Scars and the Female Body

Scars and the Female Body

I have a scar just under my chin that I received as a young girl when I fell into a small bush with very sharp edged branches. The wound was very deep, and it bled like a broken faucet. Of course, I screamed and cried. My mother probably should have taken me to the emergency room, but she belonged to the generation that believed you only visited the hospital if you were dying. A bleeding chin did not meet the criteria, so I covered the cut with Aloe Vera and wore a lot of band aids. The cut took a long time to heal, and as I watched the redness fade, I was happy that the scar was just below my chin because no one could see it unless they looked closely. Even as a young girl, I understood that scars were unfeminine.

I was thinking about scars and women when I read last week’s Huffington Post story about Beth Whaanga, whose project, Under the Red Dress, displayed images of her naked body with multiple scars from numerous surgeries. After she discovered that she carried the BRAC2 gene, she voluntarily underwent a hysterectomy, double mastectomy, lymphadenectomy, and melanoma lumpectomies. The images mapped out each cut, traced the after effects, and asked the viewer to gaze on a body that experienced pain most of us luckily will never experience. Yet, the goal of the project was not only to display Whaagna’s injured body, but also to demonstrate her courage to stand naked before us. Whaanga is not the first woman to display her scarred body, and she will not be the last. But I am drawn to Whaanga’s story because of the reactions to the images. Once Whaanga posted the photographs, she lost over one hundred Facebook friends, which, depending on how you look at it, might be devastating or not.

The main reason so many people defriended Whaanga was that they felt the images were inappropriate, and some even reported the images to Facebook. Surprisingly Facebook refused to ban the images, indicating a “relaxation” in its sexist policies. Women’s breasts are only considered sexual and any exposure causes uproar in a society that cannot move beyond its sexual dysfunction. We see this with controversy over breastfeeding in public and wardrobe malfunctions.

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Yet, photographs of scarred breasts not only create uncomfortable feelings based on sex, but also there is a fear of the loss of femininity with each cut on female skin deemed essential to womanhood. The scars caused by surgery, accidents, and even violence might be easily covered up with clothing, especially prior to the twentieth century. Corsets, long skirts, shirtwaists, and blazers hid disfigurement, but as skirts rose, blouses transformed into t-shirts, and women embraced new fashion trends, such as skimpier bathing suits and tank tops, covering up old wounds became more difficult. Unfortunately, there is a silence in the historical scholarship on scarring and female bodies, and so trying to understand the influence of a cut on a woman’s skin is difficult.

halsted-radical-mastTreatments for breast cancer provide one such opportunity, though. William Halsted developed the radical mastectomy in 1892, and it was during the 1950s when surgeons became more aggressive, following the adage “a chance to cut is a chance to cure.”[1] The paternalistic attitude of most surgeons of the time allowed them to see breasts as dispensable, especially once women passed their reproductive prime. To save women’s lives, radical mastectomies became standard practice, cutting out cancer tissue before it had chance to metastasize.[2] The results produced long, deep scars across at least one side of a woman’s chest, as well as other scars from tubes, needles, and subsequent treatments.

Although a woman’s appearance after surgery changed dramatically, the medical profession encouraged women to see the scars as badges of honor and as a sign that they chose life over vanity. But for many women, those scars were anything but honorable. Women felt disfigured and less feminine, though they had few other options before the 1970s. Yet, as reconstructive breast surgery developed in the 1970s, plastic surgeons encouraged women who grieved the lost of a breast to undergo more surgery to restore their appearance and dignity. For some women, having this opportunity allowed them to reinstate their womanhood. For others, losing a breast had no influence on how they defined their femininity, and they decided against reconstructive surgery, resisting the two breasts norm. [3] These arguments highlighted conflicting feelings about appearance, sexuality, and gender. But even as women made this decision, even with the best reconstructive surgery, scarring was inevitable, which served as a reminder.

Scars give us a physical memory on the skin. Some serve as a souvenir of childhood accidents. Others might mark violent acts, while some exhibit medical progress. But scars are still flaws on human bodies, especially on women, and we struggle with how to define scars on female skin. On the one hand, they exhibit perseverance, while on the other hand, scars change the “delicate” feminine landscape of soft, fragrant skin. Jagged lines and edges mar soft curves and force us to confront what we define as female beauty and sexuality.

To help us face the physical realities of breast cancer, projects like Under the Red Dress and the SCAR Project provide images that challenge us  to deal with how uncomfortable we are with scars on women bodies. The SCAR Project does this especially well as its mission is to exhibit mainly young women underwent mastectomies and reconstructive surgeries. The project places a young face on breast cancer. Viewers are asked to put aside their perceptions of breast cancer and how it physically changes the body. At the same time, these images aim to normalize the scarred female body. In fact, the images on this website, as well as those on Under the Red Dress and other numerous images on the internet, portray ownership of the scars on the body, compelling us to no longer see scars as ugly or even as badges of honor, but (extra)ordinary.

Deena Metzger
Deena Metzger

[1] Barron H. Lerner, The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), chapter four.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, chapters 5, 7.

Cheryl Lemus earned her PhD from Northern Illinois University in 2011. Her dissertation, “‘The Maternity Racket’: Medicine, Consumerism, and the American Modern Pregnancy, 1876-1960,” examines the rise of the modern pregnancy in 20th-century America. She is mainly interested in gender and women’s history, the history of medicine in America, and the rise of consumer culture.