By Olivia Snider
I have a blistering, pus-filled burn on the inside of my right ankle, the result of my most recent trip to Memphis. I was at a gas station, cursing my sundress habit as I attempted to swing my leg over the seat of my friend’s motorcycle without exposing anything. I succeeded, but my foot slipped off the pedal and my ankle promptly found its way to the scorching exhaust pipe. Not a particularly enthralling story, but I still hope it makes me seem like a badass, especially because I didn’t even scream when it happened. It’s a second-degree burn. It will leave a scar. Then people will ask about the scar, and I’ll wish it had a better origin story. I could make up something ridiculous about how, one time, I walked across a coal pit and one of the coals moved the wrong way and I fell and it burned me on my ankle.
More likely I’ll relay the truth and let the subject drop.
Scar tissue is an incredible defense mechanism of the human body. The body is unable to recreate truly healthy skin fast enough to protect the wound, so it weaves together fibrous connective tissue to act as a barrier. It’s skin fused together haphazardly to fight off the impending threat of germs that have the tendency to invade oozing sores and open wounds. This skin is also inferior for a few reasons: (1) a scar cannot sweat, (2) a scar cannot grow hair. Scars are especially sensitive to sunlight.
Nearly everyone gets their first scar right at birth; that knot of umbilical cord we refer to as the belly button. Even those who don’t have “belly button” as a result of gastroschisis (birth condition featuring bits of the intestines poking through the abdominal wall) get some sort of scar with birth, usually a cross-like remnant instead of a knotted innie or outie.
The minutes and years following birth afford plenty of opportunities to acquire a nice scar. My cousin Kelsi has a scar from a hole punched in her neck when she was born prematurely and couldn’t breathe through her mouth or nose. My mom has two identical scars above her eyebrows that look like stitches, both from childhood. One because she walked face first into the edge of a door and the other acquired when she was pushed off the couch by my uncle and hit her head on a coffee table (my house featured padded table corners). Once I wore my dad’s too-large slippers out and slipped on ice in the driveway, slamming my shin up under his Toyota Sienna. And that didn’t even really leave a scar, just an indentation just below my knee where I killed the nerve endings, and still can’t feel anything.
My mother also has a tiny scar on her belly from when I was born. She endured 21 hours of labor just to have me cut out of her because of the stubborn umbilical cord wrapped around my shoulder. My family’s many scar stories have led to our collective nickname cleverly adapted, or stolen, from the wisdom of Dr. Seuss: “Scarbellied Sneeches.”
Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that anyone in my family resembles a Sneech in any way, our scars have helped us identify with one another. Scars show us pain and recovery. Woven into the damaged fibers of a scar is the duality of great trauma and great healing; it is the story of a survivor. Strength, endurance.
The Maori of New Zealand give a visual representation of strength and culture through their facial tattoos. Though tattoos generally aren’t thought of as scars because they aren’t raised, tattoos remain on the skin because the ink works its way into scar tissue. The Maori’s method of tattooing involved etching deep cuts into the skin, followed by dipping a chisel into a pigment and pressing it into those etched cuts. The early Maori used bone chisels for this tattooing process, making it an extremely painful ritual.
The Maori also have a legend, which tells of the chief Mataora, who was married to Niwareka, a princess of the underworld. Once, he beat her and she fled back to her father in the underworld—his remorse drove him to follow her. He met a heavily tattooed man/spirit in the underworld, and was so struck by his tattoos that he asked for them himself. The man/spirit agreed, but informed Mataora that he would take the four birds traveling with the chief as payment. He overcame, but his overall bedraggled appearance earned him ridicule from Niwareka’s family. Still, she managed to forgive him, and the four birds were tattooed across the chief’s face to remind him of his journey. And not to beat his wife.
The Maori facial tattoos still consist of a routine distribution of four “birds.” On the males, a bat occupies the forehead, a parrot perches on the nose, and two kiwis decorate the cheeks. An owl stares from the chin of both the male and female Maori.
Tattooing is just one form of self-inflicted scarring. There is the less popular scarification, which consists of branding or cutting the skin to form a pattern that becomes permanent as a scar. This type of body modification appears much better on darker skin pigments, leading to a greater prominence of it within Africa and the African American community. Because it creates raised scars, scarification is more likely to be recognized as intentional scarring.
I gave myself my first intentional scar when I was fifteen. Well, it wasn’t really intentional, but it was definitely self-inflicted. My ‘mature’ fifteen-year-old self had decided that it was time to have sex, and that Craig, my first boyfriend, would be the one to break me in. Being extremely close to my Scarbellied Sneech of a mother, I shakingly told her later that same evening. It went something like:
“Craig and I have been doing more than just kissing and today…we had sex.”
