“Take care of yourself”. Those words from a stranger on the tube in south west London always give me hope that not all humans are going to blatantly look me up and down, trying to work out if I’m crazy and should be avoided. The woman had glanced at the scars on my arms for a split second before finding my eyes and seeing the discomfort glaring back at her. She shared a moment of sympathy with me through a warm smile and kind words before exiting the carriage, leaving an impression that three years later I still find myself thinking about.
With British Summer Time upon us, most of us hope we’ll get to wear our best summer clothes, the ones we tuck away for the majority of the year and bring out only for a few days of mild sunshine. For some of us though, it brings anxiety. No one wants to be dripping in sweat, layered up to cover the parts of their skin they’d rather not talk about. The eyes of curious strangers, whispers and occasional outbursts of anger (yes, it happens) make our skin the elephant in the room, one we so often want to hide.
Unless you have some sort of visible difference on your skin, you might think you can’t relate because, why would you? The media do our so-called “imperfections” an injustice straight away simply by labelling them imperfections. Magazines laced with smoothly skinned models touched up with Photoshop. Social media flooded with filters that remove most of our facial features giving us a “perfect” complexion.
“Could you cover that, it’s disturbing” is my personal favourite. When it was said to me I felt the anger leave the speaker’s mouth and I swallowed it so hard I thought I was going to vomit my vital organs. I wondered how the woman thought I was going to cover my arms in the middle of a supermarket wearing nothing but a short-sleeved dress. I rolled my eyes and told her I didn’t have to cover something I’m not ashamed of and walked away.
And this isn’t just about what are commonly thought of as scars. A friend of mine suffers from severe psoriasis and repeatedly has to tell people “it’s not contagious” after horrified faces make her wish she’d stayed at home.
You might be reading this wondering how I’ve come across such people when the rules of any public situation are to stare at your phone and strenuously avoid eye contact. But those of us with scars see a side to society that isn’t always pretty. These days I respond by asking staring people if they’d like to take a picture for further inspection. Most of the time they’re embarrassed they’ve been caught, but I just smile at them and ask them to be a little more discreet. After all who wants to feel like they’re in a zoo on their morning commute?
The way scars are described, “extreme” for example, doesn’t give the stories behind them the recognition they deserve. Our scars show what we have survived. My nan’s hip replacement means she can walk. The faded ones that still shine on our knees from falling off our bikes as children remind us of simpler times. The ones from caesarian sections tell us how someone carried a whole person in their body for nine months. Mine remind me I won the fight with my mind. They all have their own little story behind them and I think that’s beautiful. But they’re our stories and sometimes we don’t want them to be the centre of attention.
Different skin stories receive different attention, and different responses. Self-harm scars are often met with awkward stares. Children ask me what happened and I wonder if I’ll have to bring out the infamous “a cat scratched me” explanation, giving cats everywhere a bad name. Then there are those with extravagant birthmarks, who tell dramatic stories about how they perished in a previous life, bringing their beautiful markings with them into the next. Or those who sustained burns like author and presenter, Katie Piper, who is quite possibly the most inspiring person I’ve met, who took her story and set up a foundation with the vision of “making it easier to live with burns & scars”.
In an attempt to change the way we see skin, and in particular skin that carries marks, photographer Sophie Mayanne has created the “Behind the Scars” project. Her lens captures burns, scars, skin conditions and everything in between, all featured in an Instagram gallery incorporating each subject’s story in both photographs and words.
In an interview with i-D she provides an insight into her vision, explaining that “hopefully the more imagery that exists challenging beauty ideals, the more of a shift we will see.” With a large following and positive comments, it seems she’s making progress.
So remember that someone may be giving their skin its first daunting public outing this year. Perhaps as summer arrives, those with scars, birthmarks, stretch marks, vitiligo, or whatever marks them, can go out baring their unique stories without feeling like the world has all eyes on them.
Ivy is a singer/songwriter studying at BIMM London.
She writes poetry and campaigns for mental health with various charities and talks about her experiences in the media and blogs.