Teach Your Daughters to Love Scars
By: Fiona Hogan
When I was 8 years old, I busted my chin open playing with my little brother. There was blood everywhere and we were home alone so I put pressure on my chin with a cloth and laid on the couch until my mom came home while my brother cleaned up the blood.
When my mother saw her daughter, calmly sporting a bloody face, she dropped everything and rushed me to the hospital where they stitched my chin back together. My mom cried and obsessed about possible scarring on my face, how awful it might look, how terribly my face might be marked forever and ever.
I, on the other hand, thought it was the neatest thing, admiring the nurse’s skill as the needle weaved in and out of my skin as if it were the blue jeans my mother so often sewed together herself. Before my parents could take me back to the hospital to have the stitches taken out, I had already done so in the bathroom mirror, wincing but excited by my self-reliance. Mom bought vitamin e oil and stressed to me the importance of applying it regularly. At first I did, but the oil was sticky and hard to wash off of my hands, so that didn’t last long.
My mother belongs to a generation of women that hates tattoos, scars, piercings, and anything that might blemish a woman’s body- we are meant to be the supple-skinned, gentle sex, unmarked so that we might be deemed ‘appropriate’ by those around us.
How would I ever make it up the social and professional ladder covered with scars?
What if I wanted to marry a politician or a doctor- what would his people think?
What assumptions might they make?
My niece is six years old now, but when she was four, she was just the right height to intercept a lit cigarette if she didn’t look where she was walking. She did just that one day, and her father’s cigarette burnt her on the chin. She cried and howled, and, even at four, I found her looking in the mirror as she wept, looking at the welt bitterly. She was four and already finding things about her body to hate, to obsess over.
“Look,” I said. I pulled up the side of my shirt. I put her fingers on the keloid scars on my hip, showed her where the pieces of glass were still lodged inside of me, guided her fingers so she could feel the raised scars occasionally pointed by debris trapped under my skin. “And here,” I showed her my knees, bruised from playing football earlier, and showed her the huge scar from a car accident years earlier. One by one, I showed her my scars- my shins, my knees, my forearms, my wrists, all over my hands, and, finally, my chin. She stared with awe, asking the story behind each one, allowing herself to be distracted from the pain on her chin from the burn as I applied aloe to it. “Scars and bruises are your body’s way of reminding you how tough you actually are- that you’re strong,” I told her.
Embarrassment is something a person doesn’t forget easily, a mark that lurks in your memory far more decidedly than any physical memento. I remember my mother saying “Ew!” when she saw the keloid on my ear and how that shame prompted me to visit a otolaryngologist to have painful steroid shots injected into my cartilage to reduce the keloid once a month. I remember my mom crying about a cut a quarter inch wide on my middle finger when I was 13, arguing with my father that he needed to take me to the emergency room. She told him “I don’t want her to have a scar!” He reluctantly took me. I remember being embarrassed about my body.
But I also remember having a loose tooth and my dad showing me how to pull it out myself, laughing as I triumphantly showed him the tooth, my mouth still full of blood. He showed me how to take out my own stitches, how to treat wounds and burns myself, how to handle the most general and basic medical emergencies. I remember watching my older siblings’ football matches noticing the fearlessness with which they went for the ball, and the pride I felt when I found bruises on my shins after mimicking them. Bruises and scars quickly became the currency of “toughness” in my world and gave me confidence around my male peers- I could play football with the same tenacity, I could challenge them athletically, and my appearance would not hold me back. In short, I quickly learned to ignore my mother.
At 17, I was involved in a near-fatal car crash. I broke all of my ribs on my right-hand side, suffered severe lung damage, and intense scarring on my hip, my right butt cheek, and my knees. My mother rushed to the emergency room to find me in a neck brace, covered with blood and asphalt, still un-drugged and severely dehydrated waiting for scans to reveal any further damage. I was smiling. When the nurse took me away for scans and asked my mother whether she’d like to come with me, she choked out a “yes, of course!” In excruciating pain, I managed to say “no, you stay here. You’re no use to me crying like that. I’ll be back in a few.” The nurse chuckled and wheeled me away on the stretcher and I remember being in so much pain that all I wanted was to laugh. I looked at the nurse and asked him “I look pretty hot in this neck brace, huh? Let’s go get drinks sometime!” He couldn’t stop chortling and I overheard him telling the story to some co-workers later, lauding me for my sense of humor in such a serious scenario.
A month later, when I finally was discharged from the hospital with a buttload of lidocaine patches and a walker, I refused to play the invalid. I went to watch a football match with some friends at a bar and they helped me bring my walker in with me, cracking jokes all the while about my condition. It upset me how limited I was- always tired, always out of breath, always slow-moving and when I started walking unassisted again, I began to notice the changes to my body. I could feel the breaks in my ribs with my fingers, my breath was always short, everything ached, and there were the scars…
The doctors hadn’t been able to get all of the glass out and my skin tended to keloid. The result were raised, discolored scars on my right hip/waist, several on my butt cheek with glass in them that made it painful to sit sometimes, and a large scar on my knee that should have been stitched but, because the nurse had just used butterfly bandages, now had left a huge mark. I thought a lot about the ways my body had changed, and I made a conscious decision to rock my look, no matter what.
I did not shy away from crop tops and two-piece bathing suits, despite the stares that they sometimes provoked. I did not invest in expensive plastic surgery (as suggested by my mother). Only a few people ever looked at my waist with disgust- my mother and a friend who had been in the accident with me. To them, it was a reminder of the terrifying experience we’d had, of one of the worst days of our lives. But the scars made me feel strong, and not caring what others thought about them was empowering. Sometimes, I would use them as talking points when I met someone new, and, more than once, I had men compliment me on them. My sense of shame lessened quickly. I’d often notice partners tracing them gently as we’d lay in bed naked, and they often commented on how much they liked them. Now, at 22, I sport innumerable scars, burn marks, bruises (I ate shit on my bike just yesterday!), tattoos, piercings, and I pride myself on my self-esteem.
My niece visits me once a week or so and every time she’s over, she shows me her newest bruises. She’s excited and tells me how she got one from falling off her bike, another from playing football with her sister, another from playing outside with the dogs, another from swimming, on and on. They’ve become a vehicle for storytelling for her, assuring me that she has a wonderful, active childhood. Sometimes she’ll show me the scar on her chin, barely visible now that it’s healed, and I love to imagine when she’s an adult, I’ll still see where the scar is, almost invisible by then, and remember her as a happy, playful child who turned into a confident, strong woman. The child who used to cry every time she so much as stubbed her toe now gets excited by her injuries and the bruises or scars they might leave her with. She acknowledges them as a testament to her own tenacity. At six years old, she is able to pride herself on the uniqueness and beauty of her imperfect body in a way that women decades her senior have never managed to maintain.
Our mothers did not have the same luxuries as our generation of women do. They have passed the torch to us and it is now our turn to fight sexism and all the body-shame and dysmorphia that entails, just as they did. We are responsible for nurturing a generation of women who refuse to be ashamed of their bodies, of their scars, of the things that mark them as exceptional.
Teach your daughters to love their scars, their bruises, their strength.