I have melanated skin, which helps me look younger than my age, but I also have a lot of scars on my body that seem to become more visible with time. Yet, now that I’ve moved closer to fifty, I’m not as self-conscious as I once was. I used to envy the scar-less skin of women who seemed to have lived happier childhoods where there were soft, sound sleeps and carefree, dangerless days.
I’ve seen pictures of tribal scars in books and on the internet, but I didn’t see them up close until 1998. The woman’s name I don’t remember, but I called her Omi, her title as a traditional Yoruba priestess. Three raised parallel lines marked both of her cheeks. Her daughter, who was twenty-six at the time, had them too. I tried not to stare, but I think I was surprised to see them on an American woman even though she was practicing a traditional African religion. I’ve learned since then that scarification rituals have happened for centuries, and although not as popular, are still used for some rite of passage ceremonies in East and West Africa. I wondered if she had them done there during an initiation ceremony. To get the desired effect, some scars are made by deep scratches, burns or a combination of both. The resulting designs are made to beautify, glorify, identify, or tell a story. The process is bloody and painful, but the raised scars that are left can be beautiful and act as a testament to the strength of the ones who wear them. The more you have, the more proof of your bravery.
When Africans were enslaved in the Americas and made to submit to their masters, and relinquish their names, language, and humanity, scars marked where they were beaten, cut, burned, whipped or branded. Scars were used to send a message, vilify, spread fear, and numb dreams of freedom. I’ve seen the scars on my grandfather’s hands from when he picked cotton from sunrise to sundown in the fields of Tunica, Mississippi. I’ve never seen a cotton field, but the scars on his hands from his sharecropping days have left a mark on my memory.
Most of the oldest scars I have on my body I got from scratching. I had horrible eczema as a child, and I scratched myself throughout the day. Even as I slept. When I began to walk, my parents noticed that my feet were turned completely in. They put braces on my feet that went up around my calves to straighten out my ankles. The braces were metal and irritated my skin. Whether they were on or off, I scratched my feet and legs until they bled. My mom put white cotton socks on my hands before I went to bed, but by morning they were covered in deep red bloodstains. The braces fixed my ankles. My toes face front when I stand and walk, but my feet and legs are covered in white scars from where I scratched the melanin away.
At around four years old, I got stitches for the first time. After being told not to do so many times, I was bouncing on the front metal rod of a shopping cart in the grocery store. This time there wasn’t enough food in the carriage to counterbalance my weight, so the cart flipped up and I fell back onto the back of my head with the cart on top of me. I must have blacked out because I don’t remember anything after that. I heard that there was lots of blood. I’m sure my mom was terrified. I ended up with stitches in the back of my head. I’ve never seen the scar.
Other scars I got from being more inclined to rough-and-tumble play, than to Barbies and pretend tea parties. For years, I loved to climb trees. My neighbor Joel and I used to climb the one in front of my house. My mom didn’t like it. She said it would scar up my legs; this didn’t deter me because I knew my legs were already scarred. I climbed higher each day and let the branches scratch new designs alongside the old ones.
Before I learned to slow down, I was known to move faster than I could think, which led to a lot of accidents. I was probably in the fourth grade when I walked out of my house in an old pair of dirty sneakers. I saw the wood planks pressed into the mud in front of the house, but I didn’t see the rusty nail. I walked onto a plank and a nail went through the bottom of my foot. I fell over in pain. Later, peroxide was poured over my foot over and over again. Then a bandage was placed. I remember the hole the nail left through the worn and dirty white rubber of my shoe. If you look at the center of my left foot, you will find the scar is still there.
The scar most people notice when they look at me is on my forehead.
I was probably close to ten when I went to the Ballaroo roller rink with two of my older siblings. I was skating fast, and I could feel myself pushing through the air around me as I turned the corner of the rink. I was a good skater and had picked up enough speed to glide around the curve. Someone stopped me. When we collided she fell backward and, as her foot flew up into my face, I got one of the wheels of her skate right between my eyebrows. I remember the blood that time. It was all over the smooth floor. I got stitches that day, but I don’t remember how many. I have the light crescent-shaped scar slightly right of where the yoga instructor tells me to place my two fingers to activate my third eye.
A few years later another scar was added.
My cousins on my Mom’s side lived in the city. We spent many Sunday afternoons at my grandmother’s apartment and, at the time, five of my cousins lived in the same apartment building. We barely ventured outside of the outside porch or back of the apartment building, but once, we were running in what was like a park on a hill, playing a game of Chase. My older cousin was chasing us, and I tried to jump up half of a concrete wall, but I didn’t make it over. I hit my right leg against the edge. It dug right into my leg two and a half inches below my knee. At my grandmother’s apartment, we got scolded and I got a bandage for my leg. The wound was deep, and when it healed it left a dent and a dark oval scar on my right leg. I can still slip the tip of my index finger into it.
