Part of our series on our body and body image at midlife.
I was home from college for a visit, riding in the passenger seat of my mother’s Pontiac. The weather was snowy/icy/sleety, and the car skidded, careening into a telephone pole. My mother cracked two ribs on the steering wheel, and I bounced off the windshield. A plastic surgeon was summoned to the emergency room, but the glass had made a deep gash in my chin, and the medical arsenal was more primitive then. After months of healing, I was left with a noticeable scar.
For a long time, the scar was the first thing I saw in the mirror every morning and the last thing I saw every night.
The operative word in that sentence is “noticeable.” Over the intervening years, many people assured me that they didn’t see my scar unless I mentioned it, which I did often, trying to pre-empt any unspoken unease. But it took only one blind date asking (more curiously than unkindly) about the provenance of my injury to confirm my perception that I was Scarface. Of course, I knew that I could have been more seriously injured, with much worse than cosmetic impairment. But for a long time, the scar was the first thing I saw in the mirror every morning and the last thing I saw every night—devastating to my self-esteem (and to my mother, thinking that she had “done this” to her daughter, even though I assigned no blame to what was clearly an accident).
When I moved to New York City after college, I made the rounds of prominent plastic surgeons to see if the scar could be improved, but I was always told that a “revision” would mean creating a new incision, and since no one could predict how it would heal, further surgery was not recommended. The only place that could offer me any succor was the makeup department, and I became a connoisseur of expensive, but imperfect, concealers—light and airy ones that did a lousy job of camouflage, or thick and gloppy ones more suited to the stage.
Our Relationship with Scars
I’ve heard that some women actually like their scars. There’s an Internet community of professional models who have scars, and the comments posted online communicate an enthusiastic acceptance of defacement: “It reminds me of where I’ve been and how far I’ve come,” or “It’s a sign of endurance, and there’s always a story behind it,” even “It’s the best thing about me because it’s unique.”
I respect these viewpoints, but they’re anathema to me. I wish wholeheartedly that people could be judged solely on their intelligence, kindliness, bravery, and wit, but I live in the real world where physical beauty is evaluated all the time. It’s the reason that singles who post profiles without a photo on dating websites get far fewer responses, and plenty of studies have shown that, given the choice between two equally qualified people, a prospective employer will almost always go for the conventionally attractive one.
I’ve heard that some women actually like their scars. Not me.
The actress Tina Fey has a scar on her cheek, the result of a freak slashing attack when she was five years old. In interviews she has said that she can tell a lot about people by whether or not they ask about the scar—it’s what she calls an interesting sociological litmus test—and she has never had any desire to improve it. Her husband concurred, saying that he found the scar fascinating, since it conveyed that “this is somebody who, no matter what it was, has gone through something.” Well, yes, and the “something” was so awful, I can’t imagine why anyone would wish to be reminded of it. Scars are generally souvenirs of unhappy, sometimes catastrophic events, and for me the reminder is all too evident. Every photograph already preserves a scar in perpetuity, and every mirror is always cracked.
Like most women (and, I suspect, most men), I’m happier with certain aspects of my physical appearance than others. People often tell me their secrets, and my explanation, only partly in jest, is: big brown eyes. (Apparently they make me seem empathetic.) I suppose there are people who don’t care at all about beauty—earnest, unadorned women who wouldn’t know an eyelash curler from a curling iron. They would surely consider me shallow for my obsession with my scar, but I admit to the curse of vanity.
I’ve never been the sort of professional beauty that Candice Bergen once recalled, admitting that when she flunked out of college, it was the first time her dazzling looks wouldn’t come to her rescue; no one would call the dean and say, “But have you seen her?” On a scale of participation in the rituals and tyranny of beautification, I fit somewhere in between Sephora junkie and au naturel. But I’ve always thought that the pre-accident, unscarred me was the “authentic” me. A scar is the body’s natural way of healing and replacing lost skin, but I wasn’t healed.
