Friday, August 27, 2010

This is Mary

Svea: Can you tell me how you got this scar?

Mary: I was four, my parents had one of those metal doors – a storm door – on the front door and it had glass in the middle…my brother was outside, I think he was waiting for the bus to take him to school or something. And he was teasing me. And so I banged on the glass, because I was really angry. And my arm went through. I do remember being really angry. I don’t remember a lot about it but I do remember being really angry.

Svea: Do you remember what he was teasing you about?

Mary: Haven’t a clue. He was my older brother, it wouldn’t have taken much.

Svea: So what happened next?

Mary: I remember seeing my arm wrapped in a towel. I remember which towel it was because it was from a set we had in the house. I remember we got into a neighbour’s car. I don’t really remember much else. Now my mother says that my father had gone to work and so we had to get the neighbour to drive us to the hospital. The other thing I remember really clearly was getting the stitches out because I had to go to the GP, the family doctor, and I remember he had to hold my arm really tight because I kept trying to take it away, because it hurt. And the stitches were really black, I remember that.

Svea: How do you feel about this scar?

Mary:  I think it’s cool because if I ever get murdered, there will be identifying marks on me, right? I remember I had a boyfriend once and we sat around the table trying to decide: if you were missing, what would I tell the police were you identifying marks… so it’s an identifying mark.

Svea: What would you tell the police were his?

Mary: I’m trying to remember what I said. I think we talked about his teeth. And something else, as long as you don’t put my name on it [this]. The doctor’s hand slipped when he was being circumcised so there’s this little tiny bit of foreskin left.

Svea: What do other people think about your scar?

Mary: I dunno, I mean people always look at it and often they say “Aw, that must have been horrible” but I don’t really remember it very clearly, so I can’t really identify, you know. It also feels different from the rest of my skin.

Svea: How does it feel?

Mary: Like kind of, way smoother, and um, yeah. Way smoother. That has been drawn to my attention.

Svea: Do you remember talking about this – the event, the scar – in your family?

Mary: Yeah,

S: What was that like?

Mary: It was fine, my mom especially, she used to tell me the story of what happened because I remember very little of it, and uh, that’s pretty much it. I think she did feel guilty that, you know, I wasn’t supervised enough. But heaven knows, you know, she had four kids under eight, so it would’ve been hard. But I don’t think of the defining aspect of the event as being unsupervised, I think of it as being angry at my brother.

Svea: Has your brother said anything about it?

Mary: No

Svea: Do you think he remembers the event?

Mary: Oh yeah, I’m sure he does. We just don’t talk about that stuff anymore. We’re so grown up now.

S: Anything else?

Mary: I used to think it looked like an arrowhead. It looks kind of cool. When I was a little girl at school you know, the other kids would count the stitches. They would ask me how many and I would say “I dunno, count them.”

Thursday, April 23, 2009

This is Levana


Levana: Ok well I was 16 and maybe starting from the month of September, I would get pains in my stomach and I was wondering what it was… then I went to the doctors because it was getting excruciating, like really bad. And they told me I had a cyst on my ovary and they were like, ‘Well it’s fine, you could live with it, you should get it removed but it’s not extreme.’ So I had an appointment for January (this was in November), and then in December it started to get really bad again. And then the eve before Christmas eve, December 23rd, I went out with my friends and um -- oh wait, I forgot something: the doctor, when I went, said ‘Don’t do handstands or anything like extreme,’ like – do you understand?

Svea: -- like, physical.

L: Yeah, and the night when I went out with my friends, I decided to do a cartwheel, so I literally did a handstand! And when I was being driven home it started to get really bad. And when I got home I started to feel really nauseous and my mom came in and asked if I was ok and I said no. She said I should try to sleep it off and the next morning go to the hospital. And when I went they said I had to get it operated on right away. So I’m just waiting to get it out in the hospital.

S: So they did the surgery right away?

L: Well I was waiting in the hospital for a while on medications, just waiting. And then I stayed over night.

S: And that was Christmas eve.

L: And then I got home Christmas day.

S: What was that like, coming home on Christmas day?

L: It was kind of weird because we usually have dinner as a family, and they’re Italian so they were all nervous, so it was embarrassing, I ruined their Christmas, kind of

S: Oh, ok…So what was your first impression of the scar?

L: I liked it because I like scars. And they told me it would go away – I had stitches and they came off…

S: Has that changed?

L: No, I’m kind of sad they’re disappearing.

S: What does this scar mean to you?

L: Just an experience in my life.

S: Do you think it says anything about you? When do you tell the story?

L: When people ask ‘have you ever had surgery’ or ‘have you ever been in a hospital.’ Should I also add the fact that they had to take out my ovary?

S: Yeah… what does that mean for you in the future?

L: They said I would be able to have children, but even if I couldn’t it wouldn’t really bother me, maybe in the future.

S: What about family?

L: Mom’s paranoid whenever there’s pain in my stomach, she freaks out like ‘I have to bring you to the hospital again…’

Friday, January 30, 2009

This is Jennifer('s friend)

I came across this story in a paper by Jennifer Armstrong, an art therapist at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, in Exhibition Brochure for Ted Meyers. I've raved about Ted Meyers' work before, but if you haven't seen it, go to .

