Marks of Mystery

Discusses why people have scars. Usual reaction to scars; Theorists' explanations for severe scarring; Scars and sex.

By Elizabeth Austin, published July 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

People respond to scars with fear, revulsion--andfascination. Why do we develop scars, and why are we so captivated by them?

Sharon Stone has a scar on her neck.

Most moviegoers probably haven't even noticed it, but a group of hardcore fans find the faint pink blemish so fascinating they have created a Web site dedicated to "the mystery and intrigue surrounding the scar on Sharon Stone's neck." Visitors to the site (http://people. we. mediaone.net/bava/sharon/index.html) are invited to share their theories about the scar's origin; some call it the aftermath of "routine head transplant surgery," while others blame a "tragic limbo accident." Strikingly, however, the vast majority of their theories revolve around sex.

Why are these people so captivated by a five-inch streak on an actor's neck? And why are they so intent on bandaging an esoteric explanation onto what is, in fact, merely the souvenir of a childhood horseback riding accident? The answer is simple: on a very basic level, we find ourselves riveted by scars and the terrifying or titillating stories they tell. "Scars seem to be fascinating," says Nichola Rumsey, Ph.D., co-editor of Visibly Different: Coping with Disfigurement (Butterworth-Heinemann Medical, 1997). "People respond to them with a bit of fear, a bit of revulsion and a bit of excitement."

Why Do We Have Scars?

Our visceral response to scars reaches back through millions of years of human evolution. For reasons no one quite understands, humans develop bigger, thicker scars than any other animals. "Human wound healing appears to have been optimized for quick healing in dirty conditions," says biologist Mark W. J. Ferguson, Ph.D., a scar researcher at the University of Manchester.

The good news is that when we're cut or burned, our immune systems immediately go into overdrive to close and heal the wound, which may be why humans tend to live so much longer than other mammals. But the bad news is that our swift, strong inflammation response sets us up for nasty scars. Surgeon N. Scott Adzick, M.D., who studies scarring at the Center for Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment at the Children's Institute for Surgical Science in Philadelphia, puts it this way: "If you're a caveman or cave-woman running around, and you get bitten by a saber-toothed tiger, it makes sense to patch that wound together as quickly as possible in order to survive, as opposed to devoting the body's energy and resources to healing perfectly"

However, other theorists have offered some different--and intriguing--explanations of human's severe scarfing. One theory suggests that human scarring evolved alongside human intelligence. As we started relying on our brains instead of our instincts to get us out of risky situations, scars developed to act as constant reminders of our previous mistakes. If, for example, some caveman tried to snag a juicy mastodon chop from the jaws of his cavedog, the scarred bite marks on his forearm would warn him not to try it again.

Another hypothesis suggests that scars serve as sexual attractors; when a cavewoman was courted by a heavily scarred caveman, she got the message that he was brave, bold and had a high-functioning immune system. (Of course, if the scar-as-memory-aid theory holds true, those scars also meant he was a bit slow on the uptake.)

Scars and Sex

To most middle-class Americans, the idea of scars as sexual lures seems bizarre. We think of scars as disfigurements, and try to hide them from view or even remove them completely Yet our seemingly instinctive recoil is a fairly new and geographically limited phenomenon. Even today, many African tribal cultures still use "body art"--tattooing, branding, piercing and intentional scarring--to proclaim their ancient lineage, display their bravery and attract potential mates.

Women of the southeast Nuba, for example, traditionally received a set of body scars that chronicled their sexual history. When a young girl began to develop breasts, she got her first set of scars; those were followed by a second set marking her first menstruation, then by an elaborate final set incised after she weaned her first child. The Tiv, in Nigeria, have a highly developed esthetic of facial and body scarring, used extensively by both men and women to bring out each individual's most attractive features.

Psychologist Devendra Singh, Ph.D., at the University of Texas, sees a direct connection between the prevalence of scarring among African tribal groups and the continent's high rates of infectious disease. In general, he says, the more disease-ridden a community, the more likely its members--especially its women--will use scarring to show off their healthy immune systems and attract mates. "We found very systematic relationships," he says. "If you live in a society where pathogens are high, female-female competition is also very high." By decorating the breast and belly, particularly the navel, he notes, "you're advertising your femaleness."

