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Should my Halloween costume include a fake scar? This activist says no

Phyllida Swift posing with her scar.
Alice Webb
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Phyllida Swift
Phyllida Swift posing with her scar.

In recent years, people have been asking themselves if their Halloween costumes are culturally appropriative. But activist Phyllida Swift says there's one possibly appropriative element of Halloween costumes many people may not even think about — their makeup.

After a car wreck left her with a scar across her face at age 22, Swift started noticing facial scars all over villains in movies and scary Halloween costumes.

On her first Halloween after the accident, several people asked if her scars were makeup. Kids told her that her face was scary and they didn't like it.

"That was like a punch in the gut the first time that happened," Swift told NPR's Morning Edition. "I didn't know how to handle it."

She runs a charity that supports people with facial differences, and is among the activists urging people to think twice before putting on Halloween makeup that looks like scars.

"For someone to don a scar for a night and say, 'Isn't this scary? I would never want to look like this.' They can take that off at the end of the night," Swift said. "Someone with a facial difference is going to be living with that forever."

She says that people who wear scars as costumes are "largely entirely innocent," and she has had conversations with friends who "simply didn't know until I brought it up."

Swift wants to be a role model for others because she doesn't see a lot of positive representation of facial disfigurements in the media.

"I just starred in a short film where there was an animated character attached to my character, and the scar lights up," she said. "It looks a bit like a lightning bolt. It's almost like my superpower."

Swift doesn't usually wear makeup. But she's inspired by others who embrace their scars and birthmarks — like adorning them with glitter.

"Everybody has, you know, mental, physical scars. And it just so happens that my past traumas are stamped across my face," Swift said. "I like to think of that as a superpower."

Daniel James Cole, adjunct faculty at NYU's graduate Costume Studies program, is a fan of gory Halloween costumes and their historical tie to the idea of death.

"Traditionally, the idea of Halloween coming from the Christian and Celtic holidays, there's an element of the dead coming out of their graves," Cole said. "So, if somebody goes to the trouble of dressing as a decomposing body, that's in the spirit of what the holiday was intended to be."

He says that whether a costume takes things too far depends on the context, and that dressing up in costumes inspired by historical events should be a case-by-case decision. But dressing up in gore is not the same as ridiculing someone with a disfigurement — which he says should never be done.

"I think that if the costume is something like a zombie, or if you have a red line drawn around your neck and you say you're Mary Queen of Scots, I don't think that is any form of ridicule of somebody with a disfigurement," Cole said.

If your costume is intended to depict somebody with a disfigurement, Cole says you may want to think again.

This story was edited by Treye Green and Jacob Conrad.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claire Murashima
Claire Murashima is a production assistant on Morning Edition and Up First. Before that, she worked on How I Built This, NPR's Team Atlas and Michigan Radio. She graduated from Calvin University.