Scars reinforce the social sanctity of female flesh
- Published: 09 October 2010
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10 October 2010
As a person who has presented themselves to the world as a man and a woman at different times in life, I have been in a unique position to see how the concepts of gender and physical appearance play themselves out against each other, especially when it comes to the body, scars, and perceived gender.
I have 100+ scars on my body, 75% of which are self-inflicted and many which are hard to miss and impossible to look away from.
Most people have the good manners and sense to not ask about them and I volunteer no information about them, not even when asked.
My scars are neither a sense of pride nor shame for me. They were what I had to do in order to survive. They are a statement of fact, completely neutral, and I do not downplay nor exalt them.
They are a part of me like my eyes or my hair. If someone were to ask me about my nose, as in Why do you have a nose? I would be baffled. I’m equally baffled when people ask about my scars, even if they are something more controversial.
Those who do comment on my scars are horrified. They always ask, ‘What happened to you?!’ They expect me to launch into some story about my accident, about the trauma I faced, about the fight I got into.
And they only ever ask me these things when I present myself as female.
Never once has someone approached me as a man and asked me what has happened to me and why I bear these scars. It is only as a recognizable female that I am asked invasive questions about the scars on my arms and legs.
I maintain that this phenomenon is the result of social gender norms and the resultant attitude toward male and female bodies and what they can and cannot do.
There is no denying that scars and the mutilation of human flesh are a scary thing for society in general regardless of the body they are on.
Scars challenge the notion that a body must be beautiful, that it must be free of blemish, in order to be a real body. They challenge the notion that a human being must possess all parts, in complete working order, with total aesthetic appeal, in order to be a real human being.
Scars tell a story of some kind of trauma, and we do not live in a society where one is encouraged to embrace their traumas, whether physical or mental. A scar is a reminder of a wound, something that should be secreted away. It should never be displayed in public or visible to the public’s eye.
But a man with a scar is viewed differently than a female with a scar. And this is because what male bodies can and should do and how trauma is viewed to affect said bodies, has diverged along a different path from the same scars and trauma on women’s bodies because of the socially defined roles men and women are supposed to adhere to.
Men with scars, even those that twist and distort the flesh, are often viewed as rugged, manly, tough, powerful, or warlike. Men with scars must also operate in that framework of fear of the ‘imperfect’ (I put this in quotes because even when I am a woman with scars, as well as disabilities, I do not find myself to be any less perfect than any other human being on the planet), but their scars take on a different context and meaning than the exact same ones would be on my woman’s body.
In any society that has had a continual history of ‘men fight while women stay at home’ a man’s scar is a symbol of his power, his might, and his ability to protect and defend his property and his rights.
Women have no such martial or ‘admirable’ context attached to their scars. Because they are still to this day supposed to be gentler, kinder, and homelike instead of doing things that would create scars in the first place, a scar takes on a sinister bent, rather than a possible symbol of positive virtues.
Women have almost always been exhorted to keep their bodies pure, for the purity of body for a woman was (and is) inextricably linked with the health of her mind and character.
The obsession with female purity has largely been discussed in a sexual context, but in truth the ‘pure body’ myth was applicable to any aspects of a woman’s physical appearance and makeup. Historically and culturally, a woman who had a deformity or any visible scar or blemish was that way because of her evil nature or character.
The perfect example of this is the stereotypical image of a witch. Ugly, twisted, and scarred, her physical hideousness was a perfect manifestation of her twisted soul. The wart or boil in the most prominent place on the face—the nose—only served to hammer home the point that if a female’s skin was less than perfect in a place where other humans could see this imperfection easily, it was directly linked to the evil and ill nature in her personality and character.
Where men’s scars were seen as a result of their actions or even as a result of their good deeds, female blemishes and scars were seen as a result of their wicked hearts, their misdeeds, or their bad intentions.
This has not changed in present times. The purity myth for woman’s body is still very much a fixture in social conditioning. Therefore any scar I bear is a direct challenge to thousands of years of sanctified/vilified female flesh.
Not only do my scars produce a challenge to the idea of the human body as only worthwhile when whole, but they also provide a direct challenge to the obsession with female purity and its link to beauty, health, and mind.
People want to know about my scars perhaps because it is unfathomable that I would do something that would put me in such a state, or perhaps because they want to know what unseemly act of bad character a woman like me produced to make such scars.
Therefore, as a female, I have to fight down two sets of expectations concerning my scars. The war against social expectations and gender norms, one that occasionally manifested itself in the creation of more scars on my body, is now apparent in the way these marks are perceived.
The hopelessness that I felt at the dismissal of my imperfect body which resulted in many of these scars has now been turned to anger at the fact that as long as I show no shame, no modesty, and no disgust at myself for bearing these marks I will forever be intruded upon for daring to break the silence and the myths around female imperfection.
Jean/ne is a bi-gendered writer and aspiring historian, currently living and working in the Western United States. They like cats, oolong tea, spreading information, and breaking silences. You can contact them at their website Throw Stones where this article first appeared.