After the normal phase of display or exposure, which inevitably leads to the attestation and explanation of what happened, the case occurs not so rarely, that a major burn survivor decides to take a riskier route, that of over-exposure and eventual provocation. The boundary between a normal display and provocative display is not always clear. As we have said, seeing a major burn survivor is undoubtedly a strain for others. Without doing anything in particular, the mere appearance of his marked body risks to be perceived as a provocation. Confronted with a range of negatively perceived reactions: disgust, rejection, surprise, etc., a major burn survivor will often take some proactive measures as a preventive measure for himself and also for others. Expecting such reactions, he is somehow seeking a tacit agreement, described by Goffman: in hiding the after-effects and limiting their salience, a major burn survivor does all he can to reduce the interactive discomfort he causes. But, in exchange, he expects his interlocutor to act as if nothing had happened (Goffman, 1996 , 145). However, this type of accommodation is fragile. Sometimes a major burn survivor wishes to maintain familiar signs of interaction, such as a simple handshake when he only has a stump left in place of the hand. But, thinking of putting his interlocutor at ease by a form of hypercorrection (without, for example, presenting his other valid hand), he may then trigger surprise, even if, in his view, this action should be part of normal interactions. It may even happen that even a hypercorrection is misunderstood because it is at the border between an exposure considered normal and an exposure perceived as provocative. Strictly speaking, for a major burn survivor, provocation is part of the constant struggle to show that he claims simply to be recognized as a normal partner in interactions. His appearance should, for a certain major burn survivor, in no way condemn him to discretion, withdrawal and even less to any form of exclusion. This reversal should be read and interpreted as a reversal of the stigma: to positivize a situation perceived as painful, but also to free oneself from it and claim to be a person like other, in no way diminished, nor fragile.
We will focus here on some forms of stigma reversal. The first is normalizing, i.e. speaking openly about the burn, while the interlocutors try to ignore it. A major burn survivor uses this to provoke, either by reacting to fire-related terms (and there is no lack of expressions such as: there is no fire on the lake, etc.), by describing himself as “half cooked“, or by saying that he “can withstand heat up to 1000 degrees” (Samuel, 40 (20), occupational accident). He may also sometimes highlight the carnal damage that blurs the boundary between inside and outside, between what is hidden, the flesh, and what is visible, the skin: “Even I, when I show it [arm], I say, ‘even in at the butchers they don’t want it.’ I try to take it as a joke” (Marlene, 28 (22), attack). By such highlighting, this woman reflects to others how she perceives their behaviors. This attitude places images inside each other, whose objective is not only retrospective, describing what had just taken place, but also prospective, so that in the future these people would no longer be so disturbed. The purpose of this process is to act and not to let others’ uneasiness, fantasies and representations overwhelm them.
The second form consists in making people sympathize by displaying the after-effects to see the reactions of others, with the complicity of other protagonists: friends, etc. Again, this exhibition is in the liminal zone between normal exposure and provocative exposure. Above all, the aim is to raise awareness among the surrounding people of the insistence of their looks, their remarks (if they had not yet noticed it). In the event that the fault of a third party is known, the voluntary exhibition of the scars (for example, for a woman, by a generous cleavage or by a miniskirt that displays the after-effects) takes on a special meaning; this kind of “posting” becomes an insistence on what happened, the consequences of which are tangible: “Look, I was hurt, feel sorry for me” (Sophie, 43 (40), domestic accident). This is once again a search for recognition of what actually happened and may not have happened.
The third form is used to test the others and to do a selective choice, according to the words of an interviewee. This test would in some cases even be a type of initiation: letting him judge someone by his attitude in the face of damaged skin, it would allow a major burn survivor to sort through his relational network, a choice through which he would be able to, in a way, reverse the situation.
As for the fourth form, heroïzation, it is part of the narrative dimension. We have highlighted the crucial importance of storytelling in facilitating the identification of after-effects. Due to the often dramatic nature of the accident and the visibility of the consequences, a major burn survivor must find an acceptable form to describe the accident. This narrative, which we have called a “turnkey” narrative often remains very factual. In the construction of the discourse, the etiology of the accident, more than the aesthetic consequences, has an essential meaning. It goes without saying that surviving an airplane accident generates more interest and allows more emphasis than having resisted the consequences of a common household accident: “If I had a motorcycle accident, it’s not as fun. But a plane crash and that I’m here, it’s fun enough, well, it’s miraculous enough for me to be able to talk about it” (Luis, 63 (58), recreational accident (motor vehicle).
Similarly, an accident that occurred in a particular professional context (firefighter, military) or in a private context, but where lives were saved, will easily benefit from a heroic charge. The meaning attributed to the stories and their purpose, however, always vary according to the interlocutors. Often reconfigured, especially after an artificial coma phase and relying above all on the comments of witnesses or from reports (police, etc.), this type of narrative is necessarily “revisited”, re-appropriated and interpreted with very personal touch-ups with the obvious aim of provoking a reaction in the interlocutors.
“I told a lot of things, in the shops once again I said: ‘I fell into the jungle. ‘ (…) From the plane in the jungle and that I was a survivor. Stuff like that. People they can’t know. When I didn’t want to tell my story, the truth, I told lies” (Lisa, 62 (19), recreational accident, motor vehicle)
This heroïzation is similar to and rejoins to other forms, such as the fifth form, the particularity, which aims to capitalize on the distinctive sign. Instead of being a discriminating sign, it can facilitate the recognition of the major burn survivor and even increase his notoriety. This cutaneous particularity has even been exploited by major clothing brands that have featured Winnie Harlow, model with vitiligo. In this case, the skin damage is confused with colorful clothing. We are thus witnessing a sixth form, the aestheticization of brands, which is found in tattoos covering burn sequels, depigmented areas, or skin transplants.
The seventh and last form corresponds to exemplarity. Already mentioned, when active and with the expected effects, it allows the survivor to not only defend the cause of major burn survivors by highlighting the “pyrosociality“, but more broadly through “dermosociality“, to extend this effort to other visible skin disorders, or even with people who have experienced bifurcations due to disruptive events: divorce, bereavement, etc.
As we have seen, all these various attempts to overexpose burn after-effects are risky. Wishing, most of the time, that they could finally “move on” (Marlene, 28 (22), attack), in reality a major burn survivor no longer wants to be constantly reduced to his scars, nor to the factual nature of the accident. Behind these various forms of stigma reversal, weaves indeed a struggle against stereotypes and preconceived ideas, as well as a struggle to be recognized as a true partner of the interaction, a partner who dares confront others. Skin damage thus acts as a “chevron“ that “raises” (Javeau, 2015, 39) personally a major burn survivor above what is usually assigned to him. It must be noted, however, that this demanding exhibition returns again and always to the very specific characteristics of the effects of a burn and their visible consequences. A major burn survivor posts for example on Facebook® a picture of himself at the beach, lying on a deckchair, in order to not only to show that he is comfortable with his burns but above all to encourage others to do the same. Comments are not long in coming. They insist on the prominence of the scars. (I didn’t think you were so seriously burned). In any media exposure, a major burn survivor will not fail to receive in return remarks of a moral nature or questions that assume some personal responsibility in the accident, suggesting that he or she may not have taken the right precautions or, as is often the case, may not have turned to fire cutters or people with the secret, beliefs still very strong in the field of severe burns.
As we can see, like a tightrope walker, a major burn survivor must constantly seek a subtle balance between normal exposure and demanding exposure, between excessive visibility and lesser visibility. Thus, through routine interactive experiences but also through virtual experiences, of which the importance should not be underestimated, this balance in perpetual rebalancing is tested, exercised and, fortunately, is found.