"I once met a woman who had a faint, half-inch-long scar on her temple, the actual result of an unmemorable childhood accident. But early on her young memory had stepped in to create a story to make sense of the mark on her face, and she had believed for virtually her entire childhood and even young adulthood that the scar was the result of a construction crane falling on her head. When she was confronted as an adult by the quite logical argument that such a catastrophic event couldn’t be reconciled with the size and location of the scar, she asked her mother and found out that the scar-producing injury occurred when she was a toddler, when she tripped and fell on a toy. In a moment, the history of her life was significantly revised. Yet the psychological impact of the scar had a lasting effect: this person grew up with the internal sense that she was a survivor of great fortitude and luck, able to recover from the crushing impact of a crane. As an adult, her internalized identity as a survivor enabled her to go through two potentially catastrophic health crises, and recover with an almost unheard of rapidity and vigor."

Monday, June 23, 2008

This is Peter

I have a scar on my arm that looks a lot like the scar Frankenstein has on his forehead. It's on my right arm and people tend to notice it a lot. Some people really have a tough time with it, especially after I show them the small scar on the other side of my arm where the bone broke through my skin. I like my scar, it's been with me for half my life now and I wouldn't give it up if I could.

I got my scar playing street hockey in the church parking lot. I knew immediately that my arm was fucked. I'd broken my left arm twice before and was pretty familiar with the sensation.

I was hooked from behind and came down with my full weight on the radius and ulna (the two bones in your forearm). The ulna shattered and the radius snapped and popped out of the bottom of my arm.

I also landed on the ball so everyone was yelling at me to get up so the game could continue. When I rolled over the middle knuckle of my right hand was touching my upper forearm so that my hand and part of my wrist were going the wrong way. One of my teammates puked. It took me a couple minutes to really feel the pain, but when I did I screamed bloody murder until I was in the ambulance.

The doctor had to go through the top of my arm (surgery 1) to reconstruct the bones and they put all kinds of metal plates and screws in there to get everything to come back together. Five months later they had to take most of the hardware out so that my bones would grow properly (surgery 2). After the bones were healed they had to get the rest of the stuff out (surgery 3).

The really weird thing is that the scar shouldn't be as bad (good) as it is. The surgeon I had really screwed up. In addition to putting tendons and muscles in the wrong place he couldn't follow the initial incision he made so with each surgery the scar grew. I didn't realize that is was a shit job until a shocked doctor took a look at it a few years ago.

I am really bad at arm wrestling with my right arm. My grip is significantly better with my left arm. I have no feeling in part of my wrist and some of my hand. I have to constantly pluck hairs out of my scar to keep it presentable. And I often lie and tell people it is a wound received in a knife fight.

The best part is that my dad recently sent me an article about the doctor that worked on my arm. He has been suspended from practicing, and the article citied specifically:

“He is no longer allowed to operate on patients 16 and younger and can not perform hand and wrist surgeries.”

Ha. I put the link to the whole article below.

The Article:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

This is Juo

This is Scott

Scott has a scar on his forehead. I interviewed him and his friends about it over their kitchen/work/ping-pong table in Brooklyn.

SM: I was 4 yrs old and I had just moved into a new house, and this new house seemed huge -- as big as a soccer field. So (and there's no furniture in the new house because we just moved that day), we got the [soccer] ball out of the box and we decided to play.
And I don't remember how much of this is me remembering what really happened and how much of it is people telling me what happened. I seem to remember it was a tie game and we were about to leave and we had to end it right away -- the game was almost over so we had to play. And I just remember imagining myself -- visualizing myself making the big play, and I was gonna slide right into the goal with the ball between my knees and make the big play and (it's really funny because now when I'm telling this story, it's this big soccer event, but it's the hallway of my house) so I get the ball and I run up to score and I slide on my knees, but instead of going in the goal, I went INTO the goal -- the goal post. Which was the door-frame.

Svea: What happened next?

SM: I don't remember. Tears and blood everywhere. I just remember holding my face and my brother running to get my parents and seeing blood and being bloody and being really scared.

Svea: So you were scared of your blood?

Scott: Yeah, so that's all I remember -- it was really traumatic experience, and my parents didn't want to take me to the hospital, so they put butterfly bandages on it. Next thing you know, I just have this scar for the rest of my life. I definitely don't notice it, it's become a part... a part of me, right?

PB and DTJ: I don't notice it... I only notice it when someone else brings it up.

DTJ: Have you ever lied about it?

SM: Only once... my best friend had an appendicitis scar and we pretended we got in a big fight.

Svea: do you ever talk about what happened?

SM: Not that I can remember. We probably told that story a year after it happened, and then I remember it. I have very few memories from that time of my life. I remember moving, hitting my head and my first day of school.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Body in Writing

The Body in Writing blog is now up.

A collection of thoughts on scars from a variety of authors including Michael Ondaatje, Mary Gaitskill, Jaques Derrida and Gloria Steinem.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

This is Dustin

It might not look like much, but I had to go scuba diving 20 meters deep below the warm, mineral-rich waters of the Andaman Sea to earn it. I was on a 4-day trip on a live aboard boat and although I noticed my left foot was starting to hurt and swell, I ignored it for a while. At first I thought my fins were too small but my right foot never really hurt as bad as the left did. And then the left one started to swell. By the last day on the boat it was visibly swollen and I couldn't have stuffed it back in to the fin another time.

3 days later and back on land, I was limping but was hopeful it was the sea that had brought on the swelling and that now being away from the sea would make it better. I thought it might be bad, but I figured I'd give it one more night and then do something about it. By morning I could hardly walk.

I ended up in a open hospital room well-suited for a Vietnam War movie. I was in an uncomfortable, dirty bed in a row of many uncomfortable and dirty beds and I quickly ascertained that I was the healthiest person there. Other people were vomiting, some had enormous swathes of bandages over an arm, leg, or their head, and then there were others I was worried maybe weren't even alive anymore.

