“We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, ‘I survived’.” – Chris Cleave, Little Bee
It was Thanksgiving Day, and the turkey was nearly done. I was outfitted for the task at hand, which is to say that on one of the hands I wore a red lobster-like oven mitt while the other hand held the bulbous baster high and ready, like a fencing foil. I felt the backdraft of heat on my face – the oven had been on all day, and was so hot – as I opened the oven door, and then pulled on the heavy rack, to do the basting. I felt a sting on my forearm and looked down to see the perfect, elaborate H on my arm, a brand of the oven rack that had snuck in above the lobster-mitt, and badly singed my skin. I knew it was a bad burn, but decided in the moment that I was “too busy” to follow the instructions I so consistently and forcefully gave to others: run it under the water for five minutes, to lessen the thickness of the burn. I just kept going, preparing the meal, ignoring the convenient and ominous sign that it had stopped hurting entirely. And so the sting became a painless, black imprint of the oven rack, a burn that became a mark that became a scar. I whined the next day that another scar was the last thing this body needed.
Since then, all that had faded: the memory, the scar, the whining about it. I had stopped noticing it entirely on my arm until I got some sun this week, the surrounding tan bringing the mark into focus again, reminding me of my singular focus in basting the bird, the smell of the turkey in my kitchen, my short-sighted, ridiculous failure to take care of it as I knew I should.
It reminded me of the other scars I have also stopped noticing. I wondered how I relate to my breast cancer scars these days, now that 12 years has passed, and I find I am not sure. I know how I thought about them in those first days, weeks, months of breast cancer: they represented pain of many kinds, but each surgery (there were four) and its resulting scars signified another step toward survival, hope for a life beyond breast cancer. And that was what I celebrated, the scars that would be a roadmap of where I’d been and a guidebook for where I hoped I would live long enough to go.
In 2014, an Australian mom and breast cancer survivor named Beth Whaanga posted photos of her post-breast cancer body on Facebook to raise awareness about the BRCA gene and faced a backdraft as hot as my Thanksgiving oven. The photos went viral and people went nuts; over 100 of her own Facebook “friends” defriended her. What, I wondered then – as I do now – is people’s problem?
Survivors of many things are, in my experience, generally no-BS people who in their strongest moments stand in the whole of the experience, who are largely disinterested in sugar-coating things. We know how hard-earned our scars are. We know that they represent the many ways that we have been forever changed. We can celebrate healing and (what surgeons call) “great” results, we get better, we move on, but the fact is, the scars remain, on the skin where you can see them, and underneath where you cannot. They are red and angry for a time, they hurt like hell and then they fade; eventually. they even blend in, and you hardly notice them anymore. You get used to how you are now; you kind of forget how it was before. You are changed, but you survive.
I mostly ignore my scars now; they’ve become a part of the current me, and it is hard to remember what things were like before. I don’t linger in front of the mirror anymore, neither pleased with the surgeon’s work, nor mourning the Creator’s, because it is what it is. I healed; I have moved on. I am “too busy” to stop and deal with that.
Except that the truth is – and please don’t tell anyone this – that when I am seeing a new doctor, or changing in a dressing room, if am overtired or otherwise feeling sorry for myself, I sometimes feel overwhelmingly ashamed of my scars. I wish I didn’t have them, or I think think that they could at least help me out by looking a little better. Or by not being there at all. Sometimes I pretend they are not there, that I am normal; I mostly try to forget about the whole thing. Until I see a woman, about my age, in her deep v-neck swimsuit on the beach, her form imperfect and maybe even touched by gravity, but clearly her own. And it is then that I feel an envy and longing usually reserved for middle school, or cheerleading tryouts. I feel the burn again, and I know that there is nothing to do but wait for it to fade.
I could be a better friend to my scars. Have I just defriended them, too? After all, they formed on me as best they could, sometimes in spite of myself, encouraging me, assuring me that I could go on. They signified survival and a reassurance that I was, at least for the moment, among the living. They are a miracle of healing and of beauty in themselves. Why can’t I think of them that way?
I wonder how often I am more like Beth Whaanga’s former Facebook friends than I would like to admit. I wonder if I am willing to look at my scars, at the scars of people I love, even if it makes me uncomfortable. To ask myself what, exactly, is my problem.
We must see all scars as beauty. Maybe let’s not keep it our secret.