I dream of the day where instead of feeling defensive, I let down my guard and allow myself to feel beautiful in my own skin. Most days I can manage to accept the skin am in. I don’t feel ugly, but I also do not feel beautiful. Like many people who have a history of self-harm, I feel damaged, and fight internally with a desire to hide from the world.
Self-acceptance is easier in the winter where the scars that betray my past struggle are conveniently hidden by layers of cloth. Those days I don’t have to worry about how strangers perceive me, the assumptions they will make and the judgements about my character that will spring from them. People I meet in the winter do not immediately know that I live with mental illness. They get to know me for my more defining qualities: my kindness, my love of learning, and my heart for children before they learn that over ten years ago I struggled with a mental illness. Winter is my favorite season to meet people.
But now it is summer, and I am facing my insecurities all over again. I refuse to swelter in long sleeves for choices I made as a teenager, and I refuse to force my children to hide inside. We don our t-shirts and shorts, and venture out to parks and pools. My arms are exposed which means everyone sees. Everyone knows that I used to cut myself. In a world that judges first by appearances, the very first thing people learn about me is that I went through a time of great emotional instability, and they learn that before they get any of the context of my story. So, when I take my children to the park or the pool I can’t help but fear that I will be rejected, seen as a liability, and that my children will feel that rejection too.
My scars aren’t subtle scars either, they are angry and desperate, born out of an incredibly angry and desperate season in my life with mental illness. These scars on my arms come from a time before I had the insight to recognize the downward spiral, or the capacity to adequately verbalize the danger I was to myself. Back then I was trying to get help and I was failing. Today the scars remain as reminders of that dark place, and as evidence that I survived.
Sometimes when I see people looking at my arms I just want them to know the girl that I was so that they could have compassion for her. Because I no longer blame the girl that I was all those years ago for the choices she made to endure the relentless pain she lived in. It would take a cold-hearted person to hear the whole story and continue to point a condemning finger. Context is everything, but the transparency required to share my story is not something I give to casually. It is not for the other moms I meet informally at the pool, not for all my classmates, or all my friends at church.
How then can I feel beautiful when I know that the world is making judgements about me without knowing the whole story? I have thought about this a lot, and I have concluded that I must choose to love myself. I must practice self-compassion even when I know that my scars may offend people who do not understand. I must choose to believe that my story is one of hope and beauty, so that I can be there to support people who are currently struggling, or who still find themselves filled with shame years after the fact because of stigma.
Today if you relate to the struggle to feel beautiful in your skin because it is scarred, then I would ask you to exercise self-compassion. You are still beautiful, still worthy of a life free from being socially stigmatized. Let your choice of self-acceptance inform the culture that mental illness is not something to hide from or be ashamed of, but something to bring into the light and receive help for.
Today if you are unable to relate to what it is like to live with scars, then I would ask that you to show compassion to the next person you see who does have self-inflicted scars. Take a moment to recognize how vulnerable she must feel with her past exposed to the whole world and how little you know of the pain that led her to the choice to hurt herself. You don’t need to bring it up. She probably doesn’t want you too. Just smile and engage her in conversation if the setting is appropriate. Show her by your actions that there are people in this world who want to know who she really is.