On Learning to Love My Scar Madeleine Thomas

My closet is full of backless things: sundresses with plunging collars, strappy leotard tanks that leave me completely bare from behind, and baggy crop tops that dip below my shoulder blades. It surprises a lot of people that I flock to backless clothes, though. They show off a part of me that’s kind of unusual and a little jarring to most – my scar. It begins about six inches from the nape of my neck and ends just above my hipbones in a jagged, dusty pink fissure. Embracing the beauty in my imperfections is exactly what’s so empowering to me about my battle wound. But it took me a while to accept my scar as something to be proud of.

I was operated on the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school. Six months earlier, a weird pain in my side – self-diagnosed as a minor tennis injury – quickly turned my world upside down when an X-ray revealed that I had severe scoliosis. My back was as curved as the pipes snaking beneath my kitchen sink. It was so bad, spinal fusion surgery was my only option. If I didn’t go under the knife, I risked organ damage, debilitating pain and looking like a modern-day Quasimodo as I aged. I was scared to death, of course, but as I sat in the waiting room the morning of my operation, paralyzed by fear, all I could think about was exactly just how unflattering my Double A’s were going to look under the florescent stadium lighting of the surgical ward and how much cellulite the doctors were bound to see all over my thighs. It sounds superficial, but I was 16, and like most 16-year-old girls with raging hormones, I applied copious amounts of bronzer because I hated my pale skin (and ended up looking like a grotesque, muddy pumpkin as a result), obsessed over straightening my naturally curly hair, and was convinced that my tiny chest was bound to be a lifelong man-repellant. I constantly compared myself to the petite, athletic frames of my friends. I was incredibly – and unfairly – self-critical of my body.

As a teenager, I was never the girl who got all of the attention. I was a classic wallflower instead, whose idea of flirting was essentially not being able to muster the words to say virtually anything at all. I spent many a summer night posted by my bedroom window, listening longingly for the unmistakable calling card of my unrequited loves, the hallmark of polyurethane wheels on gravel: the holy skateboard, cruising at a cool 20 mph down the sloping, paved roads of my dreams. My girlfriends and I chased after the boys, in all of their smug, shaggy-haired glory. We prayed that one day, we’d be invited over to some dank, mustard yellow basement rec room in their parent’s house, only to sit around awkwardly and pretend to understand what sexual tension really feels like. I searched desperately for the right words to make the guys see that I was actually cool. That even though I wasn’t super athletic, had big boobs, or got my hair highlighted, I was dying to be given a chance to prove that I wasn’t always so painfully shy. Boys were as much of an alien species to me as a source of relentless heartache.

My surgery went something like this: doctors straightened my spine inch-by-inch and bolted my newly elongated vertebrae with nuts, screws and bits of titanium rods. All this bling was permanently fused with segments of bone from my right rib cage. I’m lucky because I still have a few inches of unfused bone at my neck and waist that allow me to turn my head from side-to-side, bend from the waist, and twist with a limited range of motion. Otherwise, I’m stuck, bound in a state of eternally perfect posture.

Six hours and two inches later – the amount I grew on the operating table when doctors straightened out the curves in my spine – I left the operating room a newly bionic woman. The hardest was yet to come, including a collapsed lung and a 30-pound weight loss on my slender frame. (“You look like a cancer patient,” a friend told me in the cafeteria when I started school just six weeks later..) A toxic morphine drip left me seeing tarantulas descending from the ceiling and green, ghost-like people floating around my hospital room. I spent sleepless nights reading Marie Claire at 3 am with one of my nurses, who was beautiful and had kind eyes and had just finished nursing school. We talked about our younger sisters and making out with boys and the exorbitantly expensive clothes in the glossy pages of the magazine, and for a while I felt like a teenage girl again, not some emaciated invalid who hadn’t showered in over a week. FYI: there is probably nothing more humiliating than having your own mother bathe and shave your armpits.