I had been prescribed a night in the hospital on anti-biotics to kill an infection caused from not keeping my blisters clean and would be released when the swelling went down.

Two days later I was still in the hospital making do by being doped up on painkillers and reading First, They Killed My Father, a child's memoir of the Khmer Rouge. I could hardly feel bad for myself reading about the life this young girl lived through during the terror of Pol Pot.

Many Thai people stopped by my bed because they were worried about me being alone, without any friends. Family members of other patients slept next to their sick loved ones' beds on pieces of cardboard. I couldn't imagine sleeping in a spot with a better chance of being vomited on. Some of the ladies that talked to me said I I could pay them to be my friend and watch after me while I was around. I was lonely, bored, and doped up on morphine, but I wasn't ready to start paying for friends.

I would spend parts of my sedated day studying any medical terms I could find in my pocket Thai-English dictionary and trying to talk to the doctor about my prognosis. I learned words like "infection", "swollen", and "surgery." I even perfected my pronunciation of the word "foot" but made little overall progress. The doctors appeared to be doing nothing but inducing patient apathy through reuglar doses of morphine.

In the two days I was at the hospital a large lump grew on top of my swollen foot. "Cyst" was then added to my growing vocabulary. A little later when I learned the word "cut" and the phrase "no anesthetic" I knew it was time to leave. I urgently called a friend, got a ride, paid my 3-day, mere $12.50 hospital bill, and then we drove 3 hours to Phuket hospital.

Luckily, Phuket Hospital was modern, clean, and all of the doctors were well-educated. And everyone spoke nearly perfect English. When they told me, "There's a cyst complicating your infection and the only way we can get rid of the infection is by cutting open your foot to clean out the cyst." I went with it. That night I got the happy gas and I woke up with my foot wrapped in gauze and tape.

A couple days later I was wheeled out of the hospital, helped into a car and given crutches. In order to take care of my wound I had to go to a smaller, local clinic and have nurses clean the wound every day until it healed completely. The nearest clinic to my home was several kilometers away and since I had no ride, I had to hitchhike there nearly every morning. Sometimes I'd get lucky and catch a friend on their way to work, but that was no more likely than riding in the back of a pickup truck with a large group of people. I got very good at explaining my foot problem in Thai.

I got to know the nurses at the clinic well and they taught me how to say, "It hurts!". I didn't have stitches so my skin was still split wide open, leaving a small hole in the top of my foot. Every day when the nurse would clean it, she would slowly pull out the dried, sticky-stained gauze that had been stuffed into the hole. I would yelp in pain and complain that it hurts but all she ever did was giggle at me. Then, with the gauze out, as if to make me yell my "It HURTS!" as loud as possible, she would clean the wound with floods of alcohol and scrub the open wound clean. I imagined it must have been scary for people in the waiting room to hear my screams accompanied by the nurses laughter. After the entire cleaning was over, I'd hobble out of the clinic with a fresh bandage on my foot and hope to use my foot to pull the heartstrings of a new car with A/C.

Though some days I decided I could skip a cleaning or would even do it myself, most days I found a way to get to the clinic and had the same ladies clean my foot. They never charged me, only thanked me for working as a volunteer and giggled as they put my through my morning pain. Eventually my wound healed and I brought everyone some presents from the market to thank them for helping me every day. It wasn't until that day, the last time I saw the nurses, that they told me the phrase they taught me didn't mean, "It hurts!"—it was slang for "Delicious!"

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

This is Diana

I interviewed Diana over watermelon pieces and rose hip tea at my place on Friday night. This is a verbatim transcript of her story.

SV: What scars do you have?

Diana: I have scars on my face from very bad acne. Very severe acne that would not let up, even way after puberty. [drinks watermelon juice].

SV: What's it been like for you to have these scars?

Diana: It has definitely... [pause] what comes to me is that they have helped me learn to love myself. I mean, mind you that's a long time coming, but... they're permanent signs of how much I didn't like the way I looked. And now when I look at myself, it's been so long since I've had that problem because i took acutane --

SV: Sorry, what is that?

Diana: It's a very heavy medication that you take for 3 months and it changes the biochemical structure of your face so that you do not get acne but it's so strong...that you can't drink and if you get pregnant it'll cause a dwarfed baby so you have to have an abortion -- you have to go on the pill when you take it. So I did that because I just, I had enough. I had tried everything from creams to gells to antibiotics. So I took it for three months and I did. My last pill I remember I took when I went on my first trip to Cancun and I was like "Yay I'm free!" because I hadn't been able to drink for three months, not even on NY's

But I still had scars. I had severe scarring. But I was told that it takes time -- the meds stay in your system for a year and then they will fade. So I would burn my face. Even though you're not supposed to, I would go tanning I just wanted to burn everything off so I wouldn't put on sunscreen because I wanted to burn it all off. And slowly, over the year, they started to fade, the scars. And I actually enjoy looking at myself in the mirror anymore. No more acne, it was all just scars I didn't have to worry about. And I think maybe a year later, it was a huge difference.

I think with the scars, in a way... I had pretty good self-esteem considering, at the time. So I think it made me look at myself in the eyes more -- I would avoid looking at my face i would look into my eyes more. And I had to see myself, because I didn't think I was fully ugly, I thought 'No, I'm a pretty girl -- it's just these...' So I think that helped me look at msyelf deeper and see more beauty in myself to some degree. So when my exterior [touches face] started to fade, I saw yeah I am beautiful. I got to the point where I couldn't remember what it was like to have the [initial] scars because it had faded so much.

