We're taught that scars are a sign of damage—imperfect and unattractive—but scientifically, scars are a sign of the body's strength. It's amazing that when our skin is wounded, the cut often heals without leaving a trace, but sometimes, scarring is inevitable. Our bodies are actually designed that way. “Evolution has selected for scarring,” cosmetic surgeon and researcher John Newman told NBC News. “Scarring is the result of a system that has learned to respond extremely quickly to a wound.”
As soon as the skin splits, the body starts pulling the edges of the cut together, working at a rate of about one millimeter every 24 hours. Collagen-producing cells underneath also flock to the wounded tissue to help strengthen it. With a minor cut, those collagen-producing cells, called fibroblasts, form a strong neat lattice of collagen. But when the cut is deep or irregular, they go into emergency-response mode and start laying down collagen in a more frantic way. “It is kind of like nailing down a crisscross of two-by-fours over a hole in a deck,” Newman explained. “It seals the hole, but it doesn’t look very nice.”
The resulting scar is made from a bunch of haphazardly organized collagen in the dermal layer of the skin.” Over time, the tissue may reorganize a bit, softening the look of the scar, but it never goes quite back to normal, leaving a forever mark of a time when your body worked really hard to heal itself, unconcerned with aesthetics.
Women survive so many trying feats—from C-sections to cancer—that result in scars. We're taught to revile skin that doesn't look airbrushed, but the following 11 images of real women's scars show that "imperfections" can be badass and beautiful.
Isabella Fernandes was in a house fire in 2015 that resulted in scars on her arm and torso. "My scars and scar tissue continue to change, but I've never felt more beautiful," she said in an interview with the London-based photographer Sophie Mayanne as a part of her Instagram photo project called #BehindTheScars.
UK model Maya Spencer-Berkeley was born with epidermolysis bullosa, a rare genetic condition that causes her skin to blister and tear at even the slightest touch. This made growing up normally an impossibility. "Up until very recently, all I wanted was not to have EB. I just wanted to be normal and would wish for it constantly," she wrote for Bricks Magazine. "I've come to realize I could use the fact I was a model with this rare condition for good, promoting EB and educating people so that others don't have to struggle the way I did growing up. … I am now on a mission to do everything I can, using my social media platform to raise awareness and possibly inspire others to accept themselves, 'imperfections' and all! … My advice to anyone struggling with certain aspects of their appearance is not to hide."
Lovely Bianca identifies on Instagram as #TheGirlWithTheKeloidScars. As she writes, "Sometimes I lay in my bed & look through my photos and say to myself, 'who is this confident person in my phone' and then I look in the mirror and think otherwise. I need to acknowledge how far I have come with learning to love the skin I am in. Few years ago I couldn't talk about my keloids, my feelings and I hated myself for what I looked like (even though in person you could never tell I suffered severely with depression and anxiety). I am not the worst but within myself I feel the worst. We should ALL love our imperfections, flaws and all."
Emily Anna Bell is an L.A.-based actress, unafraid of showing off the scar that runs down her abdomen. "We are not defined by our scars; it's how we heal them that makes us who we are," she says.
Mother and fitness Instagrammer Astrid Hupfeld is super open about her C-section and the scar that resulted. "I love my scar, it's badass and a reminder of what I went through to get my little cub," she says. "I won't be taking that for granted."
It's a wonder anyone could think the scars on California blogger Genna Ellis's knees aren't pretty. "By the time I was 15, I'd had four reconstructive knee surgeries and was left with pretty big scars on both knees. Ever since, it's been a huge insecurity of mine, so much so that I'd go years without ever wearing shorts in public," she wrote in the caption to this photo. "I'd love to say that I've overcome those fears and can confidently show off my legs in public but that's not the case. However, I really have come a long way in the practice of loving the body that I'm in. It takes an immense amount of effort to start a dialogue of kindness, especially when we are so used to looking in the mirror and targeting everything that's 'wrong,' 'gross,' and 'ugly.' I hope we can recognize that we all face insecurities and demons and paralyzing self-doubt. Regardless, our bodies deserve SO much love for all the incredible things that they do for us."
Cancer patient advocate and motivational speaker Racheli Alkobey was only 21 when she had Hodgkin's lymphoma. Now she sees the port scar on her chest as a symbol of badassery and survival. She writes: "A year and a half in remission, I value my scars and thank cancer for what it gifted me. … Cancer has given me the gift of knowing my own resilience. … Cancer has given me the gift of gratitude. And most importantly, cancer has given me the gift of life."
Karen Tabie was just 3 years old when she was diagnosed with cancer and had her left kidney removed. "I was one of the lucky ones and have been cancer free ever since," she writes in this caption. "This is for the warriors, survivors and departed."
"A little over three months ago I had surgery to repair 5 (yes, FIVE) places on my abdominal ligaments that had herniated due to all the physical stress I've put on my body," dancer Kara Hodges posted on Instagram earlier this summer. "Emotionally this was tough on me, but with the help and support of my close friends and family who knew, I was back up and dancing again in six weeks. Three months later and my scars are slowly (like, turtle speed) starting to fade, but I am still so amazed at how the body repairs itself in time and so grateful for the abilities mine has to push through, become stronger constantly, and support the career path I chose! Love your scars, they are a sign of strength!!"
Kaysie Berry has had to undergo many surgeries due to breast cancer and is bravely open about her journey with mastectomies and reconstruction, which are ongoing still. As she says, "I'd rather be alive" with scars than the alternative.
Kathy Messider's scoliosis surgery resulted in this long, vertical scar, which looks not unlike a piece of modern art. "I have always loved my scar," she writes. "Recently I've been buying and making a lot of backless clothes to show off my scar more and because I think it all suits me!"
Want more inspiring images? Next, check out 15 beautiful photos of real women's cellulite.