In fact, he adds, anthropologists report that among some groups, women with scarred bellies are considered more sexually demanding--and therefore more likely to conceive. A decorated belly also draws attention to a woman's waist-to-hip ratio, which signals youthfulness and potential fertility Similarly, males scar the face, shoulders and arms to point up their strength and sexual maturity The sexual content of the scars can be explicit; one Yoruba scarification design for the upper thigh is called "finish at the vagina."

The Western world's apparent immunity to such sexually charged scarring is historically quite recent, insists former anthropology student Raven Rowanchilde, author of the article "Male Genital Modification: A Sexual Selection Interpretation," published in the journal Human Nature in 1996. "Westerners are suffering from the smoke damage of Platonic ideals," she says. It was only after Plato embraced the beauty of the idealized, natural human form that the Western world rejected such ancient forms of adornment.

"We went from tribal groups using these marks to symbolize lineage and status to having this pure, untouched body," says Rowanchilde, who now runs a body design studio in Toronto. "The mark of civilization became no marks at all." Judeo-Christian tradition embraced the unmarked body to distinguish itself from surrounding pagans. Leviticus clearly warns: "They shall not ...make any cuttings in their flesh."

Yet scars can still carry a potent sexual message for Westerners. At the beginning of this century, upper-class Austrian men created a cult of the dueling scar, says historian Kevin McAleer, Ph.D., author of Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siecle Germany (Princeton University Press, 1997). "The renommier schrniss, or bragging scar, was a mark of social status," McAleer notes. "It indicated you had been to university," where dueling societies were critical to social life.

These duelists subscribed to an ethos of exaggerated masculinity, in which skilled swordplay and fleetness of foot were less important than stolid fearlessness. Using saber-type weapons, the antagonists--wearing body padding and iron goggles--faced each other for dozens of brief rounds, with each man defending against five whacking strokes and then taking five cuts of his own. "This wasn't footwork, thrust and parry," McAleer says. "It was a mechanical robotic sort of motion," which the opponent would try to fend off until his endurance failed.

"The idea was to stand your man and show courage--not to inflict a wound, but to be wounded," he says. "That's the very strange part of it--the true winner was he who walked away with a nice juicy scar, to show that he'd stood the test. The point was not to get the other guy, but to show that you could take it. You'd get these guys who looked like they'd walked into a propeller. It was pretty gnarly, but the guys were damn proud to look that way."

Women responded ardently to these proudly displayed scars, which the combatants often soaked with beer or stuffed with horsehair, to increase their size and prominence. "The scars showed you had courage and education, and were good husband material," McAleer says. "Anyway, a lot of these kids were rather good-looking, and you didn't have to ruin your whole face in dueling. The scars usually accumulated on the left side of the face, so from the right profile, he still looked good. And even if it was an ugly, knotted scar, women were attracted by everything it implied, and the pride with which the wearer bore it." The cult of the dueling scar has faded, but hasn't entirely disappeared; Professor Ferguson, whose research focuses on scarless healing, claims he was once contacted by an Austrian who actually wanted his modest dueling scar made bigger.

Beautiful But Flawed

Although Americans have never made a cult of scar worship, we tend to find some scars strangely fascinating, particularly if they add character to an otherwise conventionally attractive face. In 1986, Maria Hanson was just one of a thousand pretty models trying to make their fortune in New York City. Then her landlord, angry when she spurned his sexual advances, hired two thugs who used a razor blade to slice her face apart. The attack made headlines--and, paradoxically, the fine network of scars it left on her face briefly made Hanson a media star.

"I imagine it has to do with the background level of facial attractiveness," Rumsey speculates. "If someone is pretty good-looking and they have a scar, I think the unconscious assumption would be that they got scarred in a way that wasn't their fault, because they were terribly brave. I think there's something about those with extreme levels of beauty that can make other people stereotype them as fairly shallow. Maybe a scar makes them a bit more human and desirable."