SV: So when are you most aware of these scars?

Diana: There are days now when it stands out for me. The days when I'm feeling fat or bloated or I'm getting my period... I look at them and I say, "wow, I can't believe what I went through" and I remember looking at my face and going "Fuck, this is brutal!" But then there are times when I do look at myself and think "Wow, I'm beautiful."

SV: What do these scars mean to other people? What kind of reactions do you get from other people about them?

Diana: Well now, a lot of people... it's not really... My mom and my sister they're like, "Oh my god, thank god! What you
went through with all those scars!" So I think it had a very huge impact on my mom and my sister. It's like I was wearing this mask of ugliness that they looked at. I think they saw the exterior more than the inside and it's funny how it helped me look inside more. And now my mom will be like, "Wow, look how beautiful you are!" It really affected me in that it made me put a lot of effort into making myself look better. You know, going to the gym, doing my hair. Now people don't really comment so much on my acne. Now it's just me. I would always think people were looking at my scars.

SV: Can you talk a bit about the process you underwent today?

Diana: Microdermabrasion. From my gorgeous friend J---. She's absolutely stunningly beautiful. She does everything. This woman. Every treatment. She keeps her body, you know, top-notch. So I heard about microdermabrasian and I said, "Listen, for my birthday I want that!" and I went. And as they're shaving -- they literally shave off my face -- it was like I was being reborn in a way. It was like: that mask, it's time to come off. I think I was hiding myself. Hiding my beauty from the world. And there's a part of me that's almost afraid to let it out. 'Cause I get so much of a reaction now that it's like: what's going to happen when I'm really all done up.

SV: What kind of reaction do you get now?

Diana: Just, um, people stare and you know. Almost every guy will hit on me, that I meet. And almost in a way, it makes me feel bad to turn people down. In a way I can't wait 'til I get married. And I think you just have to kind of get used to people looking at you.... But yeah I feel like it's really time to take off the mask and really let myself shine thorugh. And now I'm excited. I asked the woman what would be her plan to clear it all up... I said, what would you do? And she gave me a six week plan for six week. And I almost was like: I really wanna do it. I really wanna do it. So I'm seeing if I can afford it or find someone else, cheaper. It's time to let go of the part of me that's afraid to come out. I am so afraid to come out into the world, in a way. What are they gonna think of me?

It's time for me to be myself in the world and not to hide behind any mask anymore. Behind anything. And it's all good timing -- in the past it wasn't time for me to be in that world in that way. And now, I see my physical transforming in a way and -- this is nothing. It's amazing what's gonna happen you know? As it continues to happen. Even like after, you know, after I cry. People look at me and are like "What did you do different?" There's a part of me that's afraid to be vulnerable in the world. Like how am I going to protect myself? The more I feel safe, the more it'll come out and...

Sunday, April 01, 2007

This is Mike

This is Mike's story (as told by Francesca):

Dear Svea,

I made a friend last Friday. His name is Mike, and I'm going to try and tell you his story although it may not be as good as his version. You may have to re-write it to make it sound better.

Mike was biking as a kid, down a really steep hill near his house. At the bottom of the hill was a sharp turn, a construction site, and a layer of wet cobbled stones. Mike was going fast down the hill, and, not slowing down enough to make it round the corner, he did a sort of swerve, and somehow managed to fall off the bike, landing head first on the stones. From there, things come in threes... The car coming towards him managed to see him, stop and get out without hitting him, and he had a mobile phone to ring an ambulance (this was a few years ago!); Standing in the middle of the construction site was the project manager who also happened to be the first aid guy, so he ran and got his kit and was able to provide care; Walking down the hill was a nurse just finished her shift. Between them, Mike was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, where he was given 5 stitches. This part's not so nice... The anaesthetist wasn't able to get the anaesthetic in properly, so Mike had five injections, with very little pain relief, although apparenlty this wasn't such an issue because he'd lost half of his tooth and so was much more focused on the pain from the exposed nerve in his mouth. Aaaaaagh!!

I listened to the entire story before asking if I could take a photo of his scar. As I was taking his picture, I wanted him to relax, so he kept talking, that kind of nervous babble where you change subject and mix ideas and so on. All I really remember from it is something about the nurse telling the construction guy to make sure he was wearing gloves, but I managed to get this photo, and I hope it works for your site.

This is Andrea

This is Andrea's story:

i have a cooler scar than you.

due to much demand: the story.

when i was born (prematurely), i was born with a hole in my diaphragm. my liver and intestines would invade through the hole and repeatedly collapse my lungs, i think about 8 or 9 times. the doctors told my parents that i had no hope of making it... but nonetheless went in when i was 2 weeks old and fixed the hole. they saved me (rather obviously), and left me a fantastically large scar to enjoy. it has never stretched, so you can imagine what it looked like on a 4 pound baby!

the best scar-related comment i've ever had was in grade four, in the girl's changeroom after gym class. cool girl (not me) to loser girl (me):
"i feel so sorry for you! you can never wear a bikini."

perhaps in retaliation, by the time i hit grade nine i not only had a surface piercing in my scar, but had also cut a scar-shaped hole in a tank top the better to display it.

hurrah for living, and for surgeons.


Andrea sent me the link to her story on Flickr. These are some of the comments her posting inspired:

"Scars are tattoos with better stories."

"Wow! Medicine can be so amazing. How wonderfully fortunate for you! :o)"

"I agree: wear your scars proudly."

