as a child
i wanted a scar just like my father’s
bold and appalling a mushroom explosion
that said i too was at war
— Truong Tran.
What are the ways in which our bodies, particularly imperfect bodies, shape us? … what can we do when this shaping isn’t in sync with our own designs?
Lee Kofman — Imperfect.
If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love anyone else?
A scar on my foot: I scraped it on a river rock. The Band-Aid kept moving when I took my shoe on and off. It got infected and I had to take antibiotics. I felt embarrassed about not being able to use a Band-Aid properly.
In Imperfect Lee Kofman dissects her life-long relationship to the scars on her body. She tells of the calamities that scarred her: a haphazardly administered heart operation in the Soviet Union when she was ten years old left her with ugly scars on her chest; a week later she was run over by a bus, leaving her leg stippled by scar tissue. She traces her relationship to her own scars and to a multitude of secondary texts; she interviews other people about their experiences, seeking to understand how what she terms our ‘Body Surface’ moulds our lives. Disentangling her flesh from metaphor in an effort to study her relationship with it, to redefine its paradigm beyond tired axioms of self-love. ‘Reality is messy, way messier than is possible to sum up in manifestos of pop-psychology advice,’ she writes.
Kofman laments the simple way feminist critics treat bodily aberrance: either you are happy with your imperfections, or not; there can be no in-between. There is shame attached to any kind of relationship to your body, even ‘vanity shame’, which she describes as a ‘double shame’ incurred where one is shamed for feeling shame about their body, or trying to improve upon it. In one passage she tells her friend that she is writing about her scars:
‘Ahhhh,’ my friend said with her usual passion. ‘I love the sound of it. Is it emotional scars you’re writing about?’
I wasn’t surprised by her response. I’m used to the fact that in our culture the word ‘scars’ has lost its physical dimension and is often used by writers as well as laypeople as a versatile metaphor for emotional pain, memory (traumatic or not), survival or healing… And yet my physical scars generate their own dramas, or traumas, forever evolving and shifting.
‘I’m writing about the scars I got from my surgeries,’ I said.
‘Oh, yes!… Scars as a sign of hardship. And healing. Your trauma and your toughness. The survival.’ She now exhausted the metaphor. ‘It’s going to be a great book.’
…’It’s not going to be that kind of book.’ I said sheepishly. I am writing about what it’s like to live in a scarred body.’
‘Oh…’ My friend, normally a great listener, now seemed visibly bored. ‘You’re writing a book about body image.’
I too wonder if it is time for we feminists to look beyond boring, body-image obsessions to justify our bodies, and our words. Perhaps these obsessions are boring. We’re spitballed with messages about our looks, continually, for all our lives. However bored we are, doesn’t it still hurt?
Throughout Imperfect, Kofman operates with something like a chronic detachment from flesh-as-metaphor. She interviews people with bodily differences about how their surface selves interact with their inner selves. There is less viscera in her descriptions, more euphemism, more cerebral reflection. She does not rip her beating heart out and place it on the table, in other words. She is honest about her pain, yes: ‘But the surfaces, they can hurt like hell… They are the weather of our lives.’ She is more interested, however, in creating a broad sense of how scars function in real life, and how Body Surface affects the experience of a broad range of people. She focuses on the materiality of scars: how they come to be on the body, how they index pain and trauma, and how they define a person, whether they like it or not.
When I was eleven I was the first person ever to get pubic hair. I was so embarrassed when we had to get changed at the swimming pool. I heard girls whispering: Did you see that she already has a bush??? Yuck! At thirteen, my map of Tasmania took on an expansionist policy. Hair flooding my leg. Flooding my basement… but not in a good way.
In his diaries, Montgomery Clift scribbled the following question: ‘The sadness of our existence should not leave us blunted, on the contrary – how to remain thin-skinned, vulnerable and stay alive?’
