“Excuse me, but what are those?”
“What the hell did you do, blow up a grenade on yourself?”
“You should cover that up.”
“Those are insane!”
“What’s wrong with your skin?”
“Everyone’s going to judge you, you know.”
“I personally think scars are sexy.”
All of these comments were uttered to me by total strangers in reference to the innumerable scars lining my arms, legs, chest, and stomach. Three times, people have even reached out and touched me by stroking the raised stripes on my shoulder or yanking my forearm toward them for a closer look. I was only fifteen the first time such an incident took place, and for the rest of that unbearably humid summer, I sweated through long sleeves.
At twenty, I no longer suffer through the discomfort of long sleeves year-round, and I no longer feel the sting of shame when a stranger comments. I injured myself for many years because I was sick in the same way a person with lupus or leukemia is sick. My brain was scarred by childhood abuse and self-injury was a symptom of that damage; a symptom that has improved with treatment despite its history remaining mapped across my limbs. I am not asking for attention by wearing a tank top; I just don’t want to steam-roast in a cardigan throughout July (or maybe I just like that tank top because it’s cute as heck). I do not want to answer intrusive questions about my life or tolerate touch from strangers any more than the next person.
As a result, I have to make a choice in every situation about what balance of coverage versus exposure I find most manageable. Am I going to take the chance that my boss sees these scars and fires me, be that fair or unfair? No. Am I going to strip down to shorts and a sports bra to wade across this freshwater stream with my friend Jenny? Absolutely! Am I calm enough to handle stares and whispers from passerby on my way to the grocery store? Sometimes. There is no morally right or wrong decision, only levels of comfort versus discomfort.
If you know someone with scars, and you are wondering what to say, check yourself first. Are you uncomfortable? Curious? Horrified? If so, why? These are your own thoughts and emotions to manage, not the other person’s. There’s no need to announce your reaction to a person’s self-harm scars any more than you should announce disliking a coworker’s haircut or wondering why the guy sitting next to you doesn’t have eyebrows. Even telling people that they are “beautiful” or “inspiring” on account of their scars is not necessarily appropriate. Think about how you might treat someone in a wheelchair: some people with visible differences on their bodies may find such words to be positive, but myself and many others both dislike having our difference dragged to the forefront and dislike the romanticization of our condition.
That being said, there are two exceptions to the don’t-say-anything rule:
- Someone you know has fresh cuts, scabs, or scars. In this situation, it’s understandable to be concerned, especially when the person is someone you feel responsible for (the kid you babysit, a student, a niece or nephew). Arrange to speak with them privately. Let them know you saw their injuries and you are worried about their safety, and give them the chance to confide what is going on. If the person is a minor, let them know that you will need to inform a responsible adult in their life such as their parent or school guidance counselor. Give them the chance to tell an adult on their own, and follow up to make sure they are receiving help. If the person with fresh injuries is an adult, gently ask if they’re receiving the support they need. Offer to help them get in touch with a university counseling department or local mental health practice, if you are in a position to do so. Be clear that you just want to make sure they’re alright and that you won’t judge, punish, or pry.
- The person with scars is someone you know well and you are genuinely curious about their life experience. Before asking any questions, make sure you are actually open to hearing about their journey, which could be saddening, shocking, or confusing to you. Keep in mind that self-harm can be a very sensitive subject and even someone who is open about other aspects of their life may not want to talk about it. Ask the person about their scars one-on-one, not in a group of friends, and pick a less sensitive topic beforehand that you can switch to if the person doesn’t want to discuss their scars. Phrase your question in such a way that makes it clear you want to respect the person’s boundaries: “I’ve noticed that you have some scars, and I’m curious about your story. If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s okay, but if you do, I’d like to listen.”
And now this is the part where I end with a cutesy aphorism about how scars tell stories, right? Wrong! There are many quotes about how scars tell stories, but I dislike such quotes. People tell stories. Scars exist on people, for thousands of different reasons, and it is up to people to tell the stories of their own scars, when and how and to whom they choose.