"Thanks for the story. I'm a nurse in a neonatal ICU and it's great to know these crazy miracles babies grow up to be proud of their scars and what they went through."

"Great story, great scar, great shot. ... I cut my finger once. Is that anything?"

"amazing everything."

"That's totally awesome! I say we should all be proud of ALL of our bodies, including the things others perceive as imperfections!"

This is Jolene

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

This is Cookie

This is Cookie's story.

Perfection and purification. My facial scar is about the sense that my body is full of toxins: pollution that picking and puking will eliminate. When I feel that I have removed some of the ‘dirt’ or ‘oil’, I want to see it. This scar was once a hole through which I wanted to look.

I wanted to dissect the ‘benign facial cyst’ which surfaced on my right cheek when I was thirteen, and which I had removed by a cosmetic surgeon named Dr. Younger. He showed me the mass that he had excised. It was bloody and about the size of a large pea. I had a strong desire to see it cut open, to see what my imperfection was made of. I did not ask to. Instead I left the operating room with my face swollen and bandaged, a young woman one blemish lighter. Before the swelling had disappeared and the bandage removed, I was surprised by my mother’s comment: “Oh, C, it already looks better!” Meant in a generous and loving way, her comment made me very glad to have done the cosmetic operation. It hurt; I felt cleaner.

This is Susanna

Susanna had breast reduction surgery when she was sixteen. I took these photos in her west coast living room. This is Susanna's story:

I had breast reduction surgery two weeks before my seventeenth birthday. I come from a long line of large-breasted women: my mother is southern Italian, and all the women on her side of the family are short, dark, and huge-chested. By the time I was sixteen, my breasts were gigantic beyond the A-DD scale. I wore XXL sports bras with the straps cut and sewn shorter.

I hated having huge breasts. I felt cheated by them: I had all the downsides of big boobs – back pain, difficulty fitting into clothes and bras, unwanted attention from men – with none of the upsides. Squashed into too-tight sports bras, my breasts looked like one giant uni-boob on the front of my body – decidedly not sexy. I could never wear spaghetti-strap or halter tops to show off my chest, because skimpy tops wouldn’t conceal my huge and unattractive bras.

After surgery, once the pain wore off and the bandages were gone, I felt terrific. I can’t resist saying that I felt as though a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders – emotionally and physically, I really did. I remember the first normal bra I wore. It was black with grey flowers on it. I was thrilled. I kept flashing everyone my new breasts – I finally felt like they were sexy.

The initial elation was a great self-esteem boost, but it didn’t erase my body issues completely. When I showed my new breasts to a male friend, with whom I had been in complicated sexual relationship for a while and whose approval I was desperate for, he poked them disinterestedly and said, “I thought they’d be perkier.” I remember that moment so clearly, how crushed and mortified I felt.

Post-surgery, my breasts were down to a C-cup. Unfortunately, I wasn’t completely done puberty yet, and in the years following my surgery, my breasts kept growing. My breasts are now too big to fit into normal North American bras so I order them online from the UK. I often think about getting surgery again. I am jealous of friends who can go without bras. It seems so freeing, so comfortable and sexy. But generally I feel good about my breasts, scars and all. I don’t think my scars are ugly or weird-looking; in fact, they make me feel a bit special. Like my boobs are uniquely mine.

This is Agi

This is Agi's story.

I have an ex above my eye, an ex above my lips and an indistinct something beside my…hmmm…left eye [I had to check again in the mirror – I never know which side it is on]. When I was a little girl every time I would meet a new kid they would ask me what is that? How did it happen to you? …obviously grownups don’t do that sort of thing really and sometimes I wish they did. Each time as I would answer those questions as a little girl, I would feel special; I would feel like someone wanted to know my story. Like it mattered what happened to me, and it made me feel tough, like I’ve been through something, like I survived.

The one on the left side of my eye, close to the temple was a close brush with the lady of the scythe. It happened when I was five. I used to go away on holidays with only my father. He was a young dad and apparently he could pick up all the chicks with me sitting on his shoulders, holding onto his big curly head of hair. I had fallen asleep one night and he needed to carry me up these very steep stairs. They were in a vacation house in the mountains; part of the highland style housing that is steep in every way. The stairs were almost like a ladder. As my dad was walking up the stairs one of the railing pieces he grabbed came loose and went flying into me. Apparently my father will never forget how the blood was squirting from what looked like my temple. It was a close call but nothing really happened, thankfully I wasn’t whisked off to a hospital, the skin healed on its own and I honestly do not even remember this event. I like the way the scar looks and the fact that I don’t really associate much trauma with it. I’ve seen pictures with a compress over that area but overall it seemed like a small thing in comparison to what happened the next year.

A room full of adults having dinner at a huge round table at my grandma’s place. There are two children, the first a girl six years old [me] - the other a boy three years old [my cousin]. The girl is thirsty and is given compote to drink out of a small glass cup – the boy jumps onto her just at the moment when she has the glass cup in her mouth – it shatters and splits her lip in two, close to the crease on the right side, a small shard also cuts a small wound above her right eye. The blood is thick and dark crimson in colour. The girl is wearing a striped turtleneck, the pink and maroon stripes quickly turn to crimson and vermillion. That site she will never forget. Sitting looking at herself in the mirror of her grandmother’s oak vanity she sees herself soaked in blood, waiting for help to arrive. Two of them finally arrive in an ambulance, they tell everyone to clear the room, she’s left alone with them, one of them holds her, the other one sews her up, no anesthetics ...the pain is only a blur. She’ll never forget what one of them said close to the end – “we’re almost done, we’ll just sew this up quickly [referring to the wound above the left eye] it’ll feel like a mosquito bite” – my ass! That was the most painful mosquito bite I’ve ever had in my life! It felt awful to say the least. I was being saved yet at the same time I felt constrained, violated, and thrown into an abyss without protection of anyone I counted on. It felt like a rape of sorts.