Clift didn’t live long enough to resolve the question. He was badly injured in a 1956 car accident. Elizabeth Taylor found him, cradled his half-peeled visage and used her elegant fingers to scoop two teeth from his bleeding throat, screaming at the waiting photographers that if they dared share this image they’d never work in Hollywood again. (I mean—what drama!) I see something cinematic in this display of vulnerability. When I picture the scene there are frosted streetlights, soft rain, the tar of the road black velvet as Clift bleeds and bleeds. Something like the perverse eroticism of David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash. There, a subculture of people re-enact car accidents for sexual pleasure. Bodily injuries become a site for erotic foreplay, a metaphor for vulnerability and openness. Cronenberg’s films obsess over wounds, literally and figuratively, and the body as a site of ugly and abject transformation.
The theatricality of these scenes of destruction romanticises the idea of the wound, elevates it to metaphor. But real-life wounds are not treated in the same way. Kofman writes about attending high school in Israel, her scars gawked at, or retreated from:
My scars certainly earned me attention… but not the kind I hoped for. The girls routinely gossiped about how revolting I was… To my horror, eager classmates informed me that Bnei Akiva’s male cohort, who to my face just ignored me, indulged in discussing my monstrosity behind my back.
Clift did not die after his accident, he submerged himself in alcohol and painkillers. This heralded the beginning of his slow-motion life wreck. He wasn’t ugly after the crash, just aged; though not like a fine wine. Fans and writers were desperate to get a look at his new face. ’Nearly all his good looks are gone,’ Christopher Isherwood wrote. ‘He has a ghastly, shattered expression’.
Six years later he starred in The Misfits, alongside Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Director Robert Huston embraced the monstrosity of the actors, their visible and invisible damage. The film was too intricate and depressing for audiences of the time; it sunk like a stone. Vinegary and desiccated, Clift died ten years after the accident at the age of 45. I wonder, too, had Marilyn Monroe’s face been scarred in an accident, would she have played opposite Clift in this film? But since she is a woman I do not wonder very hard.
A scar on my calf: I used to lie about it but then the lies became inconsistent and I decided to start telling the truth. Bored at an underage gig, I let someone burn my leg with a lighter to get a smiley tattoo. The lighter was too hot; it burnt through the skin until there was no longer pain. The scar resembles a thick white continent. No smile.
In her 2002 book, Body Work, Debra L. Gimlin writes that because it is impossible for women’s bodies to conform to lofty societal ideals, they are ‘by definition, violations of cultural imperatives’. On her analysis, it is essential that women either work, or appear to work, on their bodies (through diet, exercise, ‘healthy’ lifestyles, and so on); or articulate strongly and proudly how they stand up against the norm – that is, how they justify their body’s existence outside the ideal.
Kofman’s memoir pivots on the vacillation of her attitude towards her body, and her feeling of failure that she has not managed to go beyond her Body Surface in her appraisals of herself:
This duality means my relationship with my body is ambivalent rather than tragic. My body is at once my misfortune and my asset. The dissonance goes deep enough for me to feel as if my singular self has been split between two bodies. Deep enough to trigger an emotional loneliness that has trailed me since adolescence.
This ambivalence feels like a resistance, of sorts. In the reality TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, the drag contestants seem required to perform vulnerability in front of the host, so much so that it has become frequently and sarcastically meme-ified among fans.
Kofman resists such pre-packaged vulnerability, preferring instead to sit with her discomfort, her inability to simply bleed and get over it. She denies us the public exorcism that so many women feel required to perform, instead expressing defiance about her grief and her anger. She writes:
I don’t know about you, but the view of self-acceptance as yet another duty we must perform hurts me. It ridicules, minimises, even disqualifies a lifetime of chagrin that has been integral to shaping who I am. In fact in some, perverse, possibly vain, way I am attached to my grief. Please don’t take it away.
A scar below my eyebrow: a hockey ball, four stitches. My eye swelled like a golf ball. My dad bought me an ice cream the day after. People glared but said nothing.
A scar above my knee: I feel asleep with my leg on the heater when I was drunk at uni. Silvery threads across my forearms and wrists: crying, I asked my partner if they would be there forever. Yes, they said, honestly, but they will fade.
