Looking At Ourselves

Looking At Ourselves: Nonprofit’s great work helps children fit in

A recent showing of NBC’s “Dateline” featured a nonprofit corporation based in New York City known as the “Little Baby Face Foundation.” The nonprofit was founded by Manhattan facial plastic surgeon Thomas Romo, M.D., and Lauralouise Duffy Blatt in 2002 to “serve and assist children with birth deformities and their families that are without resources by providing them with the life changing restorative treatments and surgeries free of cost.”

The show highlights the emotional tale of four teens with varying degrees of facial abnormalities that had been subjected to bullying in high school because of their appearances. One of the teens, Renata, a 15-year-old girl from South Carolina, had received such severe bullying that she had opted for a home-school program as opposed to facing her tormenters in the school hallways.
Three of the four teens, including Renata, were eventually accepted for surgery by LBFF in Manhattan.

Although the program ends with wonderful results for the selected teens, it has generated some degree of controversy. Manhattan psychologist Vivian Diller expressed doubts about embarking on such programs.

“We really have to address the idea that there should be zero tolerance of bullying, and maybe we even have to encourage the acceptance of differences,” she said. Diller emphasizes that addressing such issues with surgery is taking the onus off the bully and placing it more on the shoulders of the bullied.

The teen who was not selected as a surgical candidate by LBFF was shown later in the show to be more accepting of his appearance, opting instead to form an organization to raise awareness about the effects of bullying.

Because I have seen the effects of altered self-image based on appearance, I feel the issue deserves a nuanced approach. It would be hard for anyone watching the show to be devoid of empathy for the teens. It is well known that the process of socialization is an essential, albeit sometimes brutal, process in maturity of the individual toward adulthood.

Variations in the appearance of a facial feature, such as the nose, can be viewed more along the model of a bell curve: There are perfect noses, and those that have mild, moderate, and profound imperfections.

I personally feel that “zero tolerance of bullying” does not equate to zero bullying, and those with a profound imperfection are invariably singled out. Therefore, I feel that it is completely reasonable for a person like Renata to seek a surgical solution for the problem that she had.

Since we do not question the social value of addressing a cleft lip or misaligned teeth to establish an accepted norm of appearance, we shouldn’t reject a procedure such as rhinoplasty for a teen with a very large nose. At the same time, a beautiful 16-year-old with a slight imperfection may be better waiting to re-evaluate her appearance in adulthood.

Self-image is the way an individual feels about the way they look. Some may feel that this isn’t rational, and they are partially right: it isn’t a conscious decision. Navigating the trials and tribulations of maturation is difficult enough without being singled out for something you have no control over — unless you consider surgery.
My hat’s off to Dr. Romo and his team for the great work they have done, helping 500 children since 2002.