A scar on an otherwise flawless face fills us with intense curiosity; we long to hear the sexy or sad story behind it, and we feel slightly disappointed if the story is dull. One perfect example is a scene in the 1988 movie Working Girl, in which actress Melanie Griffith asks Harrison Ford about the (real) scar on his chiseled chin. "Some guy pulled a knife in Detroit," he boasts, then admits the truth: "I was 19 and I thought it'd be cool to have a pierced ear. My girlfriend stuck the needle through and I heard this pop and fainted and hit my chin on the toilet." (According to the many Web pages celebrating Ford's scar, the real story is even more mundane: he hit his chin during a minor traffic accident.)

Scars Intentional And Accidental

The story behind the scar seems to make all the difference in our response to it. "That's our initial response, 'What happened to you?'" Rumsey says. Even in cultures that prize ritual scarification, there a sharp distinction between nature and culture. Intentional scars are considered beautiful, while random or accidental scars are ugly. To redeem an ugly scar, therefore, the wounded person must create a scenario that tells the story of the scar in an attractive and compelling light.

The ultimate illustration of this desire can be found in the self-portraits of painter Frida Kahlo. As a young woman, Kahlo's back and legs were scarred in a streetcar accident. In her paintings, she often portrayed herself as horribly mutilated, with gore dripping from her many wounds; one painting shows her cut open down the front.

"The scars in her paintings are mostly invented," says Hayden Herrera, a Kahlo biographer. "I think she painted them to force the viewer to respond to her predicament. If her paintings were mawkish, we'd hate them. But because she keeps her face this mask of reserve, and just shows her emotions through the scars and wounds, the scars are sort of noble, in some funny way, rather than self-pitying. She painted herself scarred so she could deal with it. Her paintings don't look like, `Oh, help, help, I'm hurting.' They're somebody saying, `This is what's happening to me. This is the way it is. I'm not going to hide it.' These paintings are so beautiful; they're incredibly distant and repressed, yet at the same time jumping with emotion. Those paintings are like a ribbon around a bomb."

Self-Mutilation

The impulse that drove Kahlo to paint imaginary scars on her body is mirrored in patients who inflict real scars on themselves. "When I look at self-mutilation, I try to understand the meaning behind this supposedly senseless act," says psychiatrist Armando R. Favazza, M.D., author of Bodies Under Siege: Self-Mutilation and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). For some patients, self-mutilation is a symptom of an underlying psychological problem; patients with borderline personality disorder, for example, often cut or burn themselves in an effort to relieve their overwhelming psychic pain. For other patients, Favazza says, self-mutilation is their primary psychological problem. "It usually starts in early adolescence and goes on for about 15 years, interspersed with periods of eating disorders and substance abuse," he says. "Some people call them multi-impulsive patients."

To outsiders, self-multilation seems frightening and bizarre. But to the patients themselves, self-inflicted pain makes great internal sense. "It allows for fairly rapid, but short-term, relief from a lot of pathological symptoms," Favazza says. "The major one is intense, intense anxiety; when patients cut, it's like popping a balloon."

Self-mutilation can have great symbolic meaning for patients, as well. "It ties in with cultural ideas of bodily healing, religious salvation and establishment of order," Favazza explains. "When you look at cultural rituals that involve mutilation, the scars are signs of distinction." Similarly, patients can use their wounds and scars to create deeply personal semiotics. "I had one patient who was involved in an old-fashioned Oedipal-type situation, with her Dad coming on to her," Favazza recalls. "She was just cutting and cutting and cutting. She would create the symbol on her body; the gaping wound reminded her of a vagina, the vagina Daddy wanted. Then she'd go to the emergency room and solve the problem by having it sewn shut. Afterward, she'd go home and put baby powder and bandages on the wound. The scar was essentially the baby"

For many patients with self-inflicted wounds, the scars tell the story of their illness and their attempts to heal themselves. "For patients in the middle of the syndrome, the scars are important," Favazza notes. "Special scars have special meanings. I look at every scar as a sign of the battle the patient has waged. Scar tissue is a sign that the patient has won, and is still alive."

Body Modification

The symbolism of scars reaches so deeply beneath the skin that increasing numbers of American youth are using intentional scarring--called body modification--to chronicle their emotional lives. "They say it's a rite of passage, an initiation into greater mysteries, an opening for beneficial spirits or a healing of the wounded psyche," says Favazza. He cites women who get body piercings after being raped. "By piercing themselves, they're reclaiming their bodies. It gives them a sense of control."

