From accidents riding recklessly on a skateboard. From a scary encounter with a dog as a child. From a painful knee surgery. From stretch marks.
In my experience, scars are rarely seen in a positive light. They’re associated with trauma, abnormalities and having something wrong with you. Biologically speaking, scars represent an inability of your skin to fully heal, or in other words, weakness. Although they remind us of challenges we have overcome, very rarely are scars welcomed or wanted. At a young age we learn to hide them with clothing or makeup so they don’t tarnish our beauty or perceptions of us.
You could say I’m very experienced when it comes to scars. Scars lay on the parts of my body I try so hard to hide. I have mastered the art of covering them up because whenever they are seen, someone will ask about the painful experiences which created my scars.
In my experience, when we see scars, we ask what they mean. Do they represent a long recovery after an ACL survey? Or a bloody fall onto a stick in the woods? I never even considered that scars might not mean the same thing across the world, that they may stand for something other than a reminder of an injury or mistake.
When I arrived in Ghana, I noticed scars which appeared calculated and precise on faces all around me. However, the way I have been trained to conceptualize scars, believing they signify regret, caused me to fear asking people about the scars displayed to proudly and publicly on their faces. I didn’t want to force people to think about the trauma which may have caused the scars or their physical difference.
In class, we learned facial scars in Ghana are a mark of traditional beauty. But I couldn’t stop wondering.
How can a scar be seen as beautiful?
Could my conceptualization of beauty be that different from the people here that I can’t even understand how something could be beautiful?
Why is it normal to get tattoos, but beauty in scarring a face is difficult to comprehend?
Further research suggests facial scarification has been used in Ghana and West Africa at large for centuries. Also called tribal markings, these scars are used as an expression of identity, to show from which ethnic group, tribe, family or lineage individuals come (Garve, 2017). The markings also can have medicinal purposes and have been used by traditional healers to prevent ailments such as convulsions, measles and pneumonia (Garve, 2017). Finally, some academics discuss the beautification aspect of facial scars which they claim are primarily used in those who do not have tribal markings of their own.
However, now fewer and fewer people receive such markings, largely due to Western influences. I have noticed very few children with such scars, even though tribal markings are given to children at a young age, suggesting the tradition may be going out of practice.
Ironically, so many people in Western societies undergo surgical procedures to perfect their bodies and hide scars. We import raw materials from Ghana such as shea butter, a cosmetic advertised to heal scars.
Garve, R., Garve, M., Türp, J.C., Fobil, J.N., Meyer, C.G. Scarification in Sub-Saharan Africa: Social Skin, Remedy and Medical Import. Tropical Medicine and International Health, 22(6):708-715. 2017.
“The history of scarification in Africa” https://hadithi.africa/2019/02/11/the-history-of-scarification-in-africa/
“This is the last generation of scarification in Africa” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/scarification_n_5850882