Monday, January 28, 2013

Scar Tissue

I read a fascinating post the other day on All Things Kate, talking about a facial scar she has, and how it affects her perception of herself. It turns out I have far too many thoughts about scars and self perception to fit it into a comment, so let me indulge myself for a moment and tell you all about my scars.

I've always used fashion and makeup as a way of covering up or distracting from the things I would rather people didn't look at. When I was younger, I thought the best way to do this was to literally cover up - I was a big fan of full length, flowy skirts some days, and big baggy cargo pants other days. I thought that covering my chubby legs with fabric would somehow trick people into imagining they were slim and svelte, and that if I revealed them everyone would be horribly surprised. I later realised that long skirts on a girl as short as me just made me look even stumpier than I actually was, but at the time it was a comforting illusion I believed in. Later I got into Goth culture, which I found was a really fantastic way of covering up - not only could I wear my long flowy skirts, but I could put a corset over it, and stockings on my arms, and heavy makeup on my face. I could obscure just about every part of my natural body, and recreate it how I wanted people to see it. It made me feel safe, and sheltered. It kept people at a distance, and that was just where I wanted them.

It also meant I could cover the scars left on my arms and legs from self harming with minimal fuss. I could cover them up, obscure them, pretend they and the emotional problems that caused them weren't there. The only time anyone ever saw them was when I was having sex, and I seriously doubt anyone from that period really remembers my scars from the brief glimpses they got in between fucking. I could put on a bust boosting corset, drag stocking sleeves over my scars, and I would feel like nothing was wrong, that the chaotic vortex of emotions in my head wasn't there. Like I was normal.

Later, when my life more or less fell apart, I gave up on covering up, just as I gave up on almost everything else. The only people I ever saw face to face at that stage were my boyfriend, and one friend, both of whom were quite aware of my self harming. It seemed pretty futile to hide it from them, particularly my boyfriend, who had already had to drag me to the emergency room for stitches twice. Every time I looked down at my forearms, there they were. At first, I hated it. I despised not being able to get away from them, to erase them like I used to, and I was so disgusted at these constant reminders that I was fucked in the head I wanted to crawl out of my skin.

But eventually, I got a little used to them. Somehow I got to the point where I could look down, see the little ridgy marks where I'd stupidly used a steak knife and then refused to get stitches, and just cluck my tongue at my ridiculousness. Really, a steak knife? I would think to myself. You're an idiot. There were still a few I couldn't look at - a shaky carving of the word "freak" in my leg is one that springs to mind, but the story of that one could be an entire post of it's own. The point was that I was able to look at the ones I'd foolishly put somewhere difficult to hide, and I was coming to terms with them. Then I moved back to a town full of friends I hadn't seen in a couple of years, and started looking for a job. Suddenly everyone was looking at my arms, and I couldn't take it. I started wanting to crawl out of my skin again, and started covering up again. I couldn't deal with one more question about, "Did YOU do that? Really?" and the ever-infuriating "Why did you want to kill yourself?" To give you some context on why the question of suicide drove me batty, here is a picture of where my most prominent scars are located.

 The idea that I would be so completely inept as to try and kill myself by cutting at a random point on my forearm is just insulting. I'm crazy, but for heaven's sake, I'm not a fucking idiot. I at least know the general vicinity to cut! I was actually asked this by a doctor once. A freaking DOCTOR. I'd gone to the ER for an allergic reaction and as soon as he saw my scars that was all he wanted to talk about despite them being about three years old at that point. I felt like all anyone could see was my scars, and I couldn't bear talking about it anymore. So I started covering up again. I was back to long sleeved shirts in the summer time, and crossing my arms a certain way when I couldn't bear long sleeves. I still have an enormous collection of three quarter length sleeve shirts - not only do they look super cute on me, but they covered enough of my arms that I could get away with them on all but the hottest days, and still leave myself enough room to cut when I needed to. Unfortunately makeup was never an option to cover the scars on my forearms - I'd been stupid enough to do them in such a way that they left puffy scar tissue, impossible to hide with anything but cloth.

Somewhere between then and now, I've let my self consciousness about my scars drift away. I've been wracking my brains for what might have brought this about, because as terrified as I used to be of anyone seeing them, these days I very rarely deliberately cover them up. I think there are a lot of things that have contributed - the most significant factor would have to be my wonderful group of friends, many of whom have also self harmed or known people who did, that have helped me understand that I'm not a freak for doing this. Unwell, certainly, but not a freak, and not alone. My friends and I can talk very honestly about our self harm, and I cannot stress enough how much this helps when trying to stop doing it in the first place. My pattern with self harming was always feel bad about myself, cut, feel worse about myself, cut more. Being able to talk to other people about it like it wasn't a drastic, world changing thing for which I should be locked up was just magical. Seeing scars on other people, people I admired and loved dearly, helped me realise that if they could get past it, so could I. Therapy and medication no doubt contributed as well.
But as well as these tangible, obvious things, I think just having to see the scars every fucking day has also helped - I've gotten used to them, like I got used to my crooked teeth, and I would feel pretty weird without them at this stage. I happened to be living in Brisbane around the time when I was self harming much more often, and the thing about Brisbane is that come summer, it's incredibly hot. I don't deal with heat well at the best of times, and the Brisbane summers used to kill me. As self-conscious as I was, if it was a choice between passing out due to heat exhaustion and taking the chance someone might see my scars, I went with short sleeves every time. In addition to seeing them myself, I think other people being able to see them, and subsequently being asked to explain them over and over and over again has helped in the long run. Don't get me wrong - it's difficult, and confronting, and pretty upsetting sometimes. But eventually, when you're asked to explain the same thing over and over, it becomes normalised. It becomes okay. It's just part of you, like being short, or having big boobs. It's

