Summer can be hard. Hot weather brings skimpier outfits, revealing skin that the rest of the year can be buried beneath layers of clothing. For those with scars, it can mean having to make the decision between overheating in seasonally inappropriate ensembles or exposing parts of ourselves we would often rather stay hidden.
We all have scars. Scars that we receive by accident, scars that we give ourselves. Scars that save our life, scars that give life. Caesareans, top surgeries, mastectomies, appendicitis, misadventures—they tell our stories, a physical representation of what we have been through and the life we’ve lived. But for many they are a source of discomfort, anxiety and even shame. A report by the British Skin Foundation found that 72 percent of people with visible scars or skin conditions say it affects their confidence. According to a study published last year, the majority of mastectomy patients in the US feel self-conscious about their scars, while facial scars have been proven to impact psychosocial functioning, causing increased anxiety and self-consciousness.
And it’s not surprising. Scars are often stigmatised within our society, which puts a premium on blemish-free beauty. Although historically many cultures considered scarification desirable, in our modern western society, these permanent marks on our complexion don’t fit the stain-free ideals sold to us by a media and beauty industry that is not kind to ‘imperfections’.
Think of how many articles, campaigns, products you’ve seen promising solutions to reduce and fade your scars. Make-up, creams, lasers, microneedling, home remedies. I’ve tried many of them myself: Bio-Oil, vitamin E gel, silicone patches, tea tree oil. Think of how the media has used scars as a shorthand for villainy: Scar in The Lion King (1994), Joker (2019), Tony Montana in Scarface (1983), an endless parade of Bond villains. It all makes an impact. Studies have shown that people with facial abnormalities are more likely to be judged as untrustworthy, dishonest, emotionally unstable, and unintelligent.
Fear of judgement
“Even in this era of self-love and body positivity, people still feel embarrassed or insecure about anything outside the current—very narrow—beauty narratives,” says Clare Varga, head of beauty at trend forecaster WGSN. “In an era of Facetune, filter culture and identikit ‘Instafaces’, perfection is presented as the standard, making anyone who doesn’t conform to that feel separate or less.”
This feeling is magnified even more when it comes to self-inflicted scars, which have been linked to significantly greater negative body image than those people with surgical or accidental scars. “I used to feel disgust at every glance I caught of my scars,” says Ama, a children’s equestrian horseback riding instructor based near San Francisco. “If you cover your body for almost three years, avoid seeing it whenever possible, stop shopping for clothes and feel unable to wear the things you like or want because they would expose your arms or thighs, all your confidence will be drained from you entirely. I wasn’t ready to show my scars and I was worried about people’s judgement: ‘Will they still like me when they find out I have these unhideable, extreme scars?’”
Fear of judgement and rejection such as this is perpetuated and upheld by the way self-harm scars are treated and hidden by the media. Last year, Instagram started censoring images containing healed self-harm scars, a decision that led to widespread debate under the hashtag #YouCantCensorMySkin. “None of these photos are doing harm. In fact, they show there is life after self-harm, there is recovery, hope. By taking down these images, you are telling all of them and others that their body is never going to [be] accepted,” wrote Hannah Daisy, an illustrator and mental health advocate, in an open letter to Instagram.
But thankfully the conversation around scars is starting to change as the larger body-positivity movement taking place in the beauty industry is giving people the space to embrace and celebrate all parts of themselves. “People are rejecting filtered perfection and Photoshopping, seeking realness and honesty instead,” says Varga. “So-called ‘beautiful flaws’ like scars are now seen as interesting and individual and recognised as part of that person’s unique story.”
Giving people confidence about their scars
Brands such as Fenty have opened the doors to depictions of beauty outside of traditional prescriptive standards, with runways and campaigns featuring models with disabilities, with curves, with stretchmarks and scars. Model Aweng Chuol, a Fenty regular, has been vocal about her love for her facial scars (received while climbing trees and chasing chickens as a child), scars that were extremely visible in a much celebrated unretouched Fenty campaign.
