.

My parents get asked about my appearance as though I can't speak for myself.

Sometimes people refer to my "condition" while waving their hands around their face, as if to emulate the inflammation. There's no need for wild gestures.

Parents turn their child's head away from staring at me, telling them that I have been sunburnt. I would rather they stare and I'll answer for myself.

And I get asked whether I've had microdermabrasion or laser surgery - and sometimes I wonder whether I should just say yes, as an advocate of those two procedures?!

People wonder whether I'm wearing some sort of face paint or costume make up. I guess if anyone would ever want to impersonate me - red face style - all they'd need is a lot of red lipstick, applied liberally.

The statement I hate the most is "someone's been sunburnt". I'm spoken about in third person. And if I had a better comeback, I'd look around and say "Who?!"

While I can laugh at these questions and I accept they're a part of my life I just have to deal with, they do get tiring. And often my friends notice other people's reactions more than I do. Every day I have to justify my appearance. There ain't no privacy or personal space.

One day I'd like to walk around commenting on their appearances too. I wonder how it'd feel to make these big blunders? Would it still be on my mind a day after I said them to someone? "Did you eat too much junk food?" "You should have looked in the mirror before you walked outside." "Your fake tan is a bit too Oompa Loompa." Or "Don't you think those clothes are a bit tight for you?" Dare me to.

And I have a genuine question - who else has their appearance commented on/questioned on a regular basis?



  1. Honey I can kind of relate to this. While my condition is easier to hide I still get what I often think of as stupidity. A woman pulled her child away from me in a food court once and said, at a volume I could hear, "Don't talk to her she's probably drunk." Probably. I wished I was. People sometimes stare and my favourite is "Did you hurt your leg?" Of course it must be a hurt leg because a thirty something woman couldn't possibly have any other need to use a walking stick right? But I've learned that people say stuff that sounds dumb but it's often just a lack of information. And with so many medical conditions to learn about we can't expect them to know it all. So now when someone says something that makes me sigh and think "Here I go again" I relish the opportunity to be able to share my knowledge about Parkinson's and hope they will tell someone else what they learned today. I do love responding to "Did you hurt your leg?" with "Did you hurt your brain?" though, gets all kinds of reactions. It's also why I created this tshirt - http://friday.wordans.com.au/t-shirt/keep-staring-596005

    1. Friday - yes, it can be a lack of information, and like you, it does feel satisfying educating people in giving a response, but none the less, very tiring. Sometimes more tiring when I'm not feeling the best - do you feel that too? Thanks for the comment and I'm sorry you get yucky comments as well x

  2. Oh my lord. Great comebacks. Wish I could have stolen some of those during my childhood. Can so relate. Why oh why do people feel appearances are open to public comment? I would death stare ones who looked like they may say something and sometimes it prevented something stupid coming out their mouth. When's Mexican matey??

    1. Pip - I think people are thoughtless and don't engage their brain with their mouth. Mexican soon yes x

  3. Good lord, why can't people keep their mouths shut? I used to get "gosh you're tall" as if I hadn't noticed. I jus thought they were stupid. Sometimes when we are out with BW and he is acting in as Aspie way I can hear whispers and sniggers. He doesn't notice but it breaks my heart every time.
    It was a pleasure to meet you yesterday. xxx

    1. Caroline when I saw you I forgot to compliment you on how pretty you are. Great ro meet you!
      And it must be hard to watch your sin bet stared at and whispered about. My parents feel the same way x

  4. I do wonder now if the people who comment to you, exclaiming that you've been sunburnt would too say "you're so orange, you're really bad at applying fake tan" to orange ladies. I don't think they would, funnily enough. Ridiculous that it might seems less acceptable to some.
    Heidi xo

  5. Ha! Yes. I'm thin. Thin for no reason other than genetics, but I think it's interesting that it's ok to shriek, 'Ohmygod you're so SKINNY' but definitely not ok to shriek, 'Ohmygod you're so FAT.' Both phrases are just as offensive. Thankfully, it happens less often these days - I'm older and therefore surrounded by more mature people, and I think I've managed to put on some post-baby weight. But it used to tortoure me as a youth - desperately wishing for voluptuous curves while those around me seemed equally desperate to point out what I felt was already painfully obvious. I guess people are, collectively, thoughtless. Well intentioned, perhaps, but thoughtless.

    1. Well intentioned yet thoughtless yes!!
      I know you mean Miranda, it does seem a double standard to comment that someone's skinny, but be seen as rude to say someone else is fat. I was at an event recently which featured two famous women - one big and one small. A woman standing next to me said "that [small woman] should eat something, she looks anorexic". Yet she never said anything about the bigger woman's size. So rude.
      Thanks for the comment.