Living With Scars: Finally, A Solution
After so many years of trying to ignore or disguise my scar, I was astonished to learn that modern cosmetic surgery had something new to offer: magical instruments called lasers. Drs. Gervaise Gerstner and Amy Wechsler proposed a series of treatments using two lasers: one that creates thousands of microscopic wounds to stimulate the production of collagen, and another to reduce the redness. They explained that a decision would be made about whether to use “the Upper East Side setting,” meant for women who need to go right back into the world without alarming small children, or to bruise me intentionally—leading to a more unsightly recovery process but a more effective long-term result. I begged them for a bruising. That’s what I wanted—dramatic permanent improvement.
‘It’s not fair,’ the doctor told me, ‘but scars make many men look rugged and make many women feel damaged.’
The two doctors are themselves so stunningly beautiful that I felt both intimidated and convinced I was in good hands (an ironic example of physical appearance influencing opinion). Dr. Gerstner said that the treatment couldn’t eradicate the scar entirely, but also couldn’t make it worse and certainly could make it much better. I’m not a betting woman, but those sounded like pretty good odds. One of her first laser patients was one of her own best friends, diagnosed with breast cancer and left with a scar on her chest the size and shape of the port catheter that delivered chemotherapy, visible beneath every bathing suit or V-neck sweater. This woman’s experience was similar to mine in that her scar was an unwelcome reminder of a trauma that (literally) wouldn’t fade.
This isn’t always the case, according to Dr. Wechsler, one of only two physicians in this country board-certified in both dermatology and psychiatry. “Certainly where the scar is on your body makes a difference,” she said. “I have eleven orthopedic scars, and they remind me of being athletic, but I don’t like the chicken pox scars on my face. It’s also important when the scar occurs. Anything that happens in adolescence, before your core self-esteem is formed, is heightened. And it’s not fair, but scars make many men look rugged and make many women feel damaged.”
I was advised to show up for my first session about an hour early in order to sit with an application of numbing cream. I was given a rubber ball to squeeze, I braced for the laser’s approach, and…
That was it? The procedure was over so quickly that it was almost anticlimactic. Paying the bill was a lot more painful. And by the time I got home, I could see a marked improvement. “Yeah, that’s what we call the Cinderella syndrome,” Dr. Gerstner said knowingly when I called. The laser engenders a response to injury, a swelling that makes the skin appear taut and smooth—temporarily. “This is not the collagen remodeling,” she said, “but the process is started.”
The odyssey of physical self-acceptance is a long and winding road, filled with imprudent choices.
That first laser felt like a small ball bearing rolling across my face; the next felt like snaps of a rubber band, more annoying than intolerable, and resulting in what looked like a mild sunburn, which morphed into tiny speckled brown spots that took a week to disappear. The doctors assured me that brown pigment was being eliminated from my skin—it would have made an interesting junior high science project. After half a dozen sessions, I could see a more even surface, as if I’d been using a fine grade of sandpaper—don’t think I hadn’t considered that as a more economical option—and no longer an angry red. After several months, the real “dermal remodeling” became obvious. I will likely need occasional “refreshers,” and perfection isn’t realistic, but this change pleases me. Not to be too metaphysical about it, but as the scar has faded, so has the self-censure.
The odyssey of physical self-acceptance is a long and winding road, filled with imprudent choices. I’m reminded that it is not the exclusive domain of women every time I see a man wearing a toupee that looks like a small vanquished pelt atop his head. And I must admit that cosmetic surgery is a slippery slope: Attending to this one area of concern has meant heightened consciousness about the rest of me, in all its splendid imperfection. Hmmm, wouldn’t I look good without those little frown lines shaped like ski tracks? And I don’t love the freckles that are the legacy of a sunny life before discovering SPF….
But now the mirror has no cracks.
Aimee Lee Ball is the co-author of four books and has been a contributor to The New York Times, New York Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, O the Oprah Magazine, and many other national publications. She is the co-founder of Eat, Darling, Eat, a website about mothers and daughters and food.