Healing Scars: Finding My Way Back to Whole
I had both of my hips replaced when I was 14 years old. It was my freshmen year in high school, and I had two surgeries: one in February and one in May.
After an extensive recovery, it was almost Labor Day before I was able to go to the beach for the first time that year. I can still remember cautiously making my way over the dunes, terrified to feel the sand shifting precariously under my new joints.
My scars, 12-plus inches on either hip, were an angry red color still very much healing at that point. As I tentatively made my way down to the water’s edge, I noticed a group of older men gesturing toward me and callously remarking about my scars, plenty loud enough for me to hear. My sister flashed them a rude hand gesture, but I knew then that going to the beach was going to be different.
The ocean has always been a safe haven for me. My grandmother taught me to believe in the healing power of salt water, and over the years I’ve put my faith in its ability to heal everything from my acne to my hot and swollen joints during arthritis flares. When things in life feel unbearable, I’ve been known to make midnight drives to the beach just to hear the waves crash and taste the salt on my lips.
After being so publicly embarrassed by my scars, I refused to return to the beach without a new bathing suit. I still remember it well: a black bikini with white stripes going down the sides of the boy short bottoms that I constantly tugged down to cover as much of my scars as possible.
Boy shorts, sarongs and beach skirts became a staple for me, but I deeply resented that I felt the need to wear them. These styles never came in age-appropriate options, and I found myself shopping at the same stores as my mother. Over time I couldn’t decide what was more embarrassing – my granny style bathing suit bottoms or encountering rude reactions to my scars. Even as they faded over time, I would always remember the sting of those hot, angry tears when I was 14.
A few years ago I decided I needed to find a younger, more age-appropriate bathing suit, only to end up calling my sister crying frustrated tears from the dressing room of a department store. I’d tried on more than a dozen suits, and the only one I felt confident in, a deep teal bikini with a flirty crocheted bottom, cost $180. “Buy it” she said. “You’ll wear it for years, and you won’t have to go through this shopping experience again anytime soon.”
I love that suit. It’s served me faithfully over the years, helping me feel more relaxed and confident at the beach again. It looks like something other women my age would wear even if they weren’t trying to cover up scars or other perceived imperfections.
This year I found myself bathing suit shopping once again. I wanted a one-piece swimsuit appropriate to wear in front of colleagues on a company trip to Mexico. One piece swimsuits, I noticed, tend to be very high cut on the sides, doing nothing to cover my scars in any meaningful way. I ended up buying two: one for the company trip and one with a plunging neckline – a little sexier, but still suitable for chasing my rogue chocolate lab down the beach.
Learning to embrace my scars has been a lesson in self-love much bigger than the scars themselves. It’s about learning to love a body that often feels broken and limited. It’s about appreciating its strength and resilience despite enormous challenges. It’s about finding the guts to say “this is who I am. I am imperfect, but I am real,” and then learning to love those imperfections over and over again. Because, no matter how many times I think I’ve learned to love myself, there are always setbacks that take me right back to where I was at 14. More than anything, it’s been learning to see myself as whole.
So here I am in my new one-piece bathing suit – a rare and candid photo of me at the beach, perfect in its imperfection. I’m sharing it here with the hope it will inspire you to be brave and unabashed in the love you have for yourself. Scars and all.
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Anna wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA).