was recently visiting my brother and his family in Santa Barbara. He’s seven years older and still occupies a fraught — if rich and important, given all that sibling context — place for me.
We reacted very differently to a childhood of financial instability. I chose a simmering chaos, he chose a castle tall and high. A life that to me, feels charmed, buoyed by success and money and vintage cars and a healthy happy family tumbling from a big fine house.
As a messy, loud, ink-stained and nail-bitten creature who often smells of onion soup and coffee and lives hand to mouth, I often feel superimposed upon his beautiful life. All my edges feel sharper, my whole being bigger and unwieldy and decidedly out of place.
All this being said, I adore my six-old-year old nephew — he is a giant-hearted and vicious little thing — and I had been tasked by my brother to help him make tombstones out of styrofoam for Halloween. My brother, Napper, tending to his 18-month-year daughter, handed me a bread knife and told me to “please cut this over the garbage.”
I duly grab the handle of the knife with a quick salute and strolled over the trash can outside, trailing my nephew who is talking, thunder-punching the air with explosive sound effects and kicking gravel. I’m sawing and sawing and he’s demanding to know if I’m done.
His admonishments come with a twinge of nasal sass, of burgeoning bro.
“Now?” “C’mooooon” “Are you kidding me right now?” “Guess I’ll just wait and wait and wait!”
And then the knife slips, slicing open the pointer finger of my left hand. Blood is suddenly everywhere. All over my hands, the trashcan, the very white styrofoam. Instant chaos.
He’s not tall enough to see into the trash can, so I tell him, “I have to pee.”
“Ughhhh” he moans. “Just take an outdoor pee! It’s finnnne! C’mon!”
“Nah,” I say. “Be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
I grip my very bloody hand, trying to pinch the skin together as blood rivulets down my forearm. I don’t want my nephew to see it. I don’t want my brother to see it. I don’t want them to bear witness to my mistake, my clumsiness, the ugliness of my torn flesh.
Suddenly I could be 11 years old again, hobbled by my awkwardness, slinking in my brother’s shadow. I want to please him. I want to defy him. I want to bleed my way down the driveway and bellow at his big fine house — None of this will keep you safe!
But I don’t. Instead I scurry inside and as I take the stairs two by two to the bathroom to find a band-aid I think — This is gonna scar.
And sure enough, two weeks later, a faint pink line has replaced the angry scabbed one. How long will I bear this story on my body? And would I forget all about the styrofoam and my ill-founded slicing — in a year, in five? — if the scar wasn’t there to remind me?
Skin is the soft outer tissue covering all vertebrates; it boasts three main functions: protection, regulation, and sensation. It is an external, breathing organ that encases our flesh.
The skin is the largest organ of the body — and seemingly impossibly, given its minute girth — accounts for 15% of an adult’s body weight.
Our skin is composed of three layers: the epidermis (the outermost layer of protection), the dermis (largely comprised of the structural protein collagen) and subcutaneous tissue, which is actually considered an endocrine organ and provides the body with our strange and wonderful buoyancy.
The dermis comprises the bulk of the skin — it gives our human hide its elasticity, pliability, and tensile strength; it works in tandem with the epidermis in repairing and remodeling the skin as wounds are healed.
The scarring of skin — the healing over of wounds, this dance of dermal and epidermal cells — bears a striking resemblance to “morphogenetic episodes” we undergo as embryos. The determination of our very structure, the “beginning of the shape”.
Our skin is a vessel, a vestment, a possibility and a promise — holding us, housing us, making us anew and carrying its tattered edges, the scars of every sharp tale.
Jesus Christ, when I think about being 11 — the humiliation of just being alive. Being shaped the way I was, having to live in the brain I was given.
When we move to Lawrenceville, New Jersey from North Carolina I am in 6th grade; I am 11. I am introduced to the class, show and tell style, by my teacher in the front of the classroom. I was a few weeks late in starting the school year. My parents laugh that they had almost forgotten I was supposed to be in school.
I smile into their faces and introduce myself, hands hanging by my sides.
A boy leans over to his friend and pretends to whisper, I thought girls from the south were supposed to be hot. Everyone laughs. The teacher scolds him. My face burns, but I keep smiling into his face. I get it, my smile says. I’m not pretty, I’m kind of a weird disappointment and I can see the humor in that! my face reassures them.
As it turned out, it didn’t matter what my face said. That day started two years of being bullied — badly — and all the while there was Napper.
Athletic, good-looking, an alpha creature through and through. Loud, funny, well-liked, fiercely loyal and ever-surrounded by devoted friends, he moved through a world I could only glimpse, but never understand.
Which is to say, I was largely a social pariah, clad in thrift shop bell bottoms that made my “thighs look heavy” (according to my mother) and tending to chronic stomach aches because school was a daily blur of pain and alienation.
I say this because our visits surface feelings of, not quite inadequacy — these days both my brother and I feel I am perfectly shaped as I am — but a potent reminder of who I once was. My brother is like having a living breathing scar outside my own body, his face and form a mnemonic device for the ugliness I once possessed. Or told I did. Which at 12 years old amounts to the same thing.
And these scars? They’re invisible — you can’t see them. But at that young age when even the most evolved of us fall prey to just wanting to be liked but you’re loathed instead — it can feel as though you were born disfigured. It seems everyone can smell — noses twitching — your wrongness. Your congenital scars.
A scar is a virtual certainty following a wound of any sort, at least to some degree. The skin occupies a place of incorrigibility — it can sustain an incredible amount of damage — but it will scar, it will bear the story of its betrayals.
Scar tissue develops when skin is stretched too far too quickly and that’s why it looks so strange — so smooth and pale and telling of pain. But also of adventure, bravery. A mark of change and growth.
Scar tissue is composed of the same protein (collagen) as the tissue that it replaces, but the fiber composition of the protein is different; instead of a random basketweave formation of the collagen fibers found in normal tissue, the collagen — when scarring — cross-links and forms that shiny, single-filed look; all the collagen forms in a single direction.
Scarring is simply a quicker process than the development of your “normal” skin. It needs to heal so it simply makes it happen; it’s sloppy. It’s under duress. It’s the best it can do under the circumstances.
And thus, our collagen scar tissue alignment is usually of inferior functional quality; scars are less resistant to ultraviolet radiation, and sweat glands and hair follicles won’t grow back within scar tissues.
But as we know, not all scars are visible. And even if the scars are visible they carry with them psychological scars as well. It all gets a bit meta. Due to the premium placed on physical beauty as social currency, disfigurement — visible signs of bodily harm — are often made synonymous with villainy, a sickness of mind and spirit. Consider all the evil-doers — classic and contemporary alike — with scarred faces: the Phantom of the Opera, Freddy Kreuger, every James Bond scoundrel, The Joker, Scar from the Lion King, Scarface — you get the idea.
As the societal math goes, if you’re physically maimed, you must be psychologically maimed as well. And all that scarring — inside and out — has very real repercussions.
“A scar can be viewed as an intrusion — the barrier is no longer whole and one is left exposed. The change in appearance threatens sense of self and personhood. Patients must grieve for what has been lost and often there is a lack of continuity between the two self-images.” — The Psychology of Scars
Indeed. When I gaze back on the girl I was and the woman I am today, there runs a ragged line down my center, shining and puckered and smooth. There was trust devoured. The lesson in the cannibalism of children, their ability to consume others to feel safer, stronger in our social stratum — unwitting as it might be — is a scar so many of us carry.
How old were you when you first ridiculed and made small? What is the shape and size of your first scar? What stories does your body bear?
This is not a terribly sad story because it’s part and parcel of being alive I suppose— I’ve grown into my skin and my body and being and most days I walk through this world feeling worthy — but in truth that can make me all the sadder because pain being common is a tricky thing to stomach.
And in truth, by the time I felt beautiful, by the time I was shopping with friends and we were laughing and screaming at one another how fucking amazing we looked in our new thrift-shop dresses…it was, in many ways, too late.
When I hear young girls laughing my stomach lurches to this day. When I walk past teenagers huddled together over their phones and they look up and take me in, my shoulders collapse — I shrink four sizes. I momentarily feel sick until the light changes and I can stride away. They are 13 years old! I tsk tsk at myself, taking in their braces, their lamb-like limbs tangled in sneakers and headphone cords.
And yet I’m wary of their cruelty. I am stricken with pity. For myself. For them. For all of us who if our flesh was turned inside out, would look like burnt train tracks. An intricate system of raised once-welts and now scars.
To distance ourselves from the “the ugly” is, in our society, to be wise. To be ugly is to be dangerous, useless, cast aside.
“Most people are afraid of ugliness, ugly bodies, and inhabiting ugly zones. Indeed, to be labeled ‘ugly’ is a source of pain and discomfort…In a peculiar sense we all know what ‘the ugly’ is through intuition. But in another sense, ugliness exceeds descriptions…ugliness has often ‘served as the all-purpose repository for everything that [does] not quite fit’, it has served as a marker of ‘mundane reality, the irrational, evil, disorder, dissonance, irregularity, excess, deformity, the marginal: in short, the Other.’” — The Politics of Ugliness
And the strangest part is, I don’t think any child who torments another is a sadist, I don’t believe they intend lifelong harm — after all, don’t all animals consume those that are weaker — but unlike other animals I wish we could counter our own impulses.
I wish our sense of safety wasn’t predicated on the narrow slices of others’ scars.