Kofman recalls being a child, in a royal dress, thrusting her leg forward in pictures:
It didn’t even occur to me then that my mangled leg might not fit in with the princess look. On the contrary, I saw it as an asset, using it as a social bait to fling in front of strangers.
This feeling of shamelessness is short-lived. When she moves to Israel, she learns to cover her scars.
I do not live in a heavily scarred body, but I’ve had a giddy relationship to mine. My head was so humongous on my lollypop body that in high school people called me ‘big head’. In grade five, my breasts and pubes made changing before swimming a Houdini stunt. I felt cloaked in abnormality, even when compliments landed in early adulthood. This cloak has not been removed gradually, but operates like an amorphous sac that constricts and loosens depending on context. Despite Kofman’s lack of interest in the notion of scars-as-metaphor, the way she writes about her body resonates with the way my body feels in relation to the expectations placed upon it. Gimlin tell us that we must constantly renegotiate our relationship to our bodies, answering to the strictures placed upon them. The most affecting aspect of Imperfect is the very opposite of Kofman’s stated intent, that is, her writing about scars can’t help but invoke the sense of woundedness, actual or metaphoric that all women carry.
Kofman refuses to conform to the straightforward narrative of a journey to self-acceptance, the ‘Ultimate Healing Act’ and instead acknowledges the complicated quality of her relationship to her body, its inability to be resolved: ‘All I know is that I still don’t know…’ When I write my body I feel pressure to commit to this well-worn linear narrative of acceptance, an uninterrupted progression that will climax when I truly love myself. In such a narrative, it’s as if the body isn’t fluid, constantly being renegotiated, like the shoreline and the sea; as if I am not in a constant state of love-hate with my body, or somewhere in between; as if my relationship to my body is not itself imperfect, like Kofman’s.
In Emma Marie Jones’s fictocritical text, Death in the first person, the protagonist embodies the theory that she explores, creating a body-language symbiosis:
Woman should write her self. Cixous. Woman should explore her body with its thousand and one thresholds of order. Woman should make the old single-grooved mother tongue reverberate. Reverberate, doesn’t that just sound like sheer pleasure, a reverberating tongue? A tongue to lick the mother’s milk. A tongue to write in white ink.
Woman should write her self, should bite herself, should draw blood from herself, should leave tooth marks and scratches like Grandma with the wolf trapped inside herself. What is the point of this bloodletting? This frank honesty about one’s struggles with one’s body, to do what, achieve the solemnity that men do just writing fictional stories about men obsessing over immaterial women? The self is not a cipher, but a magician’s bag of flesh and blood and organs to be relinquished on request.
In 1729, after a long miscarriage, a poor English woman named Mary Toft began giving birth to animal parts. The parts first belonged to cats, pigs, and rabbits, but soon they were only rabbits. She was thoroughly investigated, her body publicly examined and excavated. Doctors’ hands plumbed her depths while dozens of onlookers gawked, leading her confess that she had faked the births, conspiring with other women to stow the animal parts inside her in order to birth them weeks later. According to Karen Harvey, in each of her confessions Toft referred to her miscarriage as a ‘flooding’, the verb emphasising her lack of control over her body. The confession is a record of Toft’s pain, despite the lack of interest and attention investigators gave it. She refers to her pain 71 times in the 36-page confession. She felt compelled to speak of the pain of her miscarriage, over and over again. In Harvey’s reading, what is more important than her experience of pain is her performance of it. She insists on her pain to control her narrative, to declare ownership over her body, and to justify her actions.
In her formative essay on the subject of female pain, Leslie Jamison also considers the way in which women’s wounds have become interwoven with their subjectivity: ‘The ancient Greek dramatist Menander once said: “Woman is a pain that never goes away.”‘ He probably just meant women were trouble, but his words hold a more sinister suggestion: the possibility that being a woman requires being in pain, that pain is the unending glue and prerequisite of female consciousness.
Lee Kofman’s body is the centre of her text, and is certainly a marginal body: a scarred body, non-Anglo, Jewish body. But she refuses to let the body serve as a mere symbol of its owner and her pain, and nothing more.
