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James Partridge is a social entrepreneur, founder of multiple charities and an author. He is currently the Director of Face Equality International, which he launched in November 2018. Previously, he was the Founder (in 1992) and until September 2017, Chief Executive of Changing Faces, the leading UK charity supporting and representing people with disfigurements.
In 1970, aged 18, James was severely burned in a car fire that changed his face, and his life, forever. His new book Face It tells his story and fight to create face equality. whitefox spoke to James about his upcoming book and the personal, professional and political messages it contains.
1. Why did you decide to write Face It?
Face It has been long in gestation. I have been asked many times, since writing my first book, when I was going to tell my story. I wanted to do so in order to describe the factors that contributed to my adjustment to facial disfigurement in much more detail, but I never had time!
Similarly, in the 25 years of leading the charity Changing Faces, from 1992, I was frequently asked to lay out in much more detail the rationale and content of our pioneering package of psycho-social help and the campaign for ‘face equality’ that we launched in 2008.
For perhaps 10 years I made attempts at starting the writing, drafting chapters and synopses but they all gathered dust as other priorities gripped me.
Finally, in the summer of 2018, I started writing in earnest and in early 2019, really committed to getting Face It completed. And I’m pleased with the result! It’s an honest memoir, a practical self-help guide and, hopefully, a compelling manifesto for face equality!
2. You have founded two ground-breaking charities during your career: Changing Faces in 1992 and Face Equality International in 2018. Could you tell us a little about the inspiration behind them?
When I wrote the first book, I had no intention of doing anything more in the disfigurement field apart from a few talks perhaps. But the many warm letters I received after it was published stirred me to wonder if I should do more.
But setting up a charity? That seemed a very long and risky way from being a Guernsey dairy farmer! But, as I explored the idea more, I realised that I might just have the skillset to make it happen — and so, totally unexpectedly, I became a social entrepreneur with all the hazards and risks that involves.
Stepping aside from leading Changing Faces after 25 years in 2017 was the sensible thing to do, but as I did so, I was determined to find a way to respond to the considerable international interest in what the charity had pioneered. I hit on the idea of creating an international alliance to ratchet up the campaign for face equality — and was delighted when nine leading NGOs around the world, including Changing Faces, decided to give their financial support. Face Equality International was launched in November 2018 and now has 35 members.
3. Your new book Face It is structured in three parts: the personal, the professional and the political. Why did you decide to structure your book in this way? What effect do you hope it will have on your readers?
When I was severely facially burned in 1970 at the age of 18, my life was turned upside down. Face It tells of the three dimensions of my life since then:
First, my personal battle to adjust to having a distinctive, not-perfect face in a perfect-face world. Second, my effort to build on the lessons I learned and transform them into professional packages of psycho-social help that complement the brilliance of plastic surgery and other interventions – few of which can remove disfigurements completely. And third, my fight against disfigurement prejudice and discrimination – ‘face-ism’ – and determination to create a world that respects face equality.
4. You say in Face It: ‘This book is quite deliberately about the significance of the human face’. Can you elaborate?
The human face is the canvas that is on show every day to everyone you meet and on which you paint your moods, your personality and your experiences. It is what people think of when they think of you – it’s your identity. And it is what we see in the mirror and call ‘me’, our self-image, in our internal conversations.
Perhaps most importantly, our faces are where people look when they meet us – at work, in school, in the park, on a bus or on social media – and what our face looks like leads to instant face-value judgements about us.
If you have a face that is distinctive or unusual-looking, all of these ‘significances’ become complicated. In today’s face-perfect culture, your sense of worth may be inhibited, your self-image damaged and other people’s responses to you less than fair. These impacts can be profound, lifelong and cannot be underestimated. Face It is about all that and more.
5. Face It is ‘a no-holds-barred account’ of your story. Why did you decide to write a book to tell your story? What does it mean to you to write and publish a book?
Books have been very important to me ever since I had my accident at the age of 18. Books enable people to share parts of themselves, give insights for others and often inspire, too. I hope Face It will do all of that.
I also greatly enjoy writing and wordsmithing so as to say what I mean as well as I can. In my professional life, most of my writing was focused on writing and reporting to generous people or arguing for a particular policy or position – and much of that writing was done under pressure. Now I have more time to be reflective, to read more widely… and, in the current lockdown, it’s an activity to be nurtured and improved upon.
6. What role can allies play in the fight for face equality?
The global movement for face equality will not achieve its goals without allies – just as the campaigns for gender and disability rights, and race and trans equality have needed to attain widespread support from many individuals and social groups.
7. After publication, what effect would you like to see Face It have personally, professionally and politically?
I’m hoping that Face It will strike chords and be useful for many people… those challenged by the lived experience of a facial disfigurement, those seeking to support them and their families, and everyone who cares about the campaign for face equality. And I hope it will bring more energy to that movement, especially, perhaps.
Personally, I’m looking for new avenues at home and abroad to spread these messages – and those could be very different in the post-COVID world than I might have expected a few months ago…
8. What was it about self-publishing that appealed to you?
Face It publishes on 4th June 2020. Pre-order your (signed!) copy via James’ website.