I’ve got a brand new scar. At around 5”, it’s one of my longest. It’s new enough that it looks more like a nicely-healing recent wound rather than a scar, so it will be a while before I know how it will end up in the long run. It will be the most obvious of my scars so far, simply because most of the others are usually covered by clothing, whereas this will be in full view every Summer. My husband says it’s badass.
My new scar is, ironically, directly across from the first scar I remember getting. I got that one when I was about five or six years old – as I gracefully walked on a tightrope in the circus, I lost my balance, slipped, and took a spectacular fall, plummeting down to the floor with my knee falling in the perfect place to be gouged open by the corner of the metal bedframe. The crowd gasped and screamed at the horrible sight. I remember needing 11 stitches. I’m told it would have been just a thin, barely noticeable line had I not fallen on it again the day my stitches came out while playing hide and seek with my brother. My father said at the time I would as a result never be crowned Miss America (a keen goal of mine at the time). I was devastated. And, of course, my career as a tightrope walker was over.
My new scar joins five other major surgical scars on my body (if you count each breast separately), including, in order: C-section, hysterectomy, breast reduction and lumbar laminectomy (spinal surgery). This doesn’t count tiny incisions (still visible if you strain) that marked various arthroscopic and laparoscopic procedures. Then there are numerous small scars produced through injuries (none as emotionally damaging as the first) – at least two dog bites (one on my arm from my friend Eileen’s dog Shultz, one on my lip from my own dog, administered without provocation a few days after we adopted her – her name was Buffy J. Wren. I say at least two because another friend Sue’s dog Rebel once bit me on the butt, but I don’t know whether it left a scar); a small purple (no clue how or why it’s purple) companion to the circus scar, where I fell off my bike trying to bring home an ice cream bar from Pitt’s store for my brother before it melted; one on my ankle that I received from the door of my mother’s Cadillac ElDorado the last time I saw my Uncle Pat alive; one on my toe from smashing it on a high curb when my husband and I were vacationing in Florida and having a rare argument. There are probably others that escape my memory and are too small and faint to remember.
Our scars are evidence of a distinct moment in our personal history. Everyone who has a scar, unless it was acquired in a manner so traumatic as to leave no memory of it, knows exactly how, when and where it happened, and can tell the story – often in dramatic and graphic detail, sometimes with great relish. Many movies have poignant and often hilarious scenes to this effect (the drunken scene on the boat in Jaws comes immediately to mind). As you can see from the above paragraph, although I am not known for having a good (or even decent) memory these days, I can remember the tiniest minutiae surrounding the events that led to the scars on my body – especially those caused by injury. But I wonder – if our scars leave such an indelible impression on us, why in the world would we see them as flaws – ugly, disfiguring, embarrassing, something to be hidden from the world?
I carried that first traumatic experience with having a scar for much of my youth. Not because of the injury and the pain and fear it caused, but because of the cruelly implanted idea at such a young age that I would no longer be seen as beautiful, and thereby my value as a woman was diminished. I felt ugly whenever I saw it. I tried to keep it covered, and, if someone did notice it, I told the story of my injury with shame and regret. I felt that it was the first thing people noticed about me. I felt that it made me unattractive. In more ways than one, “scarred for life.” *
Now that I’m older, I realize that the truth is the exact opposite. Scars are a beautiful marvel – they show not our ugliness and weakness but our strength and endurance. They mark us as persons who are able to heal from sometimes grave wounds and traumas. They show that we are adventurous souls, taking risks that don’t always pan out. They show that we are warriors in an often perilous world – we face the dangers anyway – and sometimes carry the evidence on our bodies. Of course, this goes for unseen scars, as well – those that are the evidence of healed (or healing) emotional wounds. Those are beautiful, as well.
Perhaps it was my C-section scar that changed my mind. For a long time after my son was born, I had a thick, dark, long, very noticeable keloid on my lower belly. I fretted a little over it (just a little, because it was only visible to myself and my then-husband), but I saw it as a sign of my struggle. Like the warriors who purposely scar themselves as marks of bravery or strength or belonging, I felt that my scar was part of who I now was – a mother. Something I had always wanted to be way more than Miss America. I found it ironic that, though the scar on my knee disqualified me to be Miss America, my abdominal scar was actually required for me to be a Mom. Oddly (or maybe not, as things go), after I had my second child vaginally two years later (at home in my living room), the keloid smoothed out and faded away (something I was told was impossible, and that I must have been mistaken about the keloid forming. Really.). Now I can no longer see the scar at all.
Scars are a part of our incredible body’s natural healing process. It never ceases to amaze me that we can cut our body’s outer protective layer, rummage around inside, removing, altering or repairing various internal apparatus, and then sew or staple it back up and.. it HEALS ITSELF!!! How wondrous is that? Our body actually repairs and regenerates itself many times a day, and thousands of times throughout our lifetimes, in ways we don’t even notice or even know about. But scars are the proof.
Interestingly, right after the Johns Hopkins site’s definition and explanation of scar tissue is a paragraph with the heading (in large, bold print): How can a scar be minimized? After assurances that most scars fade over time is a list of dermatological techniques (after a brief mention that makeup may be used) to minimize or reduce scars. Some of which are quite extensive, and sound more than a little painful. The second paragraph in a medical expert’s entry on scars. An undescore to our negative feelings about our scars.
When I had my breasts reduced (I was single at the time), the surgeon and literature spent a lot of time discussing scarring and asking whether I understood that it would change my appearance, and was I okay with that. What’s to be okay about? I had horrible back pain that was detrimentally affecting my life every day. I really didn’t care what the few people besides myself who might get a glimpse of them thought about the appearance of my breasts afterward. My self-worth isn’t bound up in any of my body parts. And if I were to find a partner, and he didn’t like the appearance of my breasts, well… bye!
Our culture’s unhealthy focus on physical appearance, and the enduring but outdated ideas of what constitutes beauty still apparently haunts some people, and distorts our ideas about what scarring really means. Instead of rejoicing in the miracle of a self-healing body and mind, we fret about how we appear to others afterward. The truth is, scars are the sexy reminder of our resilience, and I’m proud of each and every one of mine – evidence that I have lived a full life. I’m hoping that, now that all sorts of ideas about the acceptance of outward appearance are changing, as seen in advertisements, media and art, perhaps our ideas about our culturally-perceived flaws and imperfections will change as well, and we will begin seeing scars as exactly what they are – the marks of a warrior who has strived and conquered, and has the proof etched on their skin.
*Ironically, when I posted a picture of my scar on social media, one of my friends posted back: “Now you’ll never be Mrs. America.” I think she saw it as a joke, but I was absolutely astonished. I guess some old tropes never die, although they obviously should!