Do Scars Always Make Us Stronger?

How the cliché causes us to miss important discoveries.

Posted Jan 18, 2017

We’ve heard the cliché: Our scars make us stronger. Many believe it. But clinging to this convenient trope can at best be shortsighted and at worst cause harm to those who bear physical scars—whether ourselves or those we care about. When we step into the cliché that insists on the strength scars create, or foist it on others, we miss important discoveries.

What if we aren’t prideful about our scars? What if we sometimes wish our scars weren’t visible? What if they don’t give us a sense of strength but cause us angst? How powerful can it be if we despise or are disgusted by parts of our bodies? Visible scars provide others a window into our lives, but what if we do not wish for others to peer through? What if our scars remind us of terrible times or places we’ve been, experiences we’re never quite able to leave behind because we can see them with just a glance?

In gathering scar stories over the past several years for an anthology I edited, I discovered that—like most things in life—there’s a wide range of feelings and fascinating nuances that reveal the bromide “our scars make us stronger” as only one among a vast number of ways to feel about scars.

Perhaps my greatest revelation regarding scar stories—my own included—is that it is not the severity or location of the scar that has the greatest potential to shape its bearer. The strongest influences on our understanding of the scar’s role in our lives are the narratives we tell ourselves and the narratives we share with others. These are not always the same stories.  

Consider this example: For those who have surgical scars from procedures that occurred while they were under anesthesia, or those who have endured traumas when they were not conscious, scars may be disturbing reminders that our physical bodies have endured circumstances our minds can’t recall. Although the experience itself is not an accessible memory, our bodies serve up physical evidence of those obscured or forgotten interludes. To make sense of the situation (which may be disturbing or even frightening), we need to create a cohesive narrative to fill that lapse in time or memory. Telling a person in the midst of this process that her scars are making her stronger suggests she skip ahead in the narrative arc of trauma, that she reach a conclusion not arrived at organically, that she tack on a prescribed ending before the plot has unfolded.

James Peter Warbasse/Flickr/CC
Source: James Peter Warbasse/Flickr/CC

Ultimately, if the process of grappling with our scars shapes how we feel about them, it makes sense not to arrest this essential exploration by supplying a cliché, but to encourage each bearer to thoughtfully consider what her scars mean to her.

Perhaps we’ve seen similar considerations in the evolution of the iconic pink breast cancer ribbon—first, it was generally embraced as a suitable symbol, then it became more widely recognized that breast cancer is “not just a pink ribbon,” and then what followed was the desire to explore the individual stories behind those pink ribbons.

Similarly, the scar cliché of strength attempts to provide a distillation of what scars mean for everyone, period. A universally applicable, ready answer. Sometimes the danger of having an answer is that you fail to ask questions. Asking questions can be more important than having answers because the questions we might pose and the answers we might suggest are dictated by the wide array of things that make us unique individuals—our genes, our experiences, our appearance, and the stories that we tell ourselves and others about who we are. 

But clichés exist for a reason. So what about our scars really makes us stronger? Are the scars supposed to be physical reminders that we have mustered the strength to get through tough times? Perhaps our strength does not emanate from the actual marks on our bodies, but from the work we do in figuring out how to tell the stories of those marks. The scars are simply emblems of whatever narrative we attach to them. Humans have the potential to overcome so much damage, even damage we’ve done to ourselves. We are (or at least can be) resilient but that resilience relies so heavily on whether we construct defeating narratives or empowering ones. If a cliché narrative isn’t jiving with reality, we may lose an opportunity for real, sustaining strength.

A thought: Before you tell yourself or someone else “our scars make us stronger,” explore the story behind the scar and encourage others to do the same. See what you and those you care about can unearth. What is revealed beyond the cliché is likely much more rich and rewarding. 

For more scar stories and what they mean in others’ lives, pick up a copy of my book, Scars: An Anthology. 

About the Author

Erin Wood is a writer and editor in Little Rock Arkansas. She is editor of Scars: An Anthology, which assembles the work of nearly forty contributors on physical scars.