There's hardly a person alive who bears no scars -- someone who has careened through life totally unmarred, as smooth and perfect as a creamy-skinned infant. A corporeal tabula rasa, if you will.
Life is hard, even messy sometimes, and although our bodies can usually
weather it well, they can also absorb every blow and every slice with little
sweet forgiveness. While each experience shapes us and teaches us, life
literally wounds us.
Looking over my own body, I see a scrapbook of sorts, of mostly wild and
vertiginous markings that could narrate most of my life; they could chronicle my personal history.
The first scar I remember getting is on the underside of my chin. I grew up in suburban New Jersey. My house sits atop a hill at the end of a very long, curvy driveway. After stopping for the mail at the bottom, from time to time (and perhaps against their better judgment) my parents would allow my
brother or me to ride on the roof of the station wagon as they drove the final yards home. One of us would beg to be hoisted above and they'd acquiesce. They knew it thrilled us. When it was my turn, I'd sit in between the bars on the roof like a princess perched atop a gilded chassis and grin as the car seemed to fly up the hill.
But even that excitement could get dull, so one time, when I was about 5,
in a moment of pride and stealth, I raised my hands off of the roof rack. I
waved to the sky above in a "Look ma! no hands!" pose. Just then, my mother must have given the car a little extra on the accelerator, to crest the final hill. I slipped off -- tumbling in an arc to the ground, a puffy mass of orange parka, of kindergarten wonder. Needless to say, I survived; I merely cut my chin. It barely hurt. I was much more concerned for my
mother, who was terribly shaken at what could have happened. From then on, there were no more ersatz roller-coaster rides for my brother or me.
Still, a few stitches sewn, dozens of retellings recited and decades later,
I have a pointy, prideful chin that bears a tiny mangled gash. Few people can
actually see it; you have to really look closely. As such, I use my punctuated
chin as a litmus test of sorts for new boyfriends. If too much pillow-talk goes
by without him even noticing, I begin to wonder if he is really looking at me.
If that were the only scar, I'd be thrilled. But there are countless
more. I look at my hands, littered with little white nicks, purplish dark spots, grave sites for twisted flesh. Every scrape not tended to properly has left its mark, and every time I impatiently rip at an unsightly scab, I claim new territory.
Intellectually, scars are great; in some ways, there's something romantic
about the possibility of a more sordid past. "Scars are souvenirs you never
lose," a popular song lyric goes. But vanity can be insidious, and where lies a
ruddy, angry line there often lurks insecurity and sometimes even shame. In the garish light of day, my body looks a bit like a battlefield. My knees and shins and ankle are scattered with mementos of stumbles and tumbles. On the beach, stripping down to almost nothing, I'm self-conscious of these small imperfections, of so much tangible evidence of my klutziness, of my lack of grace. I feel clumsy, as pulpy and sensitive as the scars themselves.
When you get right down to the nitty-gritty, though, I know that I should be
thankful for them. As any dermatologist or plastic surgeon will tell you, scars are a perfectly natural part of the healing process. Without them, we'd be like the streets of New York after winter: full of potholes. Whether through accident, disease or injury, insulted skin tissue eventually picks itself up and gets back with the program, amassing fibrous collagen deposits where the wound once was. The more skin tissue is damaged, and the longer it takes to heal, the greater the chance for a spottable scar. (Hence, the don't-pick-at-it lectures from my mother.)
Scars tend to be quite prominent at first, and then gradually fade. Places
where the skin is rather taut will wear scars more glaringly -- chins and kneecaps and jawbones, for example, show them particularly well. Acne scars are sunken little beasts, little sticky-notes left over from adolescence.
And while youth generally trumps age, in the scar wars it's due to the overzealous healing of younger skin that can cause thicker, more upraised scars.
I've toyed with the idea of doing something about all this. There's
certainly no lack of treatments out there. For something like the scraggle on my chin, a shot of laser resurfacing would probably do the trick. For the doozy on my back, perhaps I'd like to undergo the knife again: surgical scar revision (The old scar is simply cut away and restitched in a cleaner, less noticeable fashion.)
The dermatologic menu continues: dermabrasion, collagen injections or
chemical peels, (all good for fine or acne scars), the lower-budget silicone gel
patches touted in the back of so many magazines (may not do very much, some dermatologists argue), cortisone injections (best for firm, keloid scars) and even something as oddly "Austin Powers"-sounding as cryosurgery. (Freezing of the scarred skin, which causes blistering and, eventually, rejuvenation. Ugh.)
In short, it seems that, in many cases, a doctor can now zap these scars
away in one blindingly miraculous moment and have me back to work the next day -- a more freshly scrubbed me, all dewy and new. In one swift blow, science can erase the gnarls and snarls that life has so carelessly wrought.
In the end, I guess I'm not quite ready to part with my scars. Those marks
on my legs, I'm starting to think, are proud testimonials of my high school
athletic achievements. My flawed chin, of my doting parents. I feel like I've
earned them, often through the proverbial blood, sweat and tears. When I see a woman with the odd little smirk of a C-section, or the slash of a hysterectomy, I see hard-fought war wounds and badges of courage.
And for me, my scars are also my silent witnesses of long-forgotten
childhood mishaps, of what happens when you race up wooden stairs with socked feet, of a painful surgery late one hot summer on a back that just won't play right. These stories define me. They are my past. They are my memories.
They don't come cheap, but unlike so many things in life -- unsteady and often cruelly ephemeral -- if I let them, they will last forever, and they are truly, deeply, all my own.