Reflecting on scars, womanness, and how I learned to love myself.

I read an article a couple weeks ago called “Scars, motherhood, and womanness”.  It was written by a friend of mine, Stephanie, and while I read, I found myself nodding along with her, as I understood her and agreed with her.  I posted about it on Facebook the day she shared the article, but I knew I had way too much to say about it, and planned to write this post.  When I heard about about Real Blogger Beauty, I knew I’d take my thoughts on Stephanie’s article and link up today.

Stephanie’s article talks about her struggles with scars that resulted from a childhood car accident, and how they affected her physically, mentally, and deeper.  The injuries she sustained in that accident made motherhood something that she was told, at the tender age of 14, that it was going to be harder for her to have children.  The combined shame of her scars, the possibility that she might never be a “real” woman, and her questioning all of it has made her realize that the human body is amazing, and that we should love ourselves, imperfections and all, and strive to be our own version of perfect.  After all, just by being here, we are perfect, are we not?

Before I go there, let me talk about scars.

When I was two, I had a life-threatening internal injury that resulted in large scarring from the surgery required to fix it.  The injury was caused by the typical rambunctious nature of my two-year-old self jumping and landing in such a way that caused my intestines to push hard against my diaphragm and herniate through a congenital weak spot.  A very rare instance that went overlooked for days, diagnosed as the flu by my pediatrician, and ultimately had me be rushed into surgery under less-than-ideal conditions.  This was back in 1984, and technology wasn’t what it is today, which means I was cut open from my left shoulder blade to just under my left breast, my ribs were broken, and I was left with quite a bit of scarring, both internal and external.  But I lived, and nearly 30 years later I’m here writing about it with no major side effects to show for nearly dying multiple times throughout the ordeal.

Rachel Scar - Wolfdreams Photography 2006

This is one of the only photos I have of my scars.  It was taken by R. Bowman of Wolfdreams Photography in Rockford, IL in October of 2006.

The scarring never really bothered me.  In fact, as I grew older, I not only learned to embrace it, but realized that that scar was a testament of my strength, and proof that I was strong enough, even at two years old, to get through something that would have killed a typical child.  Now, if someone happens to notice my scar, or if the subject comes up, I’ll share my story and openly talk about it, because it truly is amazing.  I’ve even met doctors who have studied my case, which was totally surreal.

Society tends to view scarring as “ugly”, and there are creams and ointments devoted to reducing the appearance of scars.  I find it interesting that so many people strive to hide their scars, and that many do so to such extent that it changes who they are. They’re so focused on the “ugly” that they can’t see the beauty in surviving what gave them the scar in the first place.

I never understood hiding or getting rid of my scars.

It’s my view that all scars are evidence of an individual’s strength, and in that strength is power, beauty, and vulnerability, all wrapped up in one.  Sure, our scars may affect us physically and mentally (and sometimes, negatively on both counts), but they’re part of who we are, and hiding them or erasing them… doesn’t that do the same to our individuality?  Scars, and the stories behind them, are part of what makes us interesting!

But not all of us can embrace our scars, and some are so affected by it, they affect others around them.  Stephanie shares how her mother’s hatred of her own scar shaped how she viewed herself as a person.  All of the negative energy she focused on that scar became focused on her body as a whole, and instead of loving herself she loathed herself.  That self-loathing was projected onto her daughter, bother literally as she verbally bashed herself in front of Stephanie, and emotionally, as she drove Stephanie to stay thin and “desirable” to men.  But instead of caving, and striving to live up to some standard her mother projected on her on behalf of men everywhere, Stephanie questioned that “perfection” that the media and her mother told her she should strive to be…

“Why do I have to work within this structure and the male gaze never has to adjust itself?”

And it is certainly an excellent question.  One that, I’m sure all of us have wondered as we have stood in front of the mirror, a la Mean Girls, critiquing all of the flaws we see in ourselves that we just know every single guy sees tenfold.  Stephanie, like many women (myself included), spent years struggling with her body because of the verbal and non-verbal messages the media has continuously fed generations of women about “perfection”.  I can’t speak to how she overcame the bullshit noise that is “you must look like this, act like this, and dress like this in order to be a desirable, real woman”, but I had to force myself to stop being negative about myself.  I made a conscious decision to look in the mirror and find one good thing to focus on at that moment.  One good thing among all the negatives that I saw–no, that I was trained to focus on because they weren’t “ideal”.

And when you think about it that way, you’ve got to wonder, “what the fuck is ‘ideal’ anyway?!”

