Body Love: S is for Scars
CW: mention of self-harm and self-harm scars
I wonder if it is possible to have an adult body free of scars? Most kids have small accidents leaving them with faint scars even later in adulthood. Many people go through surgeries, go through c-sections or accidentally hurt themselves. I feel like there is a sort of scale of what is acceptable as scars, and what isn’t. The less visible, the better. Females with scars are seen as broken, men might just been seen as rougher and more masculine. There is this expectation that our skin needs to be as smooth and unblemished as possible: no pimples, no body hair, and no visible scars.
I belong to the majority of people who have scars. There are the small scars, the more acceptable scars, on my knees from injuries when I was a kid. They barely show and I am quite sure that I wouldn’t be judged for them, even if I pointed them out to someone. But then there are scars that are definitely linked to shame and judgment, and stereotyping. I am talking about self-harm scars.
Self-harm is not just one thing. It can be denying yourself food or drink, it can be emotional self-harm by staying around toxic people or deciding to be in risky situations. And then there is the stereotyped self-harm: cutting, burning your skin, scratching your skin, pulling out your hair and eyelashes, hitting your head or banging it against the wall. There is more than one form of self-harm, but the one type that many who struggle seek out is the physical self-harm.
I used to self-harm. I still have very strong urges to do so, and I had an incident a few months ago where I couldn’t withstand the push from inside and fell off the wagon. Self-harm is something that I am ashamed of because many people do not understand it, and because it makes the emotional pain so very visible. I never self-harmed as a teenager or a young adult, by the way. That is also one of those stereotypes: that it is only teens who do it. Not the case at all. For me it first started in 2010. when I was in a psychiatric unit at a hospital. I saw other people do it, and observed how much it helped them with their emotional pain.
And oh boy, does it help! I have still not found anything that can calm me down as quickly. There are many reasons why people would self-harm: just to feel something at all, to punish themselves, to feel relief from their emotional pain because the brain’s focus goes to the physical pain. For me it is all three, depending on the situation. The pain soothes me, seeing what I have done to myself feels like I got the punishment I deserved, and sometimes, when I have been dissociating for a long time and been unable to connect to reality, it grounds me.
My preferred way to self-harm was to cut myself. It was my most effective coping strategy for many years. No medication or breathing techniques could help that quickly and that effectively. And shit, I really miss it. I do so much. But the issue with self-harm is that it helps you in the moment, it helps you to get through that overwhelming moment, but it causes you more issues in the long run. There is the feeling of guilt and shame, there is the danger of actual physical harm (I had to go to the ER a couple of times because of it, not a pleasant experience, at all), and it adds to your mental health issues instead of improving them. For some people it also turns into an addiction, where they really need the happy hormones that the brain sends out when you are hurt.
The Scars and the Shame
Okay, so. I know that self-harm is not a healthy coping strategy, and that is why I stopped doing it. But the thing is that it painted my emotional pain on my skin, and I can’t erase that. It doesn’t trigger me to see the scars on my arms. But it is my fear of how other people will react that make me hate the scars. You definitely get looks, and people don’t hold back: they ask questions, they point at you, they shame you. I have been through that more than once. A very uncomfortable experience.
So because others reacted with disgust and dread to my scars, I started seeing them that way too. I don’t mind seeing self-harm scars on others. I know it means that they have struggled badly. And I know that they did everything they could to get through a difficult moment. Sure, if I see fresh wounds, I might ask if they are okay. But scars? Old scars? I want to high-five these people for making it through a pain that most people probably can’t even imagine. Self-harm is not a cry for help, it is not a fake suicide attempt. It is the opposite of these things! You self-harm so you don’t have to talk to others. You self-harm so you get calm enough to not follow the suicidal urges. Self-harm is an extreme tool for survival!
So what do I do with my self-harm scars now? I don’t want everyone I meet to know that I struggle with mental illness, which self-harm scars are sort of an indication of. I don’t want people to feel disgusted when they see me. So I hide them. When I take pictures, I try to hide them, and sometimes even edit them out. And when I go outside, no matter how hot it is outside, I wear long sleeves. Always. You will not see me without long sleeves, ever. I hate that it is that way. But I am ashamed, and I hate myself, for not being smart enough to use other coping strategies when I needed it. I definitely, yet again, internalized other people’s opinions, and shame myself.
I know that some people eventually get sleeve tattoos to hide their self-harm scars. Others pay a lot of money for laser therapy. I don’t want to do those things. So I guess I will be stuck with long sleeves for the rest of my life.
I also have other scars. The biggest scar on my body is from an emergency surgery when I was a kid. My appendix got taken out. I had been eating sand (like kids do, ha!), and I had maggots in my appendix. No lie. That is what happened. So they removed my appendix. But because it was an emergency surgery, with an inexperienced surgeon, they didn’t really sew it up right and left a huge scar. Every doctor I meet asks me where that scar is from, because it was too big for an appendix surgery.
Do I hate that scar? I do, yes. It is ugly. It is the reason why I wasn’t able to get a tummy tuck when I had lost 60 kg. But am I ashamed of it? I am not. It is not something that I have caused. There is no stigma connected to it. It doesn’t make me stick out as weird or messed up. It is a scar from a surgery. Just as much self-harm scars are a representation of that I survived something bad, so is the scar on my tummy. But it is all about how others look at it. I hate that other people’s (assumed) opinions affect my self image so much.
Scars are like badges of healing and survival. Everyone has them. But they are also something that people can judge you for. And that judgment is easily internalized and then leads to a negative body image. I often say that the imperfections make someone perfect for me. I wish I could say the same about myself.
I am doing the A to Z challenge during the month of April (and apparently beginning of May). My theme is Body Love. So you will get 26 posts from me, following the alphabet, related to the topic body love. You can check out more about the to A to Z challenge by clicking on the banner. You can find a list of sexbloggers participating in the challenge on Mrs Fever’s site.