Lisa Romanienko, a sociology doctoral student at Louisiana State University, believes the mostly youthful members of the body modification movement are expressing their alienation from Western civilization, and use their scars, tattoos, brands and piercings as public signs of their disgust and defiance. These "self-symbolizers," as she calls them, actually enhance their self-esteem by offending and repulsing the bourgeois majority "It's an alternative to political expression, in light of the decline of other organizations to express political views among the Left," Romanienko says. "Anyone can see why kids would be doing this. It's an intentional symbolic message."

Many young body modifiers maintain they're trying to connect themselves to humanity's tribal history, now lost in American civilization. "They see themselves as getting back to some kind of essentialism," says Daniel Wojcik, Ph.D., an associate professor of folklore at the University of Oregon and author of Punk and Neo-Tribal Body Art (University Press of Mississippi, 1995). "They learn about scarring practices in another culture, and then have themselves scarred as a rite of passage." Some, as Romanienko suggests, are primarily motivated by the shock value of their flashy scars. But many neotribalists are more secretive about their body adornments, scarring themselves for personal reasons, not political ones.

"The meanings are very diverse," Wojcik says. "It's dangerous, it's sexy. For some it's an esthetic impulse. Others attribute some transcendent significance to the act, and find some kind of altered state of consciousness that's probably related to the pain involved and the endorphin rush that follows it. It certainly seems to be profoundly meaningful for them." For his book, Wojcik interviewed one unemployed Seattle youth named Perry Farrell, who later went on to fame in the rock bands Jane's Addiction and Porno for Pyros. Farrell's scars and piercings were inspired by photographs he saw in National Geographic. For Farrell, the scars were part of a self-made coming-of-age rite. "He told me, 'I need to become a man,'" Wojcik says. "He told me how painful it was, and how he felt transformed afterward."

The trouble is, it's hard to tell where fashionable body modification ends and pathological self-mutilation begins, especially when an individual turns to intentional wounding to mark an emotionally charged life event. "If you've suffered some kind of abuse, this is a way to acknowledge that in some kind of physical way," Wojcik observes. "Then it becomes a ritual, meaningful event. You're responding to a spiritual crisis, and you fortify yourself through these ancient forms of body modification." However, one person's ritual cleansing is another person's Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

To Favazza, the distinction is the scar's meaning to its owner--its story. "I define self-mutilation as something that derives from individual psychopathology, the product of loss of control," he says. "You can make a case that when you're symbolically reenacting what was done to you, you're controlling it."

Living with Scars

For the millions of Americans with scars left by accident or surgery, it might seem there's no debate about their meaning or symbolism--only the problem of trying to adjust to a highly visible, permanent and often disfiguring mark. However, Rumsey has found that even with unintended scars, their context plays a critical part in the emotional response of both bearer and viewer. "People who have a story find it much easier to cope," Rumsey says. "We often hear about people who get injured in war, or while saving somebody They do really well, and come out confident enough to deal with it, if it's a story they can happily tell that people want to know."

In fact, Rumsey's research indicates that psychological factors are the best predictors of a patient's response to a new scar. "You can't predict the effect of scarring from the size or type of disfigurement," she declares. "Some people get very upset about very minor marks." Instead, patients' future adjustment depends partly on their previous attitudes about physical appearance. "Prior experience and expectation tends to play a part," Rumsey says.

Some patients' attitudes are deeply affected by media depictions of people with scars. "In movies, the ones who have scars tend to be the baddies," Rumsey notes. That's a particularly important issue for children, who tend to be more vulnerable to such messages. Gender also plays a role; a poll by Rejuveness, marketer of alternative scar remedies, found that 65% of women said they were self-conscious about their scars, compared with 35% of men.

But the key factors seem to be the person's self-esteem and social skills, Rumsey believes. In her research, she's found that when people with scars are friendly, relaxed and outgoing, they can overcome strangers' initial recoil.

Rumsey began her studies by looking at the impact of scars on basic social interactions. At a first encounter, she says, "I found that people stand about a foot farther away if you've got a disfigurement." That simple fact alone has an enormous impact on any social interaction, she says. "If you take a good step backward, it changes the feeling between the two people, so it's less personal and more distant."