That’s the beauty of being an individual… what is “ideal” to me, is likely different to you, your friends, my friends, and the millions of others in the world.  The bits and pieces of myself that I spent years crying over in the mirror, because they weren’t like [insert someone else here]’s bits and pieces… they things no one would ever notice if I didn’t sit in front of the mirror and hatefully point them out.  Throughout my teenage and college years, and even into my 20’s, I had a few instances that caused me to say “hey, you deserve to be respected” or “uh, Rach, embrace that about yourself, it is awesome”.  And while it took me awhile to really get the picture, it sunk in eventually, and made me realize that it doesn’t matter if I have cellulite, hair that struggles to curl, uneven nostrils, and small boobies… there’s more to me than just physical attributes.  I’m amazing because I am me, and that is what truly matters.  But I can agree that it’s hard to love yourself when you don’t love the way you look.

Learning to love myself–flaws and all–has made me a better person.

Looking in the mirror and not criticizing myself has totally change my outlook on things.  It’s amazing, thinking about how I used to turn my left side to the mirror, look at my scar, and marvel at the strength of my body to recover from such a freak weakness, and then in the same breath curse the cellulite the lingered a little ways down.  I was so brainwashed to hate every inch of myself, that I couldn’t even love the part that gave me strength: my scars.

Making that decision to stop focusing on the negative, and find the positive, no matter how small it was, was hard.  What drove me to it was seeing a photo of myself that made me say, “wow, I’m beautiful”.  Before that all I did was focus on what I saw wrong with myself in pictures.  After hearing for years how photogenic I was, I decided to try modeling, and how I viewed myself was changed forever.  I can’t even pinpoint the shoot that resulted in that mind-altering photo, nor can I even share the photo with you, but it happened.  And then, I spent more and more time in front of the mirror learning my angles, understanding light,  and realizing that, wow, there were actually good things about my face and body.  Who knew!?

And as I contorted my body and made dumb faces at the mirror to study my angles and practice emoting, I realized I was focusing less on the things I hated, and more on things that made me feel good.  That realization is what had me change my mind about the mirror.  The mirror is only a tool, and I could either use it to mentally gut myself every morning, or I could use it to reflect back something I loved.  That change in attitude eventually had me seeing the positive in more that just myself; loving myself made me love life more.

But is a woman loving herself enough, or must she be a mother too?

Stephanie was told she might struggle with having children, because of her injuries. That fact was lamented because (as her mother put it) being a mother was the key to womanhood.  Stephanie, much like myself, has little interest in having kids, and as I read that part of her article, I found myself reflecting on that.  Is motherhood really the end-all, be-all of being a woman?  I don’t want kids, and I don’t plan on having them just to fulfill some “duty” that society expects me to.  But does society expect me to be a mother because I’m a woman, and that’s what women do, or does it go deeper than that?

And then, as I thought about it more, the sentiment that a “real” woman was only one who bore children made me angry.  Like, Hulk angry.  Not because my lack of wanting kids means I’ll never be a real woman, but because my parents weren’t able to conceive.  They adopted me.  That fact, however, doesn’t make my mother any less of a woman… not in the least!  Now sure, I’m sure someone could argue that adopting a child made her a mother, thus making her a real woman, but the argument above has to do directly with the fact that Stephanie might not be able to have kids of her own.  And by that argument, my mom won’t ever know the “depth and gravity of what it is to be a woman” because she’s never given birth to her own child.  That is, in no uncertain terms, utter, total, complete bullshit.

All women are real. Again. All women are real.

Author Hanne Blank puts it perfectly in her very worth-reading blog post on real women when she writes, “Real women are fat.  And thin.  And both, and neither, and otherwise.  Doesn’t make them any less real.” And much along the same lines, Stephanie begs the question in her article, “When I think about ‘womanness,’ don’t fabulous transwomen like Janet Mock’s experience count as much as the next woman?”  I think so. Real women are real, and that’s it.  What makes a woman a real woman?  She does.

So how do we define “womanness”?

We define it individually.  We define it by loving ourselves. We’ve got to love our bodies, even though it means loving our scars, our cellulite, our hair, our noses, our stretch marks, and our beauty marks.  We all need to start looking in the mirror and pointing out our lovely, wondrous, beautiful bits and pieces, and smile about each and every one of them.  Every time we look in the mirror, we should smile at the perfection that is ourselves, because, Stephanie is right, every body is perfection.

We are all perfectly imperfect.

And if we just stop making “imperfect” such a negative, and embrace the individuality that each of our imperfections gives us, perhaps that’s a step in the right direction.  Perhaps we’ll all be able to have our own, real, experiences of “womanness”, and we’ll worry less about what society tells us we should think and feel about our bodies and our minds.  And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all be just a little happier each and every day.

What makes you feel like–and proud to be–not just a woman, but yourself?

What do you look at every day and think, “yup, that right there, that fucking rocks, and so do I because of it”?  If you can’t think of anything, I challenge you to go stand in front of the mirror right now and find something positive about yourself to focus on.  Take as long as you need, and then come back and tell me what it is you found.  Think about it, and tell me in the comments. Or email me at if you want to share, but want to keep it private (but still share).  Or just write it down on a sticky note and stick that sucker to your mirror so you remember that you are amazing, strong, beautiful, and awesome, because you are you.

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