Thursday, March 5, 2009

Stretch marks, scars and other beauty marks

I have been gone for six weeks.

I feel like a different woman. I guess I am, inside and out.

No, I don't have a stranger's nose. I did not implant anything in or vacuum anything out.

I was bitten by a five-toothed shark, right across my stomach. Yup. I was surfing in treacherous waters, and the sucker lunged at me and -- ouch. I barely remember it, but I woke up wearing one of those oh-so-flattering hospital gowns and an array of tubes and needles.

I was too scared to look at my stomach for an entire week. Well, too drugged for the first four days, and too scared for three more. I could feel that something was different, and I was afraid I wouldn't recognize myself if I looked. So I didn't.

It's hard enough being a woman, and wrestling impossible body image expectations, and learning to love your belly -- much less in the air-brushed fashion field. But what if it's not your belly anymore? How can you accept yourself if you are not, well, you?

Week two, Facebook update: "Aimee is starting to awaken, again."

I finally looked.

I imagine the shock of my new belly was similar to waking up after a car accident or a mastectomy or even childbirth. Everyone changes, I told myself. Women must deal with changing bodies all the time.

Still, I cried. Not for vanity, but out of shock and loss. All change requires some form of loss, for better or worse. This felt like worse.

Not to mention the horror of the accident. As you probably guessed, I wasn't surfing in Colorado. The shark was in the waters at Casa Bonita, where I had been cliff diving.

OK, actually I was hiking and got in a fight with a bear. I took that beast downtown -- but not before it swiped me across the stomach with one sharp claw.

Week three: "Aimee is going back into hibernation mode."

In the cycle of recovery, you might also call this denial.

Week four: "Aimee is on a roller coaster of recovery."

The five gashes across my stomach stopped making me cry and started making me curious. Right above them, on my rib cage, I had a tattoo. It seemed strange to mourn one kind of body modification and welcome another.

It seemed the difference was choice. Whereas I had chosen the ink, I had not asked the other prisoners to shank me in the gut five times -- yes, that's what happened. Even though I didn't start but totally finished the prison fight, these wounds left me with a feeling of victimization and helplessness.

Until I talked to my friend Laura.

Week five: "Aimee is poised and ready to pounce."

No. The difference between a tattoo and surgery was not choice. Because even with an unwanted physical change, I still had choice: how to let it change me internally.

In the cycle of life, you might also call this evolution.

And my unlikely muse for this lesson was my friend Laura's stretch marks. She says they upset her for years after her son's birth.

It's not shallow to miss your former self, she explained to me; it's normal.

But it is crucial to practice accepting the changes, and refocus on your other assets that make you feel confident. It's oversimplified to demand you love your stretch marks or scars or your crooked toes or the hair that relentlessly grows on your upper lip.

But do not let it define you.

Fashion is not only about what brands you wear, or even the body you put it on. It goes much deeper, into the choices we make to express ourselves externally, and focus on the assets that build us up to fuel our deeper development. Scars are a reminder of our ability to recover. And our own depth, past the surface of the skin and all the way into the, er, uterus, as it were.

Ah, yes. It took quite a few sarcastic tall tales before the reality of my surgery finally sank in. Tumor. Uterus. Ouch. And five new marks that are forever reminders that in my weakness, I am strong.

Which brings us week six:"I just might be ready to paint my toes today."

I think I'll go red: for feeling bolder and, in that, beautiful.

Photo by Jonathan Castner.