    2. Hi Miranda,
      I just wanted to say I can completely relate to people feeling it's okay to comment on being "skinny". I have a number of other reasons people regularly comment on my appearance, but I have often had strangers ask me if I'm anorexic or ask if I was going to "throw up" the chocolate or whatever I was eating and it was especially hard to deal with in my teens. It's so incredibly rude and yet you try to explain it to the vast majority of people and they don't see it as being as "bad" as commenting on someone being OVERweight. I see it as being exactly the same. Being told you look anorexic is actually really not a nice thing to hear.

    3. Carly - Oh yes, gosh, doesn't that happen a lot. I've seen that happen so many times. I always say, "Skinny? She looks slender to me." That generally makes people have a think about what they just said!

      Elle - Oh yes, I can identify with that! It used to be that I wouldn't visit the toilet at a restaurant because it was presumed I was going to throw up! Ha. I used to get the 'ana' moniker a lot, too. It used to bother me a lot, but these days I'm not in the slightest bit worried about challenging people upfront about their silly comments.

  6. You could come back with "you're looking a bit burnt yourself".
    I agree people are rude.
    When I first saw you, my first thought was "nasty sunburn", then "maybe she was burnt by fire", I'm so glad I didn't blurt out my thoughts. Then I heard you talking about Icthyosis and remembered what that is.

    1. Thanks for not saying anything River. Your response would probably have been met with a tired sigh.

  7. I'm so cross — Chrome just ate the big comment that I just typed out!

    It went something like this:

    Carly, I have no idea how you deal with these comments on such a frequent basis. I felt sad, disheartened, and humiliated just reading about your daily battle with rudeness.

    In some different ways, I have experienced comments about my appearance too since I was a teenager. At the time, I was grossly underweight and people often made comments about my being anorexic or asking whether I ever ate. Somebody once told me that boys would never like me because I was too thin, and I have carried this belief into adulthood.

    In the last few years, I gained a stack of weight (due to medications), lost some, and have struggled a lot with mobility during arthritic flare-ups. The comments have ranged from, 'Are you having a baby?' to, 'Do you have cerebral palsy?' Everywhere I go, I feel the curious and/or judgmental stares from onlookers and feel very self-conscious about limping and not fitting into my clothes.

    But it could be more intense. Illness accounts for only part of my appearance and, at the end of the day, only a fraction of my character and who I am as a person.

    I'm not sure why people consider it to be their business — how I look and how I move.

    I think part of the problem is that many of us grow up without mindful guidance on how to interact sensitively and effectively with others. We take maths and english at school, but socialising is considered the domain of parenting — not educative curricula.

    Just imagine if we focused more on communication practice in primary schools, encouraging thoughtful, compassionate interaction between individuals.

    1. Hi Amber, thank you so much for your lovely comment. I'm sorry you've got to put up with nasty, insensitive and intrusive comments from strangers too.
      I do think some ettiquitte and diversity studies would be useful on the school curriculum. Great idea!

  8. Good Lord people can be thoughtless. Imagine a world where people only saw each others beauty and said only positive comments to each other. Having said that I have opften thought a 'tell it like it is' day would be therapeutic. Perhaps not for the fake tan oompa loompas though!

    1. For some, every day must be a tell it like it is day!

  9. I watched someone's husband immediately upon seeing his kids female swim instructor ask 'wow have you lost weight?' surely I'm not the only one who finds that icky??

    I think about all you can safely say to people (when you want) is 'you look nice today'. That's it. Otherwise don't comment on people's appearance - its rarely welcome!

    What I find tricky is when a friend is dieting and is perhaps expecting a comment. I just don't feel comfortable giving it.

    1. That is icky Rachael. He's noticed her!
      I often compliment people on their appearance, great clothes, nice hair... But many aren't comfortable with receiving compliments.
      Sometimes if someone has lost weight, and I know they've been trying to (openly exercising/eating well) I say "you look well".

  10. Love the comebacks carly. This happens so much to Dion . They stare and hurry away if he seems to shake uncontrollably or walks like he's drunk.I tend to get more frustrated then he does most days. This one lady with her child actually said to little girl (she must have been 5) Stay away from those people dear. OMG! I looked at her and said If that what you teach your child i feel very sorry for you!

  11. "Tiring" is the perfect word for it.

  12. I remember the first night that I met you when you visited me in hospital. The lady in the bed next to me waited until you left and asked my if you were sunburned. I was horrified! I can't imagine having that question asked every single day.

  13. I was always the tallest in the classroom when I was growing up. I fell down in the playground when I was about 8. I went up to the school nurse to get some of that red stuff put on my knee and she said, "oh that would have been embarrassing, a giraffe like you falling over". Excuse me! I have always remembered it too. Some people don't put their brains into gear and they open their mouths and insert their foot.

