Burn scars, perception, beauty

In 2001 I met a burn survivor who allowed me to photograph her. She told me that she wanted to be photographed so that people could stare at her without feeling embarrassed. It was such an extraordinary experience that a few months later I flew to a burn conference and set up a makeshift studio in a hotel room, and asked people to let me know if they would like their portraits made. I was astonished at how many people did. What I learned from this extraordinary experience was that every burn survivor has a tale of courage to tell, and that the burns have their own eerie beauty. I also learned that after a few hours it becomes very difficult to see the burns anymore. When I returned and developed the photographs, I had to keep asking my wife “does this person look burned to you?”, because they all looked quite normal to me. My only regret is that I didn’t continue with this project longer than I did, but life intervened.

I love love love the possibility of not being able to tell who is scarred and who isn’t. Eye of the beholder.

Scars, gray hair, “real” beauty

A photo: where I’ve been, by dayzoid on Flickr. A self-portrait I think.

I like this scar— I like looking at most scars, and I work on looking at the rest. But the photo itself seems like the kind of thing that gets referred to as “real” beauty in skincare advertising. An older woman, but with flattering makeup and lighting. Gray hair, but stylish and even. Not a bone rack, but posed to look smooth and curvy, never lumpy or saggy or folded. Making some kind of cute and peaceful facial expression. Definitely feminine, but not sexual (not coincidentally, usually looking freshly washed and clean). It’s a very contrived and limited type of “real.” Looking again, this photo is not as extreme as all that, but the demure smile and the smooth white hair reminded me.

I don’t get why more people don’t rant about how patronizing it is to use “real” as a euphemism for old or fat. I can’t decide if it is better or worse than the older concepts of “imperfect beauty” or “inner beauty.” There are probably more phrases in body image activism that drive me bonkers. The whole focus seems off to me— I don’t think it helps anyone to offer these alternate, consolation prize types of beauty, more ways to win at being beautiful. That doesn’t do anything to get away from ranking people or competing. I really think the focus should be on learning to see more kinds of beauty, to be a better beholder.

Scar pride

{Flickr photo}

At first I was just looking for a few photos of people’s scars, having been reminded by Erin’s copy of the Learning to Love You More book. But, in typical internetto fashion, now I am intrigued by the patterns that show up when you look at a mass of public scar photos. There are some popular subjects— self-harm exhibitionism and processing, scars from pregnancy and cesarians (not so much finding episiotomy scar pics), voyeurism with optional processing (especially around major burn scars, and ritualized scarification by some African cultures), manifestos and statements about beauty and beautiful scars, and more general scar pride and storytelling. I find this last one the least complicated, the easiest to post photos without major accompanying comments. (In this one I’m only spotting basics, about how it’s easier to be proud of pretty much anything when you are cute and posing, but I still like how that calculator watch makes her look tough.)