She also found that visible scars had an enormous impact on others' basic helping behaviors. In one study, she and her colleagues posed as market researchers, asking consumers to fill out a questionnaire. Not surprisingly, they found consumers were initially most likely to cooperate with attractive researchers. When the researchers wore artificial scars, they found that significantly fewer people approached them--but those who did offered more help than those who approached unmarked people. "We found that if you could get over that initial approach, people would compensate quite strongly for it."

The researchers then started looking at the behavior of disfigured people themselves. Many scarred patients felt self-conscious or defensive, which made them unwilling to hurdle that social barrier. Others overcompensated by behaving rather aggressively, "which further throws things out of balance," Rumsey found. Such shyness and belligerence are socially fatal; in one study, she asked her subjects to rate their responses to a pair of researchers, one displaying great social skills and the other visibly ill at ease. When the researchers wore fake scars, they found that people's responses were polarized. "People rated the skilled person very positively, and the non-skilled person very negatively," Rumsey says. "My conclusion was that if you couldn't change the World's inherent biases, you could do something by attacking social skills and trying to put it a bit more under the person's control."

Rumsey's academic work got a real-world endorsement in 1992 when James Partridge launched Changing Faces, an English support organization for people with facial disfigurements. Partridge, who had been severely burned in a car fire when he was 18 years old, had written a book about living with scars (Changing Faces: The Challenge of Facial Disfigurement Phoenix Society, 1992). "There is a point at which my scars became less repellent and more attractive," observes Partridge, now 46. "I don't think it had anything to do with their physical appearance. I think it had a lot to do with the coping skills I developed."

In some ways, Partridge believes, unintended scars can enhance someone's attractiveness by forcing him to develop extraordinary self-assurance. "I doubt very much whether the woman who was attracted to the Austrian duelist was actually attracted by the physical touch of the scars," he says. "It was his stature, his posture, his way of looking her in the eye--his entire physical chemistry, if there is such a term. It's not the scar itself that's attractive, but the person who shines out from behind this scarred face."

The trouble is, many people with facial scars find themselves locked into a social death spiral. When strangers stare or flinch, they respond by withdrawing--which further undermines their social dexterity. So Rumsey began looking for ways to help patients get past those painful first meetings. "You've got to learn how first impressions are formed," Rumsey says. "Let's find techniques of showing them what a witty person you are, what fun you are to be with, and develop a repertoire of things to talk about for a minute or two until that other person settles down. If you can achieve the confidence to depersonalize other people's reactions, it ceases to be a problem."

Rumsey studied the effects of Changing Faces' workshops, which bring together small groups of facially disfigured people to share their experiences and develop some practical strategies for dealing with socially stressful situations. She found that workshop participants did report significant improvement in their ability to handle strangers. However, since all the participants were self-referred, it wasn't clear whether the workshop solutions would work for less-motivated patients. So Rumsey created a pilot project to offer similar interventions to a broader group. "We set up a kind of disfigurement support unit," she says, asking for doctors to refer anyone with a facial scar. That research is still ongoing (slowed, in part, by some medical doctors' resistance to referring patients for psychological counseling).

Right now, the biggest challenge is convincing doctors and patients that the story behind the injury is just as important to the healing process as the wound itself. "Some injuries are much more difficult to carry, because they're much more difficult to explain," Rumsey says. A scar inflicted during the heroic rescue of a child trapped in a burning building inspires admiration, but no one is likely to be too sympathetic when a scarred person admits being injured while driving drunk. Adds Rumsey: "If you can help them to think up a good reason behind the injury, something they feel more confident and happy with, it's so much easier to handle the inevitable questions."

Those questions, however rude, reflect our hard-wired human curiosity about scars. When we see a scarred face, we instinctively find our eyes drawn to it, and our minds drawn to the story that scar may tell; a few insignificant decades of socialization are no match for millions of years of natural selection. "If people look different, they almost become public property," Rumsey notes. "You can't sit on a train or walk down a street without people staring. When you walk around with a very visible disfigurement, you know that everyone wants to ask, `What happened to you?'"

PHOTOS (COLOR): Many African tribal cultures still use "body art"--tattooing, branding, piercing and intentional scarring--to proclaim their ancient lineage, display their bravery and attract potential mates.