  14. Very occasionally, thanks to my slightly ethnic half-Chinese looks, I get "where were you born?" The correct answer is "Sydney", but that doesn't seem to satisfy some people, who evidently want to hear all about what ethnicity my ancestors were.

    It's infrequent enough for me that I'm usually bemused by it. My sister gets it more frequently, and it drives her up the wall.

  15. Great post Carly. Unfortunately, people often speak before they think and frame things carelessly. I've heard some crackers over the years. Many people also feel quite free to comment on things other than appearance, like making quite personal enquiries of single people, although they wouldn't dream of saying similiar things to the coupled. Or making jokes out of people's name. For various reasons, I tend to think the best way to compliment someone's appearance is to say "You're looking really well" or "That x really suits you." This seems to avoid the possibility of backhanded comments. If people open the door, you're probably entitled to point out rudeness.

  16. I have moderate to severe eczema, on all different parts of my body, but 75% of the time, it is bad on my face. My face is most of the time very very red. I have had the "are you sunburnt?" question more times than I can remember, and so although I can never fully relate to your ongoing experience, I do experience this question myself on an ongoing basis.

    I find this upsetting, but i have tried in recent years to accept it. When they inevitably say "wow, you got badly sunburnt didn't you?" or many other variations on that, I say "I have eczema" and usually this encourages them to tell me about someone they know who has eczema, and the treatments that they used to make it clear up like a miracle. I know they are being kind, but I feel like saying "don't you think I have tried every treatment known to mankind?"

    I also wonder why people are so quick to comment on others appearances. As I get older (currently 39yrs) and as I have also gained weight, I am more aware than ever the amount of conversation that revolves around appearance. I am tired of it!

    And then there is my mother, who was born with one arm that only developed to her elbow. She mostly just gets looks (people are too embarrassed to comment). I notice the looks more than she does.

    I admire my mother. She totally accepts that people stare, or question her, and she is totally relaxed about it. I strive to be like her, and have kindness in my heart to those who judge my appearance re: my red face and my weight. But I would be lying to say I have reached the level of acceptance that she has. This is an ongoing struggle for me.

  17. We don't know what is wrong yet (we have had some tests) but Mr 14 gets very very itchy when he gets even slightly warm. Playing soccer he can't stand it. Yes, people say "What is WRONG with you!" because there is no visible indication he has any problem.

    The flip side of the coin, of course, is when there is something wrong that no-one can see. After I had my hysterectomy I ws a little shaky on the train and asked for a seat from a school kid. Response? "What's wrong with you?"

    I replied I've had major surgery, would you like to see? He leapt out of his seat. Now of course I healed, but the moral of the story is we assume people who look OK on the "outside" don't have a health problem and expect them to be "able bodied".

    I am sorry you have to go through all those questions, Carly, it must, as you say, just get so damn tiring.

  18. It always amazes me the things people say! Like you said, does it really matter to them to know? Why do they have to say anything at all?! My condition isn't visible (I have cystic fibrosis) but I always get comments when I cough. Always. It's usually "ohhh that's a nasty flu, better step away from me, I don't want to get that!" to which I always reply, "don't worry, I'd be more worried about what you'll give me!" Working in retail and having to deal with people all the time can make that a little tricky though, I have to be nice! Also like you said, I wonder how people would react if you said things like "whoa, better slow down on those burgers hey, you've been eating too much junk!" I will just never understand why people think that saying things like this is ok.

  19. People comment on the fact that I am tall ALL THE TIME. And I'm not even that tall, just a smidgen under 6 foot, there are a lot of people taller than me. But I get "gee you're tall" "how is the weather up there" "you are a giant" etc all the time.

    It doesn't upset me, I find it more curious than anything else. It truly is pointing out the obvious, believe it or not I do know my own height. However if people were making some kind of judgmental call like you get about "sunburn" then I think it would annoy me.

    Then again, I do my best not to get annoyed at other's stupidity. I don't need to expend emotional energy because someone else is a moron.

  20. When I'm out with my super inquisitive 4 year old there are constant questions "why is the sky blue? Where does marshmallow come from? Why is that man's eyes funny? What's wrong with her legs?"

    Such comments are without fail in earshot of the person (and usually the entire shopping centre). I always do my best to explain how everybody has a different body, and some people have disabilities or illness or something that makes their body different, but they are still just like her.

    But in those moments, when she's bellowing it through the shopping centre, I wish the ground would just swallow me up. So I can only imagine how frustrating it must be on the receiving end of such questions and comments over and over again.

  21. My favorite part in this whole post (i love it all, btw!) is " The statement I hate the most is "someone's been sunburnt". I'm spoken about in third person. And if I had a better comeback, I'd look around and say "Who?!"" I'm definitely going to start doing that! Every single comment you've mentioned, I get it too! I absolutely love reading your posts! Thank you. :)


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