The pervasive metaphoric thinking about scars seems to me symptomatic of the current reluctance to acknowledge that scars, and any other imperfections, matter in all their three-dimensional fleshiness – just as we’re reluctant to say that beauty matters.
My biggest problem with the body image discourse isn’t its suggestion that our psychological makeup affects how we experience our bodies, because it does, but that right now it’s the main, if not only, conversation about our relationships with our Body Surface that we have. It’s then easy to believe that whether you look like Brad Pitt or have albinism is simply irrelevant. Kofman believes that the materiality of the flesh is the most important, that it is, for better or worse what defines us. The Body Surface itself is important.
Mary Toft had her rabbits and her miscarriages, Cronenberg had his men made vaginal and wounded, Montgomery Clift had his transformed and haggard face, Lee Kofman has her scars. Why do our wounds continue to define us? Threaten to swallow us? Why must we narrate our wounds for them to be taken seriously? Why must the weight of acceptance lie with the individual? How do we shift a culture that is both obsessed by symbolic wounds and disgusted by real ones?
‘Women’s selfhood has always been tied closely to their appearance; women have been, and are, their bodies’, Kofman writes. And she frames her body as the central conceit of Imperfect. Kofman-as-protagonist writes about her bodily difference, the way that it inspires a hyper-vigilance in what she hides and what she exposes:
I am good at revealing what I can, and better at concealing. The Bible tells us the seven veils can evoke an even stronger desire than the naked body. I’ve learned the art of Salome, mastering my own version of veils, with jewellery that is chicer and subtler than that Bedouin necklace, and with sensual fabrics…. Still, any time I’d trade my boldness for simplicity – for the ability to just to throw on a plain little sundress and walk out unencumbered.
I wonder what person in this world has not had this wish: to walk out unencumbered. To shed the encumbrances of: fear of sexual assault and/or fear of racist sexual assault, fear of transmisogynistic violence, fear of ableist violence. Fear of patriarchy. I wonder what it would be like to experience the confidence that is doled out like red lipstick in Special K ads. I wonder if bathing in this sweet and gaudy cordial is really something to aspire to.
A recent ad series for TAL life insurers explores scars, visible or no, with the slogan, ‘life, it leaves its mark on us all’. Max Richter’s re-composition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons swells in the background as we view people’s scars: real, spiritual, emotional, actual. It almost makes me forget that they are peddling life insurance. It almost makes me forget that the people in this ad are being paid to act as inspiration porn. It almost makes me forget that if jobs were safe and vulnerable people fairly supported, we wouldn’t need life insurance at all. We wouldn’t have to have our scars bared in a schmaltzy ad. A Minnie Mouse Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Trite and sweet; bold and appalling.
Could I write an essay about bodies without making my own vulnerable? I plonk my white bones on the operating table, hear them clink and rattle. Click my head off like a lollypop; rest it on its side. Like a sculpture of Marie Antoinette post-guillotine, a new summer design. Look, look, I tell you, but do not touch. Ok: you can touch; just do not hurt me. Ok: you can hurt me; just make me feel important while you do.
Kofman writes: ‘Showing your sadness in public is a privilege not many remember to appreciate.’ And though she leans into her embarrassment, shame, Kofman does not invite the vampires in. She lets us paddle in her pain, but not dive in. Should she have to?
Bosworth, Patricia. Montgomery Clift: A Biography (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 168.
Gimlin, Debra L. Body Work: Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Harvey, Karen. ‘What Mary Toft Felt: Women’s Voices, Pain, Power and the Body’, History Workshop Journal, (80:1) Autumn 2015.
Jamison, Leslie. ‘Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’. VQR Online. Spring 2014.
Jones, Emma Marie. ‘Death in the First Person’. Seizure online, October 2015.
Peterson, Anne Helen. ‘Book Excerpt: Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Long Suicide of Montgomery Clift’. Vanity Fair, September 2014.
Tran, Truong. ‘Scars’. Poetry Foundation, 1999.
Eloise Grills is a recipient of a 2019 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the first of three essays by Grills that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, Madeleine Gray and Melissa Thorne.