This scar of mine is drawn in the history of our family. The guilt they all felt when I was screaming – they said later they’ve never heard someone scream like that. All they could do was stand on the other side of the door waiting for it to be over. I know it was an accident, no one’s fault really, it happened in spite of them – I believe they couldn’t have done much to prevent it - either way. I sat there waiting for it to happen perhaps, testing my own destiny and theirs. Strange the pain you forget, it is the guilt you don’t – even if it isn’t your own. I see the pattern of destruction. I see how that event had the power to shape so much in my life. How a seemingly simple cause and effect brought so much change in my young mind and strained my relationship towards men and my father. He was the one who was supposed to prevent this from happening – or so he feels, but he was unable to predict it. I in turn had to repeat certain patterns of destruction later on in my life to finally feel closure. And the presence of my attraction to pain will always be there – it is a love and hate relationship with myself. It was a loss of innocence in quite brutal of ways. I hate and love these “ex” scars, as they signify pain, and death. Death of what exactly …..?

My father left that year to go to Canada [I lived in Poland until I was ten]…maybe the death of the closeness I felt with him, and the protection he failed to provide. A death of the pure bliss that is childhood, which I am trying to desperately find again - to laugh and play like I used to – and feel like the world loved me for who I was no questions asked, without any doubts. The scars are so small now …. my face grew into them. As I rediscover my inner self and the power and beauty that lie inside, beyond all the externalities – a smile is creeping back into my face more and more.


Monday, January 01, 2007

This is Alina

Alina has a small scar just beneath her eyebrow.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

This is Tessa

Tessa is my sister. She had food poisoning when we took these photos. She sat on my bed and we talked about this project. She said, "I wish I had a scar." I looked at her, her hair damp and stuck to her forehead, smelling a bit like throw-up. "Have you never had surgery? I've had surgery three times," I told her and she said she hadn't. Together we looked for scars on her body: on her stomach and on her knees, face, elbows. There weren't any. I wondered aloud how she could have escaped injury from her active childhood, a childhood that produced hundreds of photos of her in mid-flight.
Finally we found one, a little vertical line on her left foot. She recounted the story as a I photographed her pointing and flexing it. For a background we used our mom's drawing of a fishing boat.

This is Pat's story. Pat is Tessa's mother. (transcribed verbatim)

I just remember that she had sandals on and all of a sudden she as walking along here, just a few houses away, coming home from somewhere, and all of a sudden there was blood all over her foot. So then we discovered that she had mysteriously cut her foot and I think she was quite proud of the cut because she was only about four years old. I think also she had never experienced anything like that before and when she saw all the blood she burst into a panic state and was crying quite loudly. Of course all we had to do was just wash her foot off with cold water and put a little band-aid on it. So there was a little scar and she's been kind of proud of that scar ever since.

This is Shazi

I stared for hours at the computer screen before I finally typed these words.
Tears rolling down my cheeks... hand clutching a wet tissue.... salty mucus dripping into my mouth... I feel horrible...

Why am I feeling this way?
My sis had just said something so seemingly insignificant to some, a minute comment, a passing remark, a harmless tease... Usually I would not have been offended by what she had said but clearly enough is enough.

I was showing her a picture of this guy who I thought looked similarly to me and I joked that he was my twin. My sister then joked to say, "Ya. He's the good-looking twin and you're the ugly pimply one. Haha. Pimple face."

Usually I could always make a good bitchy comeback but whenever someone teases me about my scarred pimply skin, I would be dumbfounded, my whole 'defense' mechanism would shut down and I would begin to withdraw as if I was crawling away to hide in a corner.

I went to my bed and tried to sleep but my mind just kept replaying the words she said to me.
Trust me, this is not the first time she said that to me. I have been called worst. Pimples. Pimple boy. Polka Dot face. Moon face. Everything and anything nasty.
And usually I wouldn't be bothered but because of my insomnia (I have been having that for the past 2 weeks now), the words kept ringing and ringing in my head until it came to a certain point when I just cried. I brokedown in my bed.
I was trying to do the manly thing you know, tried to keep it silent, stifling my cries, trying to control it. But I lost it.

I sobbed.
And sobbed as if I lost the most precious thing in the world to me.

So this was the time when I sat in front of my computer and turned it on and wrote this, still crying...

It pains me to talk about my skin and now I feel ready to talk.

I have always withdrawn from conversations when skin or complexion is involved. I will keep quiet when my friends lament about a recent zit they have on their otherwise blemished-free skin. I will always turn speechless when people ask me about my skin condition. And I will always smile awkwardly when some friends make rude jokes about my acne. But it always pains me inside. Don't they care?

Its not fair.
Its not my fault I look this way. Or is it?
Is it because of what I eat? What I did or didn't do?
Is it because I don't wash my face often or because I over-do it?
Is it because I picked my pimples when I was younger (I honestly was clueless at that time and also thanks to my eldest sis who always 'pops' my pimples and I developed the habit as I grew older)?
Is it because of my genes?
What's wrong with me?
Is it me?

