I recently escaped to the tropics with my husband, Doug, for some sunshine and sand. I was excited to have a brief respite from my work as a psychologist. As most women might, I prepared for my getaway by sitting for the rare winter pedicure and buying a new dress and beach cover-up. Unlike most women, I also mentally prepared to be the burned girl at the beach.
I am scarred from my head down almost to my toes. When I was 4 years old, I suffered third-degree burns on two-thirds of my body. My mother had mistakenly used a household solvent as a lighter fluid, and the solvent exploded into a fire that I barely survived. Decades later, my body is permanently covered with scars ― thickened skin, too red or too white ― from my calves to a couple of pale scars right above my eyebrows. You can’t miss me.
Doug and I arrived at our swanky hotel and were greeted by a woman holding a tray of sweetened iced tea. She smiled at me briefly. Then her eyes left my gaze, and traveled slowly down my arms, trailing the path of my exposed scars. Her eyes rose back up, and she resumed eye contact. I continued conversing with her, calmly smiling, pretending I hadn’t seen her look me up and down.
We were escorted to our beachfront suite. We tossed our bags, found two white chaise longues on the warm sand, and blissfully turned our faces to the sunshine.
“My name is Rosalina. Can I bring you something to drink?” I glanced up at the server, a lovely, friendly woman. Again, her eyes left mine, walked down the lengths of my arms and eventually returned to my face. I took a deep breath and smiled at her, politely ignoring her stare.
At night, Doug and I settled into an open-air restaurant, with high thatched ceilings and stucco walls. We sat in the candlelight, palm trees swaying nearby. I was wearing the new dress that I purchased for the trip. I don’t usually wear sleeveless dresses, but when it is 85 degrees out, what are the options? Also, in case you don’t know (and you most likely don’t), severely burned skin cannot sweat, leaving burned people dangerously susceptible to heat stroke. So, there are times to go sleeveless, and that tropical night was one of them.
I relaxed in my silky blue dress, feeling pretty. Then, out the corner of my eye, I saw a man at the table to my right. He turned and pretended he was looking out the window. In reality, he had turned just to look at me, eyebrows knitted, mouth agape.
All these staring incidents happened within five hours of our hotel arrival.
Despite having undergone 75 surgical procedures, I can’t change being scarred. I also can’t change how other people view my scars. Curiosity about noticeable difference is inevitable. It is human nature to wonder about anyone who looks different. To avoid being stared at, my only recourse would be to hide away in my house. What kind of life would that be?
I want to go to the beach, too.
My only weapon is how I carry myself. I am so friendly, so warm, so kind and so open that people eventually, or even quickly, forget about my scars. All that warmth and friendliness disarms people. Given the severity of my arm scars and the attention they draw, “disarming” people with charm seems like quite a weapon indeed.
Did I go swimming? Yes. Did I walk around in my bathing suit? Increasingly so. After that first day, no one stared at me. I assume that everyone at the small resort had likely spotted the new burned girl at the beach. Their curiosity passed. I became just another middle-aged woman on vacation.
Still, it was mental work. It is tedious to manage staring encounters, evenly maintaining eye contact and knowing the person is thinking, “What in God’s name happened to her?” I keep smiling as I watch people recover from the shock of ... me. They don’t even realize that I am making the moment comfortable — for them.
Here are the requisite burned-girl skills:
- Emotional acceptance of my body as it is (truly a high bar for anyone).
- Assuming that people will react to scars and that they can’t help it.
- Loving appreciation of myself as being worthy and valuable, despite looking different.
- Solid social skills (making eye contact, using a pleasant vocal tone, smiling, initiating conversation).
- Maintenance of a reassuring manner to convey that I am well and require no help.
- Letting each interaction go without resentment and still enjoying my day.
Like anything practiced every day for decades, these burned-girl skills are now second nature. Still, each incident is draining, and each incident, if I think about it, could make me weep.
Yet despite everything I just wrote ― all this pain, all this struggling, healing, coping, managing, charming, overcoming ― how different is this for anyone who walks in the room different in some way?
In my work as a psychologist, I hear countless stories about ways that people feel inadequate and inferior. My difference is visible ― there for all to behold. But I am not the only person working hard to fit in. Many of us carry a trauma history, a disability or a perceived weakness that we hide, fearful of rejection if anyone learns who we really are. Maybe my struggles as the burned girl, unusual as they appear, are not that unusual after all.
Perhaps what unites humans most powerfully is the same force that seems to divide us: difference. Most of us do feel unusual in some way, and most of us struggle with shame. The variations are endless ― all the ways that people feel different, diminished, alone. Ideally, our differences could form a lens of shared compassion, a way to relate to each other’s true essence, an avenue of connection on the deepest level.
When you encounter those of us with visible difference (the preferred term instead of “disfigured”), you can help by greeting us warmly. So many people either stare or quickly look away, trying so hard not to stare that it is as if we no longer exist. You can’t help noticing our differences. Still, please smile and say hello. That warm welcome could make all the difference.
So, I am the burned girl at the beach. I am so different from you, and so very like you. My difference is visible ― a burden I shoulder for all to see. Your difference may be invisible, so no one stares, but I imagine you carry one just the same. Did you struggle with body image? Me too. Did you labor to accept yourself as you were? Me too. Have you decided to no longer care what people think? Oh, my friend, it took me years, but me too.
Please look me in the eyes and smile. It’s so nice to meet you.
Lise Deguire is a psychologist, author and burn survivor. After being severely burned as a 4-year-old, she spent years in the hospital, undergoing reconstruction. She is the author of her award-winning “Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience From a Burn Survivor.” Deguire graduated from Tufts University and earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Widener University. She has appeared on NPR, NBC, ABC and Fox. She has presented for the World Burn Congress, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the American Burn Association and the New Jersey Psychological Association. Connect with her at LiseDeguire.com.