I don’t remember the exact distortion that her face twisted into, or how many seconds she paused before sighing “I knew it.” I just know that she launched into her emotional angry-mom defense mechanism, and her response was to have me call him and tell him that, “it couldn’t happen anymore” (if I hadn’t called him, she would have). He figured out I’d told her and verbally assaulted me before breaking my little naïve heart with the click of the telephone receiver. Flash forward to two days later, me sitting in a bathroom stall during lunch and spying a random scrap of metal, no more than half an inch in length. It looked like a mighty fine implement to dig into my flesh. Through the lunch period, I sat outside in a corner of the red brick handicapped ramp out back, and scraped “I HATE ME” into my left forearm. It only took twenty of the fifty minutes we got for lunch break to scrawl those bleeding words into my skin, so, to pass the last half hour I huddled against the red brick and cried into my hands to stifle to noise.
This was the first and only time I cut myself. I wore long sleeves for a week. The next week, my dad was teaching me to drive on a back road that runs behind Potomac Yards shopping center and a random soccer field I used to play on as a single-digit child. As I focused diligently on trying to master the brakes, steering AND turn signals simultaneously, I unconsciously rolled up my shirtsleeves to get a better grip on the wheel and revealed my scabby secret to my father. He didn’t mention anything at the time, but later that night, my mom came up and sat me down for one of the many ‘serious talks’ I would receive during that delinquent year of my life. She made me roll up my sleeve for her. She sat on the edge of my low bed clutching my wrist tightly and pouring her eyes over the wide cuts that spelled out the self-loathing message on my arm, and miraculously asked me “why?”
At that point, I was past hating myself, and had moved onto hating her for what happened, and could only scoff:
“It isn’t deep. It won’t scar.”
Except that I was wrong about that. Five years later, you can still see that hateful message etched into my arm, especially in the summer when I acquire what little bit of tan my skin can manage. The thick “I,” “H,” and “E” are the most visible but most people don’t look closely enough to notice. Sometimes I wish they would, because, unlike the motorcycle incident, at least the story behind that scar would be worth retelling. Yes, I hurt myself, but I stopped. I survived.
A potential employer did take note once, and took it as a cue to question my mental stability. While I have never thought myself to be mentally stable by normal societal standards, I assured him it was far in the past and wouldn’t affect my work ethic or abilities. He still didn’t hire me.
Scars can never be removed. There can be surgeries to approve the appearance of scars, but even these procedures will still leave some remnant. Scars can heal so that they are flat and pale, but they can also be raised or have overgrowths called keloids. Many scars are barely visible. The stretch marks on my inner thighs, for example, are scars that aren’t the result of anything particularly painful, and thankfully go unnoticed. Other scars are huge, and demand attention—the result of a botched cosmetic surgery, perhaps.
A different ex-boyfriend of mine had one such demanding scar, a huge one, just about the width of my pinky, that ran all the way down his belly and curved just to the left of his belly button. On one of my many visits to see him in Hernando, Mississippi, I learned that this scar was the result of a horrific car accident that he’d been in just around Christmastime when he was 16. His mother told me the story. He never really liked to talk about it.
“He almost died,” she told me. “It was just around the corner from here.”
She recounted the whole incident for me; from when she first drove up to the scene, to the moment she realized it was her little boy being taken away on that stretcher. He was medivaced out, and enjoyed the removal of his pancreas and an enforced liquid diet in the hospital for a few weeks afterward. He still survives on a primarily liquid diet, the main meal a six-pack of beer.
I used to trace my fingers up and down it when we’d lie together, thinking that it was something unexpected that I got to know about him, that only I got to touch and admire. To me it was a symbol that he’d been through something, a permanent marker of his strength. Sometimes, as I’d lie down next to him in that drowsy state of half-sleep and run my pointer finger up and down that belly scar, I wondered if he could even feel the light touch of my fingers on that inferior bit of skin. He’d start to snore (he had a deviated septum) and I’d know that, even if it was possible that he could feel it, he didn’t then. I’d roll over and lament the fact that I’d given up falling asleep first (and thus for the rest of the night) just to play with a line of scar tissue.
Invisible scars often have much more of an impact on their bearers. The novel Corregidora features a female protagonist, Ursa, who suffers a literal and figurative crushing blow when her husband pushes her down the stairs and her womb is removed as a result, leaving a large scar snaking across her belly. She fondles her scar, noting, “It always feels worse than it looks.”
Trauma leaves an emotional scar. Though this type of interior repair has nothing to do with the actual physical repair of tissue, these scars still function as barriers to keep out invasive materials. Like their physical counterparts, emotional scars are technically healed, yet they are inferior and unhealthy compared to normal functions, of skin or emotional capacity. Therapy and other outlets can help minimize emotional scars, but they can never be fully removed. Emotional scars are only visible through the eyes.
Most of the stories I tell have no scar to mark their importance. My body shows no evidence of the time I fell fifteen feet from a tree, my flailing arms hitting branches that flipped me over several times on the way down. Nor is there any blemish to denote my struggle with bulimia, or even the fact that I whined like tea-kettle every night when my parents ‘abandoned’ my five-year-old self for ten days to go to Portugal. But these are stories that have morphed the fibers of my experiences into some woven pattern of understanding, some meshed mental scar tissue that aches to be recognized. These are the stories I tell to share my understanding.