Its not fair.
That I have to spend more effort and money on my skin.
That I have to watch what I eat.
That I can't enjoy fried or spicy food without worrying if I might have a large zit the next day.
Or that I have to cleanse my face more often than others, otherwise I would feel uncomfortable and oily each time I didn't.
That I need to spend hundreds of dollars on facial products, cleanser, exfoliant, skin rejuvenating cream or benzoyl peroxide creams (you name it, I have it) every month.
Or spend thousands on facials in facial spas or skin centres (which you will end up paying more when you buy their products that they 'promise' will help you).
Is it fair that I have to fork out an additional 60 dollars to buy medication from my doctor every single month.
(I think I could have spent close to S$2000 annually on all these products for the past 10 years or so...) Tell me is it fair?
People will just think that I have been idling my time away as my skin condition worsens when in reality they don't know how much effort and money I have spent to prevent it from deteriorating further.

Its not fair.
Watching people with clear skin having so much higher self esteem than me, chatting confidently with strangers, smiling like the world owes them a living.
That I am always feeling insecure about how I look when I take pictures up close. Or that I have to spend longer time to groom and conceal all those zits.
Or that I am always stared at by other people. Like a freak in a freakshow.
Is it fair that I have low confidence in approaching girls, to do anything for that matter?
Or knowing that nobody would kiss me on my oily pimply cheeks.

Its not fair.
That I have to be at the butt of the joke of my so-called friends about my complexion. I know I look horrible. You don't have to point it out...
From the subtle, "I don't want to pick my zit otherwise I would look like Shazi," to the trying-to-be-helpful-but-really-you-are-not, "I think its in the genes cause I saw your dad and he looks like you too," to the plain nasty, "All those oxy cream is not helping you, give up lah. Your face liddat (like that). Why still using?"

Now, its really not fair.
To add to my acne scars, I have chicken pox scars.
Horribly scarring the skin on my torso and arms, not to mention my already disfigured face.
This time I really feel like showering with acid to melt my skin away.
Recently, I had mustered the courage to go to gym wearing a singlet instead of my T-shirt.
And that would be the last time I'll be wearing singlets to anywhere for that matter.
Because while I was changing in the washroom, I overheard a couple of Malay guys talking about my scarred body ( Malay), unaware that I was also Malay and I could understand them, every single word. At first I saw one gesturing to the other with his eyes to look at me. They laughed and then the one who noticed first asked the other guy what was wrong with me. Not wanting to hear anymore, I scurried out of the changing room, obviously embarassed. I felt like I had a disease, you know? I felt like I was in a way being discriminated against. I felt humiliated.
Tell me is this fair?

There was this young nephew of mine who rubbed his palms on my cheeks and ask me blatantly, "What is wrong with your face? Why do you look different? You are so rough." I explained it to him that I had pimples.
That night, I cried myself to sleep (I'm such a crybaby, I know)...

And now he asks a different question, one I don't have the answer to, "Izan, why do you have so many pimples?"
And he asks that every single time he rubs my cheeks again or kisses me on the cheek. And my eyes will water slightly when I reply, "I don't know."

On the eve of the past 10 birthdays of my life, I have always prayed to God for the same thing.

To grow taller and to have clear skin. After I turned 17 (and I know its scientifically proven that humans stop growing and I can never grow any taller), I've still been clinging to the hope that when I wake up the next morning my skin would be all fine and I would look normal. Every single morning of my birthday, I will wake up feeling cheated and stupid as I look at myself in the mirror. And I will ask God, "God... why am I still ugly? It is not fair..."

Even though I believe in the 'beauty is only skin deep' rubbish, I can't help to think that these scars have not only scarred me on the outside, it has left deeper scars within me.

I don't need take pity on me as I am writing this not to gain your sympathy or understanding, I'm writing this primarily because I want to.

You don't have to feel sorry for me in anyway, because I already do feel sorry for myself.

"I sobbed.
And sobbed as if I lost the most precious thing in the world to me."

My pride.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

This is Valerie

Valerie had shingles as a child. As a result her forehead is scarred.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

This is Family

This is my uncle Lars Eric. His scar is from a carcinogenic melanoma removal. It's a bit like a small crater above his knee. My lovely aunt Philippa has her hands around it in the first photo.

Monday, December 11, 2006

This is Frida

This is Frida's story.

I was mourning the death of my father. More to the point, I was coming to terms with the constant missing that one has to become accustomed to after a loved one dies. The “deafening silence”.

I was 18, living in Montreal and on my own for the first time. It was too cold to go outside, and it would have been too cold regardless of the weather. I had decided that self-destructing was the only adequate way to show how I felt. The world was going on as if nothing had happened and I resented the fuck out of it. So, I fasted regularly, stopped attending school, and watched sad films. That was my life. No friends, no phone calls. I had a stack of films by the bed, and that was my main form of human contact. I sometimes talked back to the characters. I refused my mom’s frantic phone calls.

One night I was watching a film and eating greasy Chinese food that I had had delivered at 3 A.M. It was part of the fasting cycle, the gorging after the week of deprivation. I looked down at all the empty containers and felt so disgusting and grotesque for allowing myself to eat all that disgusting food. I wanted to punish myself. More than anything, I wanted to feel anything but the weird numbness I felt.

I cut myself with a serrated kitchen knife. I had never done it before and I have never done it since. I’m not a “cutter” in the sense that it was never a habit. The scars are almost gone now, so maybe I’m glad that I won’t have anything to explain to curious boyfriends and concerned friends.

This is Fred

This is Fred's story.

