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“Are You Afraid of Scars?” I Was, Until This Happened

The gym is hot today and my tank top sticks. I can feel a rash arising on one side.

Betsy, gym manager and near-constant presence at Hoosier Athletic Club, tells me to take it off. She wants me comfortable.

“Just take it off,” says Betsy. But I won’t.

“Are you afraid of scars?” I ask her.

*

Everyone has a story. Mine is of falling apart and being put back together. If you make a timeline of my life, you will see me break and reassemble on repeat. On my body, you will see that the reassembly comes at a price.

*

Betsy is not afraid of scars. My question causes her to lean toward me in confidence. Her lack of judgment is my courage. I lift the hem of my shirt so she can see my navel. Together, we gaze at it, taking in the ropy ridge that circles that hollow. How the skin is jagged with purple stretch marks above and below. Her eyes catch another scar rising across my hip. “Scars are beautiful,” Betsy says, and I know she believes this. I want to, too. I need to believe these ripples and interruptions aren’t marring me. They do not detract. They map my survival, beginning with a clumsy childhood, injury after injury. There were slashes and burns; punctures and rips; spasms and tears. Later, a bone broken by a child exiting my body. A rarely documented growth in my occipital orbit. An icicle to my skull during a freak winter storm. But what is important here is not what broke or how, or even that I was cobbled back together; it is how, after healing, I healed.

My scars map my survival.

*

I inch my shirt up my back, braving exposure of the keloid-free lower half, but lose courage and yank the hem down again. Instead, I fan the shirt away from my body, letting in precious air, offer my skin a chance to dry. Betsy has gone back to her work at the front desk, but she glances at me periodically. She says nothing. We both know my comfort is up to me.

To me, the gym is a home and my classmates a family. Here, we are all sizes, all shapes, all abilities. When we speak to each other, it is kind inquiries or words of support. “You can do it! Keep moving! You’ve got this! You are strong!” In my life, I have never been so consistently accepted and encouraged as I have here. I have never experienced in any other community the absolute belief that I can and I will or that I, despite having a body of many limits, absolutely belong.

I keep sweating. The rash keeps stippling. Discomfort wins over fear, and I pull my shirt over my head and stand in front of a giant black fan. Still, I tug my pants up over my navel to hide my scars as best I can.

*

Months earlier, I consulted with a technician who does laser treatments and cortisone injections to reduce scarring. She manipulated the tissue around my navel and asked if I scar this way elsewhere.

“Everywhere,” I told her, and gave her the tour.

“You will not benefit from therapies for your scars,” she said. “Most likely, you’ll experience more scarring. Your best bet is to learn to live with them.”

She was the third professional to speak to me about scar revision. All three disappointed me with the same words.

Between them I tried creams and massage, despite a lifetime of knowing my skin. Of still being able to show the scar from when I was four and burned by a firecracker just as easily as the one from sixteen when I was burned by a McDonald’s fryer basket. Or the cut on my finger when I was fourteen versus the removal of a mole when I was twenty-two.

My scars are forever.

*

What I’m experiencing in the gym is not modesty. Between sport bra and hiked-up yoga pants, I know I look a sight. A handful of my peers glance at me. Their eyes bounce away, curious but unconcerned. I hang my shirt from the front of my waistband to better hide my middle. I check and re-check to be sure my pants haven’t slid below the scar line on either side.

My longest scar runs hip to hip. Combined with my navel and breasts, when I stand naked, my torso appears to be smirking. I recall this and pull my shirt back on, embarrassed. No one can see through fabric, but I don’t trust their eyes. They might laugh. They might be disgusted. I asked Betsy but I didn’t ask them—they might be afraid.

What I am feeling is shame. It runs deeper than the incisions that made the scars. It exists beyond the apex of each hip. I admit a hateful thought to myself: my scars are ugly.

*

My issue is self-judgment. I roll out my muscles post-workout while engaging in some figurative navel-gazing. Who exactly are my scars a big deal to other than me, I wonder.

Pretty much no one.

So why am I obsessing over whether my peers will run screaming or stare discerningly through my sport bra with x-ray vision to determine which emoticon my torso most resembles?

As Betsy says, my scars are beautiful because they reflect my ability to heal. Maybe my body didn’t heal as smoothly as I’d like, but that’s only on the outside. I give myself a pep talk. “Hey, you’ve got this. You are strong.” Because strength is really what these scars are about.

She also says, “Fuck what anyone else thinks.” She’s not wrong.

*

I said mine is a story of falling apart and being put back together. Prior to surgical repair of abdominal herniation, I couldn’t cook, hold my child, walk or make love. After, I made my way back to this gym where I pick up heavy things, put them down, run and jump. It took a lot of physical and emotional strength to get here. And, dammit, this shirt is still too itchy and hot. I should just take it off.

The rash is back again. I pull the shirt off. My fears fragment, scatter. I do some literal navel-gazing while I take care of my fatigued muscles. No one else here is perfect. We’re here because we want to be better and we’re willing to put in the work. My scars are a sign of work done, paths travelled.

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