When my mother was small she accidentally tipped a saucepan of boiling water on herself and was hospitalised for burns on her arms. It has become a family joke that it was, in fact, the greatest time of her life. Endless attention, confined to reading book after book in bed, the need to only whimper and have someone run to her bedside. In a large family, living in a small house, this was luxury. Her sisters were nearly incandescent with jealousy.
My mother has scars from the burns, some 55 years later. And, Hallmark card-esque as it is (not that there is a card that says ‘sorry about your burns but glad they made you into the person you are!’), they tell a story about her; but not the only one.
I’m thinking about her scars because I went to see a cosmetic surgeon recently about the clumps of red, spidery veins creeping up my legs, and he told me that they were a birthmark; one that is very rare and that comes later in life. It has made me feel perversely special. I have already cancelled one appointment to get the redness removed with a laser. Because after years of being asked if I was sunburnt, hot, or plain old ''what’s that on your legs?'' it isn’t bothering me as much. Maybe because scars and birthmarks make us interesting, maybe because our imperfections are a good way of sifting the good people from the jerks. Possibly because I like feeling special.
In Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants she wrote about the ways people react to the scar on her face that she got when someone slashed her in a back alley when she was a child.
“I've always been able to tell a lot about people by whether they ask me about my scar. Most people never ask, but if it comes up naturally somehow and I offer up the story, they are quite interested. Some people are just dumb: 'Did a cat scratch you?' God bless. Those sweet dumdums I never mind ... Then there's another sort of person who thinks it makes them seem brave or sensitive or wonderfully direct to ask me about it right away. They ask with quiet, feigned empathy, 'How did you get your scar?' The grossest move is when they say they're only curious because 'it's so beautiful.' Ugh. Disgusting.”
It’s similar to when people ask about the redness on my legs and then say ''you can barely notice it.'' You really can notice it. My friend once asked a school pal if she’d been punched in the face, only to have the person say she was actually experimenting with a smoky-eye look. ''It looks really good!'' my friend said hurriedly, and very untruthfully. It’s like that.
For Fey, the scar doesn't define who she is, nor is it beautiful. It was only on writing the book that she realised that all of the attention she was lavished with as a child was because she ought to have been feeling ''lesser than'' because of her slashing. But the effect was the opposite, with Fey believing (and rightly so) that she was most likely a superior person. It is worth remembering that our scars, birthmarks and imperfections aren’t for pitying, but they don’t need false praise either.
My legs will never be beautiful (and had you seen me at three in a swimsuit you could certainly agree that I was somewhat doomed), and that’s fine. I don’t need to be told that my clumps of red veins are interesting, or barely noticeable. They’re not, and they are. The way people react to scars and imperfections, either rudely or in faux hushed tones of respect prove that there’s a way to go in allowing people to be imperfect. You know, we really don’t have to boldly bare our scars and lumps and bumps and proclaim them to be beautiful. Because that just proves that all that matters is beauty.
The Cut's Ann Friedman summed this up well in in her critique of the latest Dove ad to go viral with its emphasis on 'real' beauty and women being their harshest critics,
"These ads still uphold the notion that, when it comes to evaluating ourselves and other women, beauty is paramount. The goal shouldn’t be to get women to focus on how we are all gorgeous in our own way. It should be to get women to do for ourselves what we wish the broader culture would do: judge each other based on intelligence and wit and ethical sensibility, not just our faces and bodies."
So I keep hesitating about removing my newly-claimed birthmarks. They’re part of my story, but not my only story. The marks on my legs don’t tell all about me, but they do tell a lot about others.