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.