An old friend from college recently mentioned me to his pal, Karla. Apparently, Karla and I took psychology classes together, although I don’t remember her. She remembers me, however. (Let’s be clear: when you are the burned girl, everyone remembers you.) Karla told my friend that she always liked me, because I lit up the room with my enthusiasm. Then, she added, “I heard some other girls talking about her, though. They would say, ‘Why does she wear short sleeve shirts when she is scarred like that?’ I felt sorry for her.”
Time warps easily. These nameless girls, who criticized my clothing choices, made those comments 40 years ago. Still, when I heard about them, my heart sank. My heart sinks again, writing their words. Tears well in my eyes and my throat feels hot.
So, nameless girls, today is my opportunity to answer your question. You waited 40 years for the answer. Why do I wear short sleeve shirts? Why does any disfigured person wear what they wear? Let’s talk.
It is true that I appear less scarred the more I cover up. In the winter, wearing jeans, a sweater, and a scarf, you can barely tell I am scarred at all. Additionally, my COVID mask covers almost all my facial scars, so, that’s an unexpected 2020 bonus! Yes, I could walk through life, covered up, and no one would notice that I am burned. I have definitely been advised, more than once, that I look awesome in turtlenecks.
Perhaps I could wear a burka?
But, to answer your question, here are the reasons why I wear short sleeve shirts:
1) I get hot: Hopefully it is not a surprise to learn that burned people, being, you know, actual humans, sometimes feel hot or cold. What you may not know is that burned people often experience heat and cold more intensely. Third degree burned skin is not able to sweat, so I quickly become dangerously overheated. I also get cold quicker, due to the lack of subcutaneous fat, which was lost in the fire. So, I need a short sleeve shirt when it is hot, just to stay comfortable. Did you want me to faint in psychology class? I think not.
2) I like fashion: I am no model, and it feels ridiculous to say that I like fashion. Perhaps I should restate: I like not looking stupid. If it were 80 degrees out, and I wore a turtleneck sweater, as advised, I would look absurd. I would stand out in a different way, and then perhaps be criticized for wearing a sweater in the summer. If I am going to be criticized either way, I might as well be comfortable.
3) I am not thinking about it: I dress as I feel like dressing, which I assume is what most people do. I do not wake up every day, wondering how to hide my imperfections. This leads to #4:
4) I am not ashamed to be burned: I did not choose to be burned, and I wish that I weren’t. However, I am not ashamed to be burned. I was not burned because I am a bad person. In fact, you may find that burned people are often exceptionally kind and thoughtful people, because we have suffered, and it has deepened us. I wish I were not scarred, because being scarred is difficult. But I am not ashamed. Speaking of which. . .
5) Hiding one’s flaws increases shame: Whenever people hide something about themselves, their sense of shame will grow. When we allow ourselves to be truly known, shame melts away. Hiding scars only increases the sense of shame about having them. We imagine, if people only knew how we truly looked, they would reject us. By being open, I am more confident that I am liked for who I really am. (This hiding/shame dynamic applies to everything we hide about ourselves, not just scars. For more about shame and hiding, please watch this amazing Brene Brown TEDx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0)
6) I imagine that I look nice: Perhaps I do look nice, and perhaps I don’t. People tell me that once they get to know me, they really don’t see my scars. So, I imagine that others might also like my new short sleeve shirt, and think it looks cute.
7) I gave up on looking normal: I am badly burned on two-thirds of my body. I am facially scarred. It is what it is. Being obsessed with looking “normal” would crush my soul. I concentrate instead on being kind, working hard, being responsible, and having my own style, such as it is. Looking normal stopped being an option when I was burned at four years old.
8) I assume the best in you: I assume that most people are accepting and warm. I assume that people see the best in me, as I try to see the best in them. So, I do not imagine that the girls in my psychology class are insulting me behind my back. I imagine that they are not thinking about me at all. I imagine that you are a nice person. Let me keep that assumption.
It is not easy to be different in this world. It is normal to notice people who look different, talk differently, ride in a wheelchair, etc. It is unrealistic to think that people won’t notice difference. That is how we are wired.
We can’t help noticing difference, but we can manage our responses. When you see someone who looks different, please smile and say hello. Do not stare. Do not quickly look away, as if they aren’t there. Believe me, we notice that. (Do you really think we don’t see when you quickly look away?) Instead, smile and say hello. You may find you enjoy the interaction.
When we reply “Hello,” you will feel, right away, that we are people just like you. In fact, we may be markedly kind and interesting people, because we have struggled and suffered mightily, and developed courage along the way. We might turn out to be great friends, people who will love you as you are. . . people who don’t care what shirt you wear.