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Scars are Beautiful, not a “Mark of Shame”

Last week, the popular BBC 2 quiz show, Only Connect, perpetuated a stigma we are all too familiar with: that scars are a shameful stain on our bodies. 

During the ‘Connecting Wall’ round of the game, the words “scars”, “stain”, “blot” and “stigma” were listed under the category name “marks of shame”. This language is an unacceptable display of the enduring stigma attached to scars and visible differences. 

In recent years, we have seen an increased awareness of the impact of body shaming, recognising that its long shadow inflicts widespread harm on people’s self-esteem and mental health. However, we are a long way from eradicating its influence completely, which this latest TV mishap demonstrates. 

I have lived with extensive scarring since the age of 14 because of a condition called localized scleroderma which causes widespread scarring on my torso and breasts. It destroyed my confidence as a teenager and I refused to look in the mirror without clothes on for years. 

The overwhelming shame meant that I covered myself up all year round, no matter how hot it got, and I wasted hundreds of pounds on scar-removing solutions to eradicate this “stain” on my body. 

Convinced that these scars were a “mark of shame”, I subjected myself to years of mental torture, believing that they somehow lowered my worth as a person. Other people’s reactions only reinforced this belief. 

The first time I plucked up the courage to wear a bikini–on holiday where I knew no one except my family–countless strangers stared, pointed, commented, and sniggered. I retreated to my towel, wrapped it around my scars, and swore that I would never wear a bikini again. 

As a young adult, midway through a sexual encounter, a man commented on their ugliness. It took nearly a decade to regrow that particular part of my self-esteem.

Even doctors helped perpetuate the belief that my scars are a source of shame. When I explained the impact the scars were having on my mental wellbeing, one doctor encouraged me to invest in scar-removal treatments to “get rid of the problem”. 

With my scars making their first appearance at aged 14–and changing every year thanks to the progressive nature of my condition–I lost nearly a decade of my life to this cycle of shame. The societal stigma cemented the conviction that scars were a “blot” on my existence. 

So, seeing shows like Only Connect feed this stigma with mindless word association is exhausting. I have invested years of my life into reframing my scars as something beautiful.

My constellation of marks is now well-loved and taken care of but there are countless people out there living with visible differences and still struggling to find self-love. 

To many, those few minutes of prime time for this snafu probably seem innocuous. What is the harm when it’s just words, right? The truth is, the harm is impossible to quantify in its entirety but I assure you, it’s significant. 

On a daily basis, all of us are bombarded with modelesque beauties on screen and on billboards with flawless skin and scar-free bodies, silently telling us that our skin, with all its pores and scars, is somehow wrong for existing.

Anything outside of these standards is viewed as less than. For people with visible differences, these standards hit even harder. 

Our beauty–yes, we are beautiful folks–is pushed into the shadows and stigmatized as something “other” and wrong.

We have made huge strides toward challenging beauty standards and making more people feel seen with diverse beauty campaigns and social media challenges but, clearly, the fight is far from over. 

When shows like Only Connect callously reinforce the stigma attached to being scarred, we take massive steps backwards. These subtle associations stick in people’s minds and have real world effects. 

We all need to work together to strip away the shame associated with scars and teach people that their scars are things of beauty, not an object of embarrassment. Platforms like the BBC–the host of this mistake–must play a key role in eradicating these harmful associations. 

The UK’s leading charity for people with visible differences, Changing Faces, has written to the BBC to ask for an apology and to invite their creative teams to meet to learn how to better represent those with visible differences. 

“We were disappointed and saddened to see, in 2022, the use of such harmful language being used on a show aired by the BBC,” said chief executive Heather Blake.

“Many people may acquire a scar in their lifetime – it could be following an accident or trauma, cancer surgery or even as a victim of a crime. There is absolutely nothing shameful about having a scar. What is a shame is that as a society we are still perpetuating the myth that there is something wrong or problematic with visible differences like scars.”

Campaigners also shared their shock and called for an apology. 

“I am a burns survivor, and my scars are nothing to be ashamed of,” said Changing Faces ambassador, Tulsi Vagjiani.

“Words matter and positive representation matters, otherwise this outdated trope that scars and marks make someone inherently ‘bad’, ‘evil’ or ‘shameful’ will continue. We need organisations like the BBC to step up, apologise, own this mistake and commit to ending the use of language like that which we saw in Only Connect.”

Supporters have also taken to social media to share their thoughts under the #NoShame and I hope we can all rally behind the campaign to push for a future where no scar is associated with shame. 

While not her responsibility, the host of Only Connect, Victoria Coren Mitchell, has demonstrated her empathy for the impact this segment has had on the visibly different community by apologising on Twitter. It’s a step in the right direction but more needs to be done to ensure that this does not happen again. 

Because, no matter how hard stigma tries to win the battle, people with visible differences and scars are a beautiful part of our world.

We are not something to be tucked away and ignored, we are a mighty and important part of our world’s wondrous diversity.  

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