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“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


Comments

10
  • Sarah

    Sarah Sarah

    Reply Author

    Thank you for your post.

    I sometimes read about self-harm scars and how to cope with them, and most of the time it does not convince me – because it does not feel like it.
    You describing it as a “choice in every situation about what balance of coverage versus exposure I find most manageable”. An that`s it: Every situation changes, and the mood (or the courage) to expose them to a public changes, too.

    Also you not liking such quotes as “scars tell stories” is a relieve for me to hear. Thank you, for altering that quote to “People tell story, scars exist on people”. It kind of makes me free of exposing “a story” to other people, and now I can TELL my story IF I WANT to.

    I am somehow relieved by your point of view. Thank you.

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    • Adira Bennett

      I am so, so glad you read and liked my piece. Thank you very much for taking the time to comment. Writing about something this personal was a little scary for me, but reading your response makes it all worth it!

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  • Shawn

    Shawn Shawn

    Reply Author

    Shawn.

    I’m a 44 yr dad. I have Chronic Depression,Chronic Anxiety and PTSD. I would burn myself on my legs it’s been about five years and I still won’t wear shorts. But every one is different as we know and my scars have a story behind them.

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    • You Matter

      Shawn, thank you for reaching out to our community here and sharing your story. If you need support, remember that the Lifeline is here for you at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

      Posted on

    • Adira Bennett

      Shawn, thank you for speaking up. I’m glad you read my piece. Take gentle care. -AB

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  • Charlotte

    Hello Adira, I recently found that block but hadn’t really read much of it. This morning I saw it in my timeline and your latest writing came up. So I read it and it was good to read. I still struggle every morning of what I think I can wear. Life isn’t easy, but we can make it easier when we’re there for each other. You’ve been there for me today and inspired and strengthens me with your words.
    I wish you a lot of strength in your life, and people who understand. And if they don’t i hope you’ll always remember that that is their problem and we’re not responsible for their thoughts or judgement, just like you said.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. All the best from Germany, Charlotte

    Posted on

    • You Matter

      Charlotte, thank you for sharing your inspiring story and encouraging others.

      Posted on

    • Adira Bennett

      Charlotte, thank you very much for your kind words. I am so glad I was able to support a fellow bearer of scars! I hope that you are eventually able to have some spaces in your life where you feel comfortable wearing whatever you like. Wishing you freedom, wellness, and joy! -AB

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  • Trinity

    Trinity Trinity

    Reply Author

    Thank you for posting this. It made me feel wanted again. For a long time I didn’t feel like anyone in the world wanted me but now I know there are people out there who do.

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  • Leyre Silva

    I bought dermalmd scar serum to help minimize scarring after back surgery, and after 3 months, the scar is nearly invisible! Now…one could say that the skill of the surgeon is just as important as this serum to produce the results I have experienced, but I also used this on existing scars that were several years old. While it did not eliminate the scars, nearly all of them were visibly reduced. I was quite impressed.

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