Meanwhile, Bio-Oil’s #LoveYourMarks campaign encouraged women to embrace their scars and stretch marks, while GHD’s pink campaign supporting breast cancer charities featured survivors showing off their mastectomy scars and tattoos. Dove’s long-standing Real Beauty campaigns have over the years celebrated many body insecurities, from wrinkles and rolls to scars.
“It’s giving women confidence about their scars,” says Annuschka, who’s based in Hamburg and has a scar as a result of her cesarean section 23 years ago. For Annuschka, her scar has often brought feelings of insecurity, beginning at the hospital after giving birth when she looked down and saw her skin clamped together “like Frankenstein. You don’t feel as free as before,” she shares, saying it made her think twice about being naked, especially in front of new partners. “It never goes back to how it used to be before.”
Recently, however, she’s started to see the scar in a whole new light after her daughter made a comment about how beautiful it was, since it had witnessed the birth of a baby. “I have never thought of it as a beautiful scar, but rather a hidden scar,” she says. “Hearing that really changed my perspective.”
Talking openly about scars can help people on their journey to acceptance and that extends to celebrities who, by celebrating their own scars, can in turn give confidence to others. From Princess Eugenie’s backless wedding dress, which displayed her scoliosis surgery scar, to Lena Dunham being unafraid of showing the scars she received as part of her battle with endometriosis. Actor Lachlan Watson is part of an increasing number of non-binary people and trans men who are proudly displaying their top surgery scars online for all to see. “I’ve always felt like scars tell a story,” they said to Vogue. “I’ve dealt with scars in many aspects of my life… And they all mean something very different to me, but they all represent growth. The underlying thing that they all share is how something happened and I healed from it.”
Beauty is everywhere
Bringing visibility to the stories of pain, struggle and achievement behind every scar is the idea behind photography series such as Ami Barwell’s Defiance project, which focuses specifically on cancer scars, and Sophie Mayanne’s Behind the Scars, for which she has spent the last four years documenting scars with the aim of breaking the taboo. “Scars are a significant part of each person’s lived experience,” she says, “a physical manifestation of their emotional experiences and often only a small part of a larger story. I want people to know that you can be confident after your body significantly changes—and that there is beauty everywhere.”
For many, however, it can still be hard to find beauty in their raw scars. These people are taking matters into their own hands rather than viewing their scars as a constant reminder of past pain. They are thinking of them as a canvas to be transformed into art through tattoos, whether that’s mastectomy tattoos, which have been found to promote psychological healing for breast cancer survivors, or top surgery tattoos.
The Crown and Feather tattoo studio in Philadelphia created Project Tsukurou last year, with the mission to cover scars with beautiful works of art. Created as a way to give back to their community, the cover-ups are done free of charge and the project has already had more than 6,000 applications. The project’s name was inspired by kintsukuroi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. “The idea is then that the history of the pottery, having been broken and repaired in a beautiful way, makes the piece more significant and impactful than when it was new,” says Nick ‘the Tailor’ Solomon, who founded the project with his partners Andy Robinson and Dylan Carr. “Scars will always be present but by changing the presentation, it can reframe the perspective in a positive way.”
Scars tell us so much about a person’s story. They are a symbol of healing and overcoming; of going through pain and coming out the other side. We need to start seeing scars not as a blemish, but as proof of our strength and capacity for resilience, a physical reminder that though we’ve gone through struggle, we’ve put ourselves back together again.
For Ama, the journey has been long, but she is finally coming to a place of tentative acceptance with her scars. “It’s taken years and I had to do the work. I had to spend time with myself and my body, get comfortable even just being alone in a bra top,” she says. “I had to accept and move on. Hiding becomes exhausting.” Looking forward to the future, she feels optimistic that representation around scars will continue to improve and bring some hope to those who are suffering now. “We’re letting others know they aren’t alone, that there is hope and that there’s a life beyond self-harm,” she says. “More importantly, that there is a future with scars.”