Show off your scars: how our wounds can make us beautiful
“Uh...no?” My family, despite a deep, almost obsessive love for many things British (probably underscored by a passion for good tea and Jane Austen), was never known for following tabloid details of royal family life. Unless this dress happened to be made of hand-woven English tweed, which seemed unlikely (though potentially awesome), I couldn’t quite see why Rose was bringing it up.
“She specifically requested a dress design with a low back. It made me think of you.”
“Because she wanted her scoliosis scar to be visible. She had the same surgery you did when she was younger, and she said it was important to her that the scar could be seen.”
It’s funny how a few words can trigger such a flood of memories: waking up in the recovery bed afraid I was paralyzed because I couldn’t feel my legs...the smell of powdery wildflower perfume the aide wore as she pushed my wheelchair...the searing pain as I struggled to walk a few steps...the way my friend’s faces paled when they saw me try. Later, the slick, coconut-scented sunscreen I poured onto my back every day in summer so my scar wouldn’t burn....the high-backed swimsuits I wore for years so I wouldn’t have to face so many questions. An 20-inch stripe down your back turns out to be an instant awkward conversation starter.
I remembered a dialogue between 18-year-old me and my new boyfriend. “I can’t believe how perfect you are for me,” he’d said. A twinge of concern went through me. I wasn’t perfect. Heaven knew I had personality flaws enough to keep my confessor busy the rest of my life. But even physically, my body bore marks of an imperfection I could never get away from. “Not really perfect,” I answered Mark. “I’ve got a giant scar down my back where doctors fused my spine and put stainless steel rods down either side.”
Mark’s answer may have changed my life and outlook as much as so few words ever could. “Perfect for me,” he repeated. “And your scar is beautiful.”
“Um...I think a little ‘love is blind’ thing is going on here, Mark.”
“No, I’m serious! Think about it. Even in His glorified body, Christ still bears the mark of His passion. He has wounds in His hands and feet and sides--even in Heaven, he has scars! I wonder if the scars of the things that helped up get to heaven will be allowed to remain on our risen bodies, too.” He lightly touched the back of my neck, where my scar began. My long hair shielded it from view most of the time, but it was impossible to hide altogether. “Maybe,” he continued, “we’ll know our scars are beautiful when we see them for what they are.”
First of all, let’s just clarify, readers, that, yes, of course I knew right then that I was definitely marrying this guy, because who says things like that? Two years later I chose my own wedding dress--not with a deeply plunging back, because I’m way too introverted for that kind of drama, but not high enough to hide my scar completely either. Without that scar, after all, I might not even have been alive to get married--my scoliosis was that severe. A few months after that, pregnant with our first baby, I blessed my surgery and those stainless steel rods for allowing me to bear a child--it even helped to avoid some of the lower back fatigue so many of my pregnant friends experienced since I basically got to walk around with a built-in brace.
Back in 1999, soon after my doctors had told me I would need surgery, a priest friend of ours suggested we pray for a miracle of healing. I considered it...but ultimately turned to God in my overdramatic adolescent piety and said, “Okay, listen. I don’t want to be faithless or anything, but it’s hard for me to picture a miraculous healing being very good for me or anyone. Let’s try this: if you want to bring souls closer to you through a healing, you can heal me. If I can help bring more souls to you by suffering through surgery, we’ll do it that way.” Months later, as I lay flat on my back for days and struggled to keep slowly-melting ice chips down--forget about actual food--I rolled my eyes in the general direction of Heaven and thought, “Actually, God, I take it back. This was a bad idea.”
But it wasn’t. My suffering helped me grow as a person--much more quickly than an adolescence without trials would have allowed me to. My time in the hospital taught me what joy can be found in service, as I was surrounded by children with far more serious conditions than I had, yet whose faces radiated happiness as they served one another. A little girl without legs wheeled herself from one room to another to read stories to children who couldn’t speak. A toddler twisted with scoliosis smiled out sunbeams at her parents as they played with her and took care of her. Without my own scoliosis, I never would have seen any of this. Mark was right: my scar was not an imperfection but a sign of a step toward perfection--the only perfection that really matters. My physical suffering allowed me to step into the refiner’s fire and come out more radiant than I ever could have been without it.
When asked about her dress design, Princess Eugenie said, “I think you can change the way beauty is, and you can show people your scars and I think it’s really special to stand up for that.” (https://www.cnn.com/style/article/princess-eugenie-wedding-dress-royal-wedding/index.html)
Change beauty? Maybe not. But change how we think of it? Absolutely. Beauty is not flawless skin and perfectly straight shoulders (Princess Eugenie’s, like mine, are noticeably uneven because of scoliosis). Beauty can be complicated. Beauty can be harsh. What is more paradoxically beautiful than the Son of God, bleeding and bruised, gazing at us with love from His cross?
As Pope Benedict said, “Whoever believes in God, in the God who manifested himself, precisely in the altered appearance of Christ crucified as love...knows that beauty is truth and truth beauty; but in the suffering of Christ he also learns that the beauty of truth also embraces offence, pain, and even the dark mystery of death, and that this can only be found in accepting suffering, not ignoring it.” (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20020824_ratzinger-cl-rimini_en.html)
How many of our scars, both physical and emotional, do we scramble to hide away from the world? Stretch marks...past injustices...surgery scars... Maybe, like Princess Eugenie, we should rather think of a way to display them for what they are: the mile markers on our journey through life, this grand adventure leading us closer to God.
Viewed in that way, they’re not ugly at all. They’re perfect.