The Original Selfie: Scars and Their Stories
The first time I became aware that my body could be broken in a way that left marks was when I was 8.
I was riding a bike that was too big for me. My mother had told me not to. But it was a sunny Saturday and the girl next door, a confirmed tomboy whose company I enjoyed, egged me on. I was fine while pedalling, but stopping was complicated. There were no handbrakes, my feet did not quite touch the ground, I was intoxicated by the whizz of the air around me, the ground I could cover, the speed…and suddenly I could not stop. Gripping the handlebars like a maniac, I steered right into a brick wall and gouged my knuckles to a bloody pulp. “What’s that white stuff?” I asked my sister tearfully as she did her best to clean and bandage me. The wounds were so deep that they showed parts of me I’d never seen before. I don’t think I got stitches. The gaping holes healed and left two scars on the knuckles of my left hand. Enormous on my then-twiggy fingers, they have since been camouflaged by age and time, wrinkle and fold, like abandoned houses reclaimed by the forest, overtaken by leaves and vines until they are hardly distinguishable from the surroundings.
Tame as they are, my knuckle scars made me aware that my body could be changed in an irrevocable way, that something could happen to me and literally alter me; I could not go back to the way I was before, could not erase the marks or flawlessly regenerate like a salamander.
A scar is born
While you might regret your inability to heal perfectly, in the grand scheme of things, scarring is an impressive process that has been naturally selected as a way to deal with wounds extremely quickly. When your body senses damage to skin or tissue, for example from a cut, burn, sore, or surgical incision, it immediately begins to create new tissue to pull the edges of the wound together. Then it sends an army of fibroblasts (collagen-producing cells) to the site to strengthen the damaged skin. Because the body is favoring speed above all else, the collagen is produced in excess and laid down in slapdash fashion. This effectively seals the wound but leaves untidy clumps of protein cells in the secondary layer of skin – giving birth to what we know as scar tissue, and my favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers song.
Not all bodily scars are visible. Any injured tissue, including tendons, muscles, and ligaments, will scar to some extent. The process is the same, and though you may not be able to see the resulting scar tissue, it can become inflexible and cause muscle pain and joint dysfunction.
Beyond their healing function, scars are a kind of natural mnemonic device. They are the body’s version of the selfie: intimate snapshots imbued with the invisible yet immutable circumstances of their creation. There’s a story behind every one; people rarely forget where and how they got theirs. Even apparently banal scars (I cut myself with a bread knife) can lead swiftly to some vivid sidestreet of personal history (it happened in the tiny kitchen of the tiny apartment with the view of the Eiffel Tower, I nearly lost the tip of my pinkie, I was sewn up in the emergency room on a rainy Sunday night by an intern who was shaking like a junkie, I took the stitches out myself to avoid going back to the hospital, I couldn’t look at a baguette for a long time afterward).
Often, by their very nature, scars are associated with pain and loss: the operation, the accident, the delivery that didn’t go as planned, the harm suffered at someone else’s hands (please note that I’m not addressing the phenomenon of self-scarification here; while the physiological healing process is the same, the origin of the injury is not, and it’s a topic that merits a separate discussion).
Why would we choose to be attentive to the traces left by such painful events? Isn’t it enough to have had the experience?
My work with clients has shown me that there is often good reason to revisit a scar.
- It didn’t heal well. If it’s red, swollen, or was formed with a lot of scar tissue adhering to surrounding tissue, a scar can cause pain, soreness, reduced sensitivity, and other symptoms. These can be relieved if the “adhesions” are touched and broken up.
- You’re self-conscious about it. Whether it’s highly visible or hidden from view, if you judge your scar to be ugly or off-putting, it will be hard for you to be happy in your body. Rejecting, hating, or ignoring a scar is effectively doing the same to your body (or certain parts of it), and can create symptoms in the area of the scar. In these cases I try to get people to make peace with the scar in a physical way, by acknowledging what’s there, feeling it, paying attention to it, touching it.
- The event that caused it is still “active.” Sometimes a scar is not sensitive, but the story surrounding it is. If a scar stirs up painful memories that you haven’t come to terms with, you may unconsciously seek to put some distance between you and that part of your body – for example by breathing shallowly or contracting certain muscles – which, again, can affect your health and wellbeing. Instead of avoiding scars and their origins, my clients learn to use them as doors to episodes of their lives which, however painful, are part of who they are today.
French artist Hélène Gugenheim takes things in a slightly different direction in her ongoing project, “My Scars, of Them I Am Fully Woven.” Inspired by an ancient Japanese technique called kintsugi, Gugenheim’s work involves applying gold leaf to a person’s scars. She films and photographs the process, and in the end her subject receives a small glass vial containing the remains of the gold used. The beauty of this act may take you by surprise; it’s a strange ritual full of dignity, humility, respect, and courage.
“The scar,” says Gugenheim, “is a witness of our reconstruction and the sign of our ability to adapt, to reinvent ourselves, and even to mutate. And, in this respect, we are gods.”
Even if you don’t go so far as to turn your scars into rivers of gold, I encourage you to give them some consideration. They are part of you: the part that whispers, “I survived.”