Despite the pain, and the embarrassment at times, that fateful summer was the summer when I learned what true beauty really is. At the start of my recovery, I certainly didn’t feel sexy or feminine with about $200,000 worth of titanium in my back. I was weak, completely inflexible and terrified of injuring my back. I envisioned a future sex life akin to Mr. Roboto and dreaded the inevitable stares at the foot-and-a-half long scar I had been branded with. But my scar eventually became a part of me, not some parasite that had involuntarily latched itself onto my body. It became a mark of my courage in the face of an agonizing recovery, the motivation to go to physical therapy to regain my strength and flexibility, and the catalyst to help me see that I wasn’t the same self-conscious, self-doubting teenager anymore. For the first time, I felt strong, tall and confident that if I could survive a grueling recovery all on my own, I could face anything. I’m not saying it takes a major operation to learn self-confidence.  My ordeal just jump-started the freeing, slightly terrifying trip we all take at the start of finding ourselves. But when I slide open the doors to my closet each morning, feel a tap on my shoulder from a curious bystander asking me about my scar, or meet girls with the same telltale mark, I’m always pleasantly reminded that learning to embrace what makes us unique is one of the hardest – and most rewarding challenges – we can ever face.

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  1. I had this same surgery in 8th grade. After 3 years of wearing a very constrictive brace (which didn’t ultimately work)…. I was excited to just have it fixed. Little did I know going into it how painful the healing process would be. For the longest time, I was extremely self conscious about my scar, but I have finally gotten over it. I am now a Jazzercise instructor, and finally got up the nerve to buy one of the cute workout bra tops they sell. I actually felt proud of myself wearing it…. Jazzercise is what I do to keep my muscles strong and flexible, and I started working out consistently to keep the back pain at bay. Just because it was “fixed” doesn’t mean the scoliosis is gone…

    thanks for sharing your story., I agree, the only people who can truly understand are those who have been through it!

  2. This brings tears to my eyes. I had my spinal fusion 2 weeks after my 13th birthday. It was really easy to feel like no one understood me, I was a different girl after my surgery. It is nice to see that there are other girls who went through the same thing as me. We made it, we are strong. And we can’t let a scar rule our lives.

  3. Thank you for sharing your feelings about your experience. It is very inspiring. I spent 4 days and nites next to my daughter in the hospital after her spinal fusion. She has never ever hidden her scar, and I think she too has a feeling of strength from overcoming the Scoliosis and the surgery. You girls wear those scars proudly. You are all beautiful and strong!

  4. Oh I can relate to this so well… I was diagnosed with scoliosis when I was 13 and had surgery at 16. I felt like my life was over when I was diagnosed, like I was never going to be normal again. I had to wear medical corsets, too which was painful and didn’t help with my already existing issues of body image and self-consciousness.
    The surgery and the weeks after was the worst I ever experienced. I was trapped on the children’s unit and in a very sarcastic anit-everything phase, the poor nurses and doctors, it can’t have been easy with me. The pain killers gave me panic attacks and I cannot use that deodorant anymore that I used while I was in the hospital. But just like you wrote these experiences, getting through that kind of pain, left me stronger and more confident.
    For a long time I tried to forget and deny my scoliosis, treating it as “healed”. But of course the scars, physical and emotional ones alike will stay with me forever and are just part of who I am.
    By the way, I have a almost matching scar over my front, too due to heart surgery when I was 5. Isn’t it ironic… ;)

  5. Thank you for writing so thoughtfully about your experience! Whenever I come across someone else who has endured scoliosis surgery, I can’t help but open up and relate because there are so few people who fully understand what we have been through! I was 11 years old when I had to have surgery for my severe scoliosis. I currently have a scar that extends down the middle of my back. Before and after surgery, I had to wear one of those awful plastic body braces that felt like a bulletproof corset. My friends had to strap me in tight anytime I went to a slumber party. During these past ten years, I have struggled to overcome the physical and emotional pain my body has put me through – having to keep up with exercising to prevent the onset of back aches as well as confronting a poor body image. My friends and loved ones have helped me to feel beautiful and confident in myself over time. Stories like yours will help so many people regain strength and confidence, particularly young girls who are experiencing this similar life chapter. Thank you for reaching out!

  6. Wow, this struck a cord. I had the same exact surgery at the age of 14 and so I totally get it. I also have learned to accept the scar and I’m proud that I was able to go through something like this at such a young, ripe age and it makes me feel stronger having overcome something like that. I loved this, I literally felt like you were telling my story. Thank you so much, girl, keep at it!

