AboutFace: researching the cultural and emotional histories of facial difference, surgery and transplantation

Fewer than 50 face transplants have taken place around the world since 2005 – none as yet in the UK. As an experimental and innovative form of organ transplantation, face transplants have physical and emotional effects – on patients and their families, on surgical teams and society as a whole. AboutFace explores these impacts in history, and in the present. 

Funded by a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship awarded to historian of emotion Dr Fay Bound Alberti, AboutFace is the first major interdisciplinary project to consider the meanings of face transplants as surgical and psychological processes. We work with extended surgical teams, patients and families, institutions, organisations and policy makers to evaluate the impacts of face transplants on patients, medical practitioners and donor families, and how the media representation of face transplants influences policy and opinion. 

AboutFace will create important insights into face transplants as a form of innovative surgery, and benefit extended surgical teams seeking to understand links between ethics, emotion, identity and facial appearance. It will create a new, historically-informed framework for evaluating the psychological impact of facial difference and transplantation. And it will show how, and why, the meanings of the face in the Selfie Age are more complex than ever before.

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Who are we?

We are a team of researchers working on the history, ethics and practice of facial transplantation. We are interested in the emotional and physical dimensions of the face, as an organ of the self and identity, and in its treatment in surgery and society.

AboutFace collaborators come from a variety of perspectives to share their insights and experiences. This includes people with lived experience of facial difference, including face transplant recipients, as well as families and carers, surgical innovators, ethicists, policy makers, artists, writers, and researchers in the arts, sciences and social sciences. Our surgical and non-surgical collaborators are, like the members of our Advisory Board, international leaders in their fields.

This kind of interdisciplinary research can be challenging. It requires us to work across different methods, systems and belief systems. Face transplant are emotive and emotional subjects, and interdisciplinary research necessarily involves taking risks and seeing things from another angle. Building trust, with surgical teams, policy makers, people with lived experience of facial difference, takes time, as well as openness, sensitivity and transparency: principles that we commit to in this project.

AboutFace opens up the complex world of ethics, emotions, economics, politics and appearance in which face transplants take place. Our role is not to argue in favour of, or against, face transplants, or indeed any other experimental surgery. Rather we seek to understand, as historians, the complex contexts in which the surgery takes place, and the innovative and emotional pathways involved for surgical teams, patients, donor and recipient families, and society as a whole.

That we do so against the backdrop of social and emotional attitudes towards faces, and facial difference, adds to the contemporary relevance of AboutFace. Appearance is political and politicised in 21st century culture, with hierarchical ideas of attractiveness skewed not only by ideas of difference but also conventions of gender, ethnicity, health and class. Research into facial difference and surgery must take account of individual, lived experience, and a skilled Lived Experience Advisory Panel (LEAP), composed of members with experience helps to shape our research.

In keeping with our commitment to  are judicious and respectful in our use of language and images. While it might be appropriate in some places to use legalistic and surgical language (and these are flagged in specific sections of our website), we generally prefer the terms ‘visible facial difference’ to potentially value-laden terms like ‘disfigurement’. Where we use images in the project, we do so with reference to an ongoing consultation with our partners, and according to a code of ethics and set out in our Image Bank.

This website is intended to provide a hub for information, knowledge exchange, conversations and the dissemination of our findings. If you’d like to know more, or have any queries, please get in touch by emailing us at aboutface-project@york.ac.uk or follow us on Twitter @AboutFaceYork


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@CAR_UWE researchers are looking for UK adults with facial palsy going through psychological/social difficulties related to looking different, to try ACT It Out, a prototype mobile app. If interested pls DM @Fabio_of_CAR, email Fabio.zucchelli@uwe.ac.uk or call 0117 32 83882

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