Katie Piper: Recovering the Image

13 January 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Katie Piper was used to turning heads.

But not like this.

The young London woman had enjoyed a successful career as a model before the attacks came. She had been lured from her apartment by the manipulations of her psychotic ex-boyfriend. When she stepped into the street, she was assaulted in the face by hydrochloric acid.

The results were devastating.

The face of the model was gone, and in its place sat a face that when she finally saw it, Piper could only burst into tears: “It’s not me.” she told her Dad. “It’s not the face I was born with.”

Piper recalls: “I remember I had no eyelids and it was just the actual eyeballs round — all exposed, and…[I] had no nose…It was just…it was so difficult, so alien.”

It took close to 30 different surgeries to reconstruct the damage wrought by the acid, and 23 hours of each day were spent behind a plastic mask to protect the skin beneath.

And all the while fear and entrapment ate into her, proving far more corrosive than any acid.

Piper would later tell news reporters:

“My appearance is a constant reminder of what he did to me. And almost like I belong to him, because it’s not really my face — it’s the one he created through the attack,…I think that’s like the only thing I feel I belong to, is him. I always have, like, his marks all over my face, all over my body. I’ll never be like the person I was born to be like — the person I’m supposed to be.”

And so the model who once turned heads for her beauty now turned heads for her scars. Trips to familiar places proved devastating: like the garden of Eden, she was expelled from places of former security.

Piper hid. It was all she knew. Who could blame a young woman who had been through so much.

But with the help of family and friends, she gradually grew more and more from this place of counterfeit security. Simple tasks, like putting on makeup and a nice dress proved therapeutic, and Piper has since learned to deal with her new face, caring not for the stares of strangers.

It has taken time. But now Piper has woven her story into her life’s work, desiring to set up a burn clinic in London to help victims like her.

And faith has been an integral part. She tells ABC News that prior to the accident:

“I was the most important thing in my life. There was always something in my life that I was missing and I never knew what that hole was. And after my accident I found a faith and, and I learned to believe in God and I started to pray…and that void has been filled in my life…I feel enriched in that way through the accident. And I think it’s taught me that I don’t want to be a cliche …it has taught me that, you know, looks aren’t everything.”

The image of God is a concept often spoken of by theologians and stuffed-shirt “professionals.” But it is most fully expressed in stories like Piper’s, who have the courage to live redemptively in a world that has taken so much from them.

We must never minimize the tragedy of what happened to this young woman. The scars she bears have been deep, emotionally as well as physically. But it has been the courage to endure them that prompts us to applaud a beauty that penetrates well beneath the surface of her skin.

Because the irony here is simple. Her hiding began long before the attack ever was orchestrated. Her hiding was found behind the glossy covers of magazines and a thin layer of concealing makeup. Beauty can become a hiding place, and Piper even admits her own self-obsession.

But pain, says C. S. Lewis, is the megaphone of a God who “whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.” For Piper, her disfigurement has not been a positive experience, though it has been an enriching one.

Each of us bears a disfigurement. The image of God in us has been damaged by sin. We must dispense with the self-centered tendency to hide our brokenness, or to pretend it isn’t there. We must instead embrace the redemptive nature of Christian community, which acknowledges our brokenness without judgment, and spurs us on to the more closely bear Christ’s image.

St. Augustine wrote:

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself…”

Our confidence lies not in our hiding places, but our confidence in Christ’s work.

And through Him we can live again. Let’s start today.

13 January 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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