  7. I can beat your humiliation – having your mother lift you on your side to slide a bedpan under you at 12 and then again at 15. Oy, that’s awkward. I had two hip surgeries in my teens (I’ve got metal bling, too, gurl!), and the scar areas have finally started “feeling” again (they were numb for the last 15+ years)! I’m so used to them now – I’ve had scars longer than I haven’t had scars. I do have the advantage of my scars being easily hidden, obviously, but I don’t mind them being seen when I wear a swimsuit. I think, like you, that going through the experience and having to deal with the stares and questions does force you to swim and become stronger. My history and my scars are a part of me.

  8. i scraped my knee pretty badly last summer (though of course not compared to spinal surgery) and it left a yummy scar on my knee that makes it LOOK like i had knee surgery. like an idiot, i just tripped over a metal fence post. funny part of the story is that it was a few months before my sisters wedding in which i was maid of honor and my mom freaked out that it would be visible, so it was a joke that my mom thought the scar would “ruin the wedding” while i was like HELL YEAH let it show! let that stranger from the other side of the family think i got in a knife fight! ;-P

  9. I had a car accident with my parents when I was 20 months old, and the results were a scar on the head (which now occupies only the forehead) and a broken leg. Not much of a problem, but the exact point where my leg broke was where all the cartilage was contained. Beacuse of that, my thig-bone couldn’t ever grow on its own. I had to be operated twice to stretch the bone by a brace, and both of the times I stood it for a year or so. The first time I was 5 or 6, so as an iper-active kid who only wants to play, it never stopped me: I swam, I ran, I played as if nothing was. But the second time I was 14. I started high-school as the wheel-chaired girl, that one with all that iron in a leg, and it was not very easy. When my brace was removed, I had to use crutches for a while and I could not bend my knee. I had to be operated two other times because the scars “tangled” my muscles and kept me from bending the leg. Now everything’s all right, I can’t bend my leg completely but at least I can do almost anything normally. The only problem I have by now are my scars. A long, lumpy thing covers the outside of my thigh. I hope someday I’ll learn to accept it, but by now I’m always worried because I feel people’s looks like needles on it. It took me some time to show it easily to my boyfriend, and when summer comes I try to avoid shorts and skirts with people I don’t know until the heat beats the shame. Probably surgery can’t do nothing to it, and instead of helping me accept it, it makes me hate my scar even more. I thank you for sharing your story, because writing mine I understood how hard it is to put it down in words, even if it made me feel a little more light-hearted about it. I apologize because of my english if it’s not very correct, and still sincerely thank you.

  10. This is so weird – it is like you wrote my whole life story into this.. (Except for the fact that I’m not able to bend with my back). I always felt so alone with this, but your text gives me strength to love my scar and my life even if I look like some kind of roboter :D. I just want to say thank you for this inspiring text! Just thank you!

  11. I teared up reading this. I had my scoliosis surgery last spring, and it was the most terrifying and painful thing I’ve ever been through. My surgery went well, but it took me a long time to recover, both physically and mentally. Today, I can look back and realise how strong I was to get through it. And I absolutely love my scar.

    Thank you for writing this.

  12. it looks like my spine! but I’m not operating, i’m to scared!
    But yeah, I have a lot of issues , self image issues because of my spine… :( … and pain…

    xoxo

  13. The title alone teared me up.

    I’ve struggled with my scars for a very long time. I started scratching my legs about 10 years ago, and eventually it became something I did when I was stressed out or upset. Other times it’d just be terribly itchy skin. For a while now I’ve been more mindful of it, and it doesn’t happen as frequently as it used to. But throughout all these years my legs have been covered in scars, and I would dread wearing anything that would show my legs. The thought of going to the beach would make me anxious. Last year I started wearing more dresses during the summer, and while I do get self-conscious at times, I feel more at peace with them. It is really okay that I have marks, and that my legs aren’t blemish free. I hope that they will heal with time, but my legs have gotten so much for me, that it’s okay if they need time. For now I can own up to them, and let my legs breathe.

  14. I love my scar! Its a melanoma scar. thats about 6 inches long. It reminds me to be thankful that I’m still alive and to wear my sunscreen.

  15. I have my moments with my scar. It currently has my grandma’s name with her birth and death date around it cause she took care of me after my surgery. I was 9 turning 10 when I had my surgery. I just celebrated my 19th anniversary. It is nice to know there are others out there. Thanks for this story :)

  16. I feel the same way about my scar! I love backless tops and dresses because my scar isn’t something I feel I need to hide. It’s about the same length as yours, from what you wrote. I had my fusion the summer before I started high school and it’s coming up on my fourth anniversary now.