Interview: About face
Joanna Jepson talks to Stephen Tomkins
At 14, after a church youth group pizza party, Joanna Jepson received a letter in green felt tip saying “Can opener! You’re so ugly why don’t you kill yourself”. She had a congenital condition which prevented her lower jaw growing, so its effect on her appearance grew ever more pronounced. Then, at 19, she completed facial surgery which changed her life. In her 20s, while an ordinand in the Church of England, she began a campaign against the abortion of 28-week foetuses for cleft palate – a condition that can be remedied with the same operation she had.
Her book, A Lot Like Eve: Fashion, faith and fig-leaves: A memoir (Bloomsbury, £12.99) is a beautifully-written memoir of growing up with a disfiguring condition, finding her real self and the real God. It is available to buy from the United Reformed Church online shop, www.urcshop.co.uk. Reform talked to Joanna Jepson at Greenbelt festival in August.
Describe the way you looked at the age of 16.
A bit wonky. My top jaw was protruding out of my mouth, my bottom jaw reclined so I couldn’t close my mouth properly when I spoke or when I ate. My bones didn’t fit together in my jaw.
How does it feel to cast your mind back?
It does feel like another lifetime. I stood in front of the mirror the day before I had the operation trying to fix the picture in my mind and I can still see that image before me: Train track teeth not really fitting together. It makes me enjoy once again the feeling that it all just fits neatly. It’s a nice, liberating feeling.
You must have had very different experiences throughout your life of being a woman known by
her physical appearance. Do you feel you have escaped all that prejudice, or do you face a different kind of prejudice?
Women don’t ever escape the prejudice of being judged by the way we look. It’s how we handle that and learn to derive our sense of self from something stronger than other people’s opinion. Which is a big ask for any teenager – there’s no way I could have been strong enough to withstand the commentary on my face and what it told me about myself, which was: You don’t belong, you’re not going to have boyfriends and enjoy clothes. It was just cut off.
Now, 20 years on, I’m beginning to think about the aging process and how that affects me as a woman and how I’m judged. There’s another book there!
You write about being overwhelmed by how people saw you, and coming to a different understanding of yourself. I wonder how much of that came from the operation and how much comes from maturity.
That’s a really good question. People think surgery will make everything OK, and it doesn’t. I still suffered those wounds because surgery doesn’t heal. It can transform on the outside but it doesn’t heal.
Healing came through theological college, being with older, wiser people who enabled me to have a strong sense of self and putting roots down into God and through meditation. None of those people responded to me on the basis of the way I looked and that helped me come back to myself.
How do you feel about the fact that there was an operation for you and not for your brother Alastair [who has Down’s Syndrome]?
My gut reaction is I’m really glad, because I don’t want him to become something he isn’t. But on the other hand, in the past he has really wanted to be healed of Down’s Syndrome. He’s got amazing ambitions that he can’t realise because of his learning difficulties. So it’s selfish of me to want to keep him as he is, but he’s so determined – and in a way victorious in what he achieves even though he hasn’t got the healing he sought. His spirit is the greatest of inspirations…
This is an extract from the December 2015/January 2016 edition of Reform.