Even though I know no body is perfect — unblemished — it’s very difficult for me to come to terms with acquiring a new scar. The moment I start to feel the physical pain, I also begin berating myself for being careless — or wishing I could go back in time to not do the thing that will leave a permanent mark.
In addition to being aesthetically unpalatable to me as a recovering perfectionist, I see scars as reminders of some of the mistakes I’ve made — a chasm I shouldn’t have tried to jump across, something hot I should have been more mindful of, or any detrimental lapse in care and caution. It’s one thing to make a mistake; it’s another for my skin to carry the consequences. Scars are the enemy of the perfectionist, but perfection is hazardous to humanity. It’s not realistic. It’s unnatural.
Much to my chagrin, I’ve had to accept that scars are inevitable. It didn’t help that my childhood self-found picking scabs utterly irresistible. Apparently even my race is a factor. A doctor once told me, as he was stitching up one of my wounds, that due to the makeup of our skin, African-Americans usually end up with visible blemishes, even if the wound is stitched by a plastic surgeon. So, to rework a common saying, I guess black don’t crack but is sure does scar easily.
I used to be ashamed of my scars. I wore them as badges of dishonor. Each one a testament to my gross imperfection — further proof that I could fail or fall. But the older I’ve gotten, and the more bodies I’ve seen, the more I’ve come to realize that we’re all imperfect and scarred. Whether subtly or violently, whether by our own hands or someone else’s, all of us have been wounded. Making it through life unblemished (as was my short-lived goal) is impossible. Life is a gift, but it isn’t an innocuous one. Even the careful get cut. Even the cautious fall.
And so, to counter all the past efforts I’ve made to avoid or hide them, and all the time I’ve spent regretting or resenting them, I now share a personal catalog of my body’s blemishes in an effort to accept (if not celebrate) them:
On my forehead, I carry the chicken pox scar I’ve had since nursery school. I was diagnosed on the first day of Christmas vacation and deemed no longer contagious the day before my school reopened. [This would turn out to be a repeated motif in my life. For as long as I remained in academia (be it as a student or a teacher), I would only get sick on weekends and vacations.] I also succeeded in giving the chicken pox to a visiting relative I wasn’t fond of. I took pride in this at the time. Apparently “misery loves company” also applies to the acutely itchy.
On my upper left arm, near my shoulder, I can just barely make out the triangular scar from an iron I accidentally pressed myself into. I was in the fifth or sixth grade, and my photography class was making T-shirts with iron-on versions of our snapshots. This is one of the few scars I didn’t mind getting at the time, as it meant attentive sympathy (or guilt) from my photography teacher, and I had a serious crush on him.
I have a small scar on each hand — each in the space between my index finger knuckle and thumb. The wound on my right hand I got while in college. I was at my optometrist’s office and mindlessly held on to the bathroom door for so long that it closed on my hand. My pupils had just been dilated, so I couldn’t clearly see the blood, but I could feel it dripping. I received exactly one stitch (which was administered by the plastic surgeon I mentioned earlier). I found it irritating that I couldn’t properly say I’d gotten stitches, as nothing about my solitary suture merited the plural.
The similarly shaped (but smaller) scar on my left hand (which went without stitches — or a stitch), I inflicted on myself with a pair of scissors while trying to cut out my hair extensions. My mother would call such a scar “the price of vanity.”
I have one scar on each shin. The more prominent one is on my left leg. I was young and playing with my cousins in Grenada. We were running circles around their house in a game of tag, when I lost my footing trying to cross their cement gutter. I remember thinking I’d cut myself down to the bone because all I saw at first was white where my brown skin had been. It’s the biggest scar I’ve ever gotten, and it took a long time to heal.
The scar on my right leg is a smaller, subtler discoloration. It came from a floor burn I got during a volleyball tournament in high school. It probably wouldn’t have left much of a mark at all if I’d thought to disinfect it sooner and then not picked at the scab like I might find gold. It’s the reason I still play indoor volleyball wearing knee-high socks.
I assume I have a blemish that is invisible to me (and most), as it is located near the middle of my scalp. Back in grade school, when I still got my kinky hair relaxed, I suffered a chemical burn from the corrosive process. I was never able to see it, but a portion of my scalp became painfully raw and scabbed over, and then a chunk of my hair fell out. I remember my mother trying to hide my bald spot with askew and asymmetrical ponytails. Of all my wounds, this one took the longest time to heal and was the hardest hit to my vanity. Even now (more than two decades later), the hair in that area still grows shorter and weaker than the hair everywhere else on my head. That was enough to convince me that straight hair isn’t worth the risk. I’ve kept my hair natural and kinky ever since.
More Radical Reads: More Than My Scars: Radical Self-love and the Self-injured Body
I have a dark, round spot about an inch from my belly button. This one defies explanation. It was a pimple that I left alone. I didn’t pick it or pop it or do anything to offend it — or so I thought. But despite all my best efforts to coexist with it in peace, it left a mark — a random dark spot that shows no signs of fading.
My most recent blemish from an injury is a burn that is very well camouflaged now. I was rushing to take something unwieldy out of the stove, and let it push my wrist bone into the interior of the oven door. Just a few seconds against the heat, so brief I didn’t think much of it at first, but then I could feel the burning sensation intensify as it moved through deeper layers of my dermis. Before long, I had a blister. A brief act of distracted carelessness and I suffered the third most memorable burn of my life.
And isn’t that how most scars come to pass? The injury may take just a moment to inflict, but its claim to our skin can last a lifetime. However they come to us, though, scars are not the enemy.
More Radical Reads: Forgiving Myself: Overcoming Self-Harm
Whatever blemishes I’ve acquired are now a part of me. They are a part of my skin’s story. Hating my scars would be a second injury. They are proof of life. I accept them because they are the toll I’ll gladly pay for living. They’ve played a role in my becoming who I am. They are lessons. They are memories.
I have one body. I can’t separate from it. I must learn to love my scars as I endeavor to love myself.
[Headline Image: A person with medium brown skin is smiling. Their shoulders are bare and they have a curly afro. They are against a white background.]