I love history and scars are part of our history - but some more so than others.

Part of my parents’ story is written on my stomach. Their first child was born in 1945 after their work, lives and marriage were much disrupted in occupied Holland. Their next trauma was my pyloric stenosis (projectile vomiting) and surgery at just 10 days. Small wonder perhaps that they could never bring themselves to tell me about those days, let alone explain the mystery pattern on my body.

A small but significant part of my story is also embedded in this scar. I believe my parents’ reticence and my own shy and introspective nature worked together with this mark of my individuality to deepen some of my internal struggles over the years. In recent years, the Web has thankfully done much to break down my trauma over being uniquely and abnormally “different”.

My scar also reflects the advance of surgery. Before a simple surgical remedy was published in 1912, pyloric stenosis used to kill almost all affected infants. My scar is a life line. But since 1945, surgical technique has shown great progress, as incisions are made more carefully or eliminated by the laparoscope, and as wounds are stitched internally.

This is Carmen

This is Carmen's story.

When puberty hit, it hit hard. I gained forty pounds, sprouted hair, and developed D-cup breasts seemingly overnight. I was thirteen and my body was a foreign thing.

To my total horror and shame, I got stretch marks all around each breast. They are mostly white now, but back then they were red and very noticeable.

I cannot explain how horrible I felt about them. I felt robbed of my youth. I would always hear older women muse nostalgic about how being thirteen meant effortless beauty: clear skin, eating junk food and never gaining a pound. Flawlessness. This was not my reality.

I have various scars from various things on my body and would never, ever feel as horrible and self conscious about them as I do about my stretch marks. They are the first thing I think of when I’m with a new lover. Their visibility is the first thing I consider when trying on clothing.

They are my scars. I felt disfigured and only stopped feeling so very, very recently. I still cringe whenever I see them. I’m cringing right now as I write this.

And later:

Svea: Has anyone else (other than me) ever commented on your stretch marks? I think you said that your boyfriend (whose name escapes me) thought they were pretty. What did he say? Can I include that in your story? I think it's important. Do you?

Carmen: I'm not sure if ... [my boyfriend] said anything about my marks other than that they're pretty and he hardly notices them. I've always been too scared to mention them to anyone else.

And then, a bit later:

December 11th:

Svea: Can I put the portrait one of you in, under Carmen? I love that photo.

Carmen: Hmm...OK

December 12th:

Carmen: Just saw the post........... OK, sorry to be super annoying BUT I didn;t realize you were going to put that horriffic and absoluteley repulsive las pic of my deformed breast. Oh God I want to die. Ok, you can keep it IF you please, please, please delete the pic that shows my actual face so people don;t know that it's me and that I'm that totally repulsive. I know you won;t agree and I don;t need reassurance I just do NOT want people seeing my face any more. I am never getting naked again ever.

Svea: Oh my word, my dear, you're freaking out. I think all the photos are beautiful. I'd rather take off the last one than the first. Can I do that?

Carmen: yes. although from your point of view the last one shows the "scars" better. In that it shows how grotesque and deformed and stretched the skin is. but fine, if you take the last one out then i can deal with my face being attached to an embarassing story. bleh.

Svea: Well hey, I want you to feel good about it. It matters less to me than it does to you...
So I've taken the post down (it's saved, but as a draft). Think about what you want (which pictures, etc.), and just let me know in a few hours or at the end of the day or when you're ready... I just really love that portrait, but then maybe I could take other portrait photos of you that aren't 'scar' related. You are, after all, Ms. photogenic.
Let me know what you want. It's not empowering if you hate it! Well, that is, if you hate it and don't want it up!

December 15th:

Carmen: Hey Ms. Svea,
Hmmm...okay, much thinking. I've decided that you can keep the first two pieces, i.e. the one of my face/cleavage and the one where you just see my earings, cleavage, and the side of my face. Not the one I hate. If you like, you could also put the one where my hair just kind of dangles down?
I'm torn because if I were you, the artist, I would want to keep the one that shows the scars best. It works directly towards your theme, but isn;t as pleasant/pretty as the portrait. But the truth of the matter is that the portrait, though beautiful a way showinbg some inner sadness...doesn't even show enough scars to make know, matter?
"Like, why is this girl so obsessed with these half-invisible scars?? Get over yourself, lady." says the viewer that thinks like Carmen.
It's a tough call because I'm more prone to think as the artist, and I think that the work would be more successful with that last photo. But as the subject, I really can't handle disclosing so much of myself to the public. Even if no one I know sees it, I'll still know.
So, in closing (haha...oh I'm such a caffeine fiend at night and write these convoluted emails) you can put the first two photos and the one with my hair hanging down, but no close-up scars one.

Svea: Ok, sounds good. Why are you still up?
It's only midnight for me, but it's three for you!
You know, a lot of the scars [in the project] aren't all that visible... I think it's really interesting that way. They just are more important/meaningful (in both positive and negative ways) to us than they are to other people.

January 3rd:
Carmen: ok, so I'm very sorry to be a huge pain in the butt..but...could you take down the the pic that shows my face from the lifelines project? I know, I know..

Svea: Don't be sorry! It's fine. I want you to be comfortable with it... Can I put the other (more close-up one) up instead? Now that I don't have you face in it, you just might be more comfortable with that... >)
Also, it would be cool to put this correspondence in. You know, us negotiating the photos. Since no one can identify you now, would that be OK?
Carmen: Thanks dood. Yes, you can put the horrific "close up" up...everything is fine as long as my face isn;t there. Our correspondance is okay too.