At fifteen, I was among the first employees hired to work at Marshalls department store when it came to Plymouth, MA. There was a lot of inventory work, and we had to set up displays. One day I was cleaning a glass panel for jewelry display and the sharp tip of the metal piece that the glass sat on sliced into my finger just below my knuckle. It happened so fast that it didn’t even hurt. I had to get stitches again. This time Marshalls paid. Now, I have a light, horseshoe-shaped scar that frames the knuckle of my right ring finger.
I was in my second year of college when I got burned while sitting on the couch in a friend’s apartment. I was barefoot and wearing a long white peasant skirt, braiding hair. A guy I knew was sitting on the floor between my legs with his back pushed against my skirt toward the couch. He wanted dreadlocks, so I was hunched over carefully parting his hair into small squares to braid. If he didn’t take out the braids, new hair would eventually tangle over the braids and harden into locs. To ensure the locs wouldn’t unravel at the ends, I added beeswax. After it was heated on the stove, the melted wax sat cooling on the floor to the right of my foot, so I could easily reach down to apply it to the ends of his hair. It hadn’t cooled yet, so when another guy, Patrick, walked by and kicked over the bowl of hot beeswax, it splashed onto the side of my leg. It felt like a flame rushing up my leg. I screamed and a friend tried to rub the wax off my leg while it bubbled. Until I saw it, I didn’t skin could do that. The black mark it left looked like hot tar. Instead of apologizing, Patrick said, “It was an accident,” as if intention could alter the impact. When the burn healed, I was able to get rid of most of the scar with frequent applications of cocoa butter. Yet, there are still raised bits of the black scar from the burn that remain.
At twenty-three, and thirty-six weeks pregnant with my first child, my doctor told me she was going to induce my labor two weeks before my due date. Low fluid around the baby, she said. The scar from the Cesarean section is a 6-inch horizontal crease right below my bikini line. After stitching me up, she said with a smile, “You’ll still be able to wear a two-piece bathing suit.”
In 1996, my husband convinced me to get a tattoo, which is essentially an intentional scar with ink. My mother said it was like being branded like an animal and strongly voiced her disapproval. He had to do a lot of convincing before I finally said yes. His design was for both of us. He called it our family seal and said it would mark our family clan like those done in China and Polynesia. He drew our wedding knot on a white piece of paper and gave it to the tattoo artist to draw into our backs at the nape of our necks. It hurt. While I felt the pain and heard the needle buzzing in my ear, it was hard to remember why I agreed. The lines of my husband’s tattoo are bolder than mine, but the design within the two-inch circle is the same. Two interlocked ropes mark our backs.
It is the only scar on my body that I’ve said yes to.
In 1998, I was in my mother-in-law’s guest bathroom on my knees in front of the toilet throwing up what looked like pink syrupy water. I was pregnant for the second time and still in the midst of first trimester morning sickness. This time the toilet seat came down on me faster than I could grab it or move out of its way. It came down right on the bridge of my nose, which bled. There was pity and a band-aid. There’s still a small brown mark on the bridge of my nose to remind me of that day.
I’ve learned that a scar is left after the repair work is done to get the tissues back together. There is a scab, and when the scab is gone, a scar is left. The skin there is different and marked by a lighter or darker color, but because of the collagen, the scarred skin is made tougher than the surrounding skin. This is the same with emotional scars. In order to move past things that have damaged you in some way, you have to become stronger than you were before. Parts of you are different, but most people can’t see it.
If you met me now, you would see me smile and hear me say how blessed I am. You might see a picture of me with my husband and my oldest and youngest child, and not see what is missing. It would be hard to see the scars on my heart from when it tore in two. When I saw my four-year-old daughter’s body lying still in a quiet room in Baptist Hospital on February 21, 2002, I didn’t think I would survive. She had a brain tumor, and the tumor closed her eyes and eventually stopped her heart. It took many years to do the repair work necessary to be fully present in the life I am in now. There remains a permanent scar on my heart, and the shape and beat of it will never be the same.
The expression: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” is tossed around like confetti as a consolation for having to deal with the tough, inevitable stuff of life. At one Sunday service, my pastor asked the question, “What if everything that has happened to you, that hurt you, was necessary for you to become the person you needed to become?” He offered this question as one way to look back at suffering.
My poor vision is also due to scars. I used to rub my eyes a lot because of eczema and allergy flares, so at eighteen I was diagnosed with keratoconus. This means I have cone-shaped corneas, which makes it difficult to see much without a hard, plastic lens pressing them flatter and rounder. I went to the eye doctor at the end of 2017, and he told me he noticed scarring. He said I should start thinking about cornea surgery; which adds intentional scars to corneas to toughen them up and keep them from tearing. So, more scars may be needed.
For most of my adult life, I was self-conscious about all of the scars I have.
I spent so many years envying women with flawless complexions and blemish-free legs. I avoided shorts and tried to cover many of them with makeup. Yet, now I can look at my scars and don’t feel shame or embarrassment.
The scars have become part of me and my story. All of my scars, the ones seen and unseen, have made me more aware of my imperfections and my strength. Sometimes looking back makes me tighten inside, but when I push forward to the present, I can see something else. If I look straight at the scar that sits between my eyebrows, I can see how far I’ve come.
Beyond the scars, I can see a warrior.
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