These days I like to use my scars as a sign of solidarity, and a teaching tool for those who don't understand self harm. I've been with two different boys who were terrified of me seeing their self harm scars, until I showed them mine, and I like to think that my acceptance and understanding might have helped them at least a little bit with accepting their scars the way I've accepted mine. If people say things like, "She can't be crazy, she seems so clever/normal/together", I show them my scars to illustrate that the way I look on the outside is not always the way I am inside, and that this line of reasoning can be applied to anyone.

This is not to say I'm totally okay with them - I'm still always afraid of the first time someone notices them, particularly at work. I always prefer to start new jobs in the winter, so I can wear long sleeves and get them used to me before I reveal  my "shocking" secret. But in the last couple of months, I've come to an interesting realisation that I think has the potential to put the last of that nervousness to rest. People are so much less observant than I give them credit for. Like, seriously, just blind sometimes. I always assume that people have noticed my scars and are just too polite to say anything, and I've been totally happy with this arrangement. They don't want to ask, I'm not super keen to tell - I figured everyone was happy. But the other day a girl I've worked with and had lunch with every day for eight months noticed one of the scars on my arm, and asked if my cat had done it. I was...baffled. I explained that no, I had done it to myself a very long time ago. She kind of frowned and said, "Really? I never noticed it before." In my head, I'm thinking, "You see me every damn day you ridiculous person!! HOW COULD YOU NOT SEE!?" but on the outside, I just shrugged and smiled. I'm still pretty baffled that she had apparently seriously never noticed it. But it was a fascinating lesson in how our perception of ourselves shapes our assumptions of how other people see us. Because my scars are so important to me, because they're a part of something that is so integral to my sense of self, I couldn't imagine that other people didn't see them writ large all over me, just like I do. But..they don't. They're actually, objectively, just small, badly healed scars that could have been from any number of things, and most people don't even think to ask, even if they do notice.

While I have largely come to terms with the fact my scars are never going anywhere, I still have a serious compulsion to use fashion and makeup to cover up. These days unfortunately, it's all about hiding the wobbly bits that seem to have sprung up under my arms, or the budding hairs on my upper lip. I'm still just as anxious to hide, and create an illusion to distract people from the "terrible" reality of me. My neurosis has just moved on to other things. This is actually kind of encouraging though, when I think about it. I remember how much my scars used to define me - how much time and energy I spent trying to distract from and hide them - and compare this way of thinking to how blase I am about them now. I used to think I would never be able to look at them without wincing. I couldn't imagine being able to be asked about them without having a panic attack. But here I am. I mean, I'm putting up pictures of them on the fucking internet for goodness sake. I've realised that it's the scars I see every day that I've come to accept the most wholeheartedly. The ones on my arms are no big deal now...the ones on my legs, well, I'm better than I was, but it's fair to say I'm still more self conscious about them, and not just because there are more of them. Through forced exposure, I seem to have been able to deliberately shift my neurosis, and this gives me hope that maybe one day, I will be able to move it on entirely. This is why putting up an outfit post the other day was such a big deal for me. I've avoided showing you all the parts of me I'm not happy with, because I think somehow I thought if I didn't show them, then they weren't there. But they are - I have a big butt, and I cannot lie. I don't want to hate it anymore. If making myself look at it over and over, and putting it out there to be looked at by others over and over might help, I'm willing to do that. Maybe one day, I will be able to look at my crooked teeth, my scars, my stubby legs, my hairy lip, and just


  1. I've been trying to find the words to reply to this post because it really hit home with me. I have pretty obvious scars on my forearms and I have struggled with the shame for many years. I've even considered surgery for some of the big ones ( I have an almost identical puffy scar on the inside of my forearm) but know that really that's never going to happen. I hardly ever go out without a cardigan. However I have been learning to be less self conscious with the support of people around me. I think your honest account of your feelings was really refreshing. Thankyou for sharing.

    1. You're very welcome. Thank you so much for commenting - I wasn't expecting any comments on this one because I understand just how intimidating it can be to stand up and say "Hey, me too!" I hope my sharing helps. As for getting over a cardigan fixation, I can't recommend moving somewhere hot strongly enough :-)


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