Speaking to people about self-acceptance when you're living with scarring
Some scars come with really adventurous and exciting stories, mine not so much. When I was 14 I had surgery to correct a curve in my spine caused by a condition called scoliosis. Whilst at the time I was worried about the operation itself, I was also preoccupied with how I would look after the surgery. Like many teenagers, I just wanted to fit in, and the thought of having a massive 15-inch scar down the middle of my back didn’t sound like it would help much.
I have a couple of distinct teenage memories that made me question how comfortable I was about baring my scar to the world. One is of a family friend who saw my scar peeking out over a top I was wearing and said, "it doesn’t really matter, some people have tattoos down the middle of their backs as a choice". My physio used to tell me not to worry because I could just get the scar lasered when I was older. Another, more hurtful comment came from a stranger when I was on holiday a year or so after my operation. I was wearing a swimming costume by the pool, and a girl said to her mum: "What do you think happened to that girl? Her back looks like Frankenstein."
These feelings have been echoed by other people I have spoken to who also have visible scars. Chris was diagnosed with skin cancer at the age of 24 which resulted in him having surgery that left his head and neck heavily scarred. He told me how his friends would say he should wear his scars with pride, as a medal for the battle he has fought. But as time went on he grew more self-conscious of his scars. It wasn’t until the scars faded that Chris felt more comfortable with the appearance of them – and now feels pride towards them and towards anyone else who is confident about their scars.
In my heart of hearts I always loved my scar, it was an external sign of the struggle I had been through, but my fear of people’s opinions increasingly made me feel like I needed to cover it up, not so much for my own benefit, but to protect them from having to look at the most vulnerable part of me. There were so many articles I read that spoke about how to get rid of your scar, how to reduce its appearance with creams, lasers, or even surgery, but there were very few people advocating for a healthy relationship with your body. I became so careful when I was out shopping, making sure that every top was high enough at the back to hide it, or had some kind of fabric down my spine so that I wouldn't be showing off what came to feel like a very intimate part of me to the world. It was my scar, and mine to protect from hurtful comments.
It is not only scars from surgery that result in these kinds of feelings. Molly spoke to me about the scars she got from self-harm as a teenager. Her relationship with her scars has been difficult over the years. The scars are in places that can be seen easily, and for a long time she would try to hide them because they felt like a reminder of a dark period in her life, and people would have mixed reactions towards her having them ‘on show’. As she has gone through recovery, Molly has learnt to see her scars as any other part of her body: they are part of what makes her who she is, and there is no reason for her to hide them. People now rarely notice them, but she does stop and think about posting photos on social media where they are visible out of concern of how others will react.
I can’t lie and say it was easy to get to the point where I now go weeks or months without even thinking about having my scar, but through a fair bit of introspection (and a healthy dose of therapy!) I have come to grow comfortable with letting others see the visible mark of my vulnerability. Now, I view it as an integral part of what makes me, me. I’ll catch it out of the corner of my eye in changing rooms and feel ok about it. I don't give a second thought to whether or not other people will see my scar when I pick what I'm going to wear and I definitely would never hide it with a tattoo.
It can be a difficult world to live in, where we are seemingly constantly under the microscope for one thing or another, and when you have something that makes you physically stand out from others, this can be exacerbated. There is such a massive emphasis on being ‘normal’ and wanting to fit into society’s narrow definition of what we should look like, enjoy, feel comfortable with and so forth, that when life gives you something that doesn’t fit inside those parameters it becomes easy to try to hide those quirks and struggles from others for fear of being judged. But I truly believe that there is so much strength and empowerment that can be drawn from our differences, whether they’re scars, or other physical or emotional characteristics.
We filter our lives so much that we erase the vulnerability of showing our true selves, and I’m not just talking about on social media. We spend so much time trying to hide our imperfections that it becomes easy to almost forget who we really are underneath all of the pretences. Influencer Justina Sharp spoke to me about how her relationship with her scars has changed since she gained a large following on social media. Justina has a scar on her face from a childhood accident, and another on her ankle. Whilst she's found herself feeling less self-conscious about her scars as her following grew, it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t still think about her scars before she posts a picture. It took some time for her to get her head around the fact that her followers show up for her content to see her for who she truly is, and that she doesn’t need to hide her scars from them. She now looks at her scars as marks of the adventures she has been on, and as hard as it can be to be confident when working in an environment where there are such high physical expectations, she does her best to wear her scars with pride as much as she can.
Body positivity movements are growing in momentum now. In 2015, Michelle Elman created the viral #scarrednotscared campaign as a means of encouraging those with scars to share pictures of themselves to bring visibility to the subject. Likewise, Behind The Scars is an account that shares beautiful shots of people who have scars and aims to breakdown the taboo surrounding unfiltered photographs on social media. Social media has the ability to make people feel part of a community just as much as it can make people feel like they don’t fit, so seeing more and more unfiltered photos has to be a good thing in terms of helping others to celebrate what makes them different, scars and all.
I spoke to Sophie Mayenne, the photographer who created Behind The Scars, about what she has learnt from photographing people who have scars. “People assume scars are ‘ugly’ or should be ‘hidden’,” she says. “If you find someone's physical difference upsets you, that is your issue - not theirs. And it is up to you to question why you feel that way. They don't owe you an explanation as to why you might feel that way, and they shouldn't have to hide anything because it upsets you either. For many people, they are a simple fact of daily life. Just because they don't factor into your daily life now - doesn't mean they can't in the future.”
Through her work, Sophie has established a deep understanding of how scars fit into people’s sense of identity. “There are stories behind and beyond a person's scars,” she says. “There is someone behind them - and that is important to recognise. Scars come in all shapes and sizes and are collected in a manner of different ways. Each one has a personal impact - but each one is also a part of someone's wider story.”
The shift towards body positivity has definitely been a key component in helping me to become ok with my scar, but it feels like there’s still a long way to go. Speaking to other people who also have scars has made me realise how important time is in helping you heal emotionally, whether we feel better about our scars as time passes because they start to fade, or because we become more confident. I’d like to think it’s about confidence and acceptance. Personally, I have found that becoming more confident in myself has opened up constructive conversations with those around me about my scar, and about learning to embrace differences.
If I wanted to focus on the things I can’t do as a result of my surgery I could write for hours, but there are also so many things that I can thrive at despite it, and the achievements I experience now feel that bit more valuable.