Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

The Stories Our Bodies Tell

Tattoos are a way people choose to mark their bodies. But our bodies don’t need ink to tell stories. I can walk into a room and know a lot about a patient in 3 seconds:

A patient in their 30’s with well-creased skin?

smokers skin

Years of smoking.

Missing, or rotting teeth?

methmouth

Meth addiction or years of poverty.

Red face/nose covered with telangiectasia?

telangiectasia

Years of alcohol abuse.

Acanthosis nigricans? 

acanthosis

Possible endocrinopathy like diabetes.

Xanthelasma?

Xanthelasma

High cholesterol.

Temporal wasting?

temporal wasting

Severe malnutrition/HIV medication/cancer.

Clubbing of fingers?

clubbing

Chronic hypoxia.

Our bodies are not only marked by chronic conditions, but also by trauma that takes only seconds. I have a scar on my face from a flying stumble into the corner of a cement cellar in a neighbor’s yard, a scar on my thumb from where a rabbit bit it half off, and a scar on my other thumb that reminds me of a New Year’s Day spent in the ED after jamming a pair of scissor under my skin trying to open a Christmas gift.

Our bodies tell stories. Tan lines from wedding rings no longer present. Track marks from IV drug use. Nails bitten. Clean hands with creases still blackened with grease. Scars on wrists from serious attempts to take one’s own life – and innumerable scars on less vital locations from cutting to release pain.

Our bodies are remarkable. They are living histories. They are maps.

My favorite quote from The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is this:

“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.
I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books.”

This quote reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle’s quote, “I am still every age that I have been.”

I live in the same body I had when I was four and that rabbit nibbled through my thumb like a carrot. My body marks that event even though I have no memory of it.

While there is no beauty in “meth mouth,” there is beauty in our bodies being marked by history. A beauty in accidental permanence, in truths we cannot erase. We are all the ages we have ever been. Our bodies are story books.

Please share your scar/tattoo stories in the comments.

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Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

Author of the viral post: 10 Things to Know Before Your Next Visit to the Emergency Department. Board certified emergency medicine physician, wife, mother, aspiring novelist.
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10 Comments

  1. smitty

    I simply love these words by Celine Dion commenting on the birth of her son by C-section, “…..everyone asks me about my scar. It’s not a scar for me. It’s the road that led him to my arms.”

  2. AVE

    I used to moderate a website for kids with scoliosis, and many of them who underwent surgery were understandably “worried” about their scars. How would other people perceive them? Would others be grossed out by the scar? Am I gonna have to wear a one piece bathing suit to keep it covered? I usually responded that EVERYONE has scars! Some you can see, some you can’t! Some are small and others are large! Also, some are physical while others are emotional or psychological. Our scars define who we are, what we have been through and the obstacles we have had to overcome. I am proud of my scar, as it shows of a trial that most people will never endure, and it tells a story that is all my own! (About 3.5 months after my fusion I attended my senior prom in a low backed, lace up gown. I got ZERO comments about my scar until looking through pictures a couple weeks later. It was only then that my classmates realized it was my scar…they had thought it was a feature of the dress!).
    This usually helped to calm many fears 🙂

    1. padrooga

      “we all carry scars, Mr. Bates, inside or out. You’re no different than the rest of us, remember that.” –Mrs. Huges-Downton Abbey

      1. Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D. (Post author)

        I’m a Downton fan too. We’re coming up on the final season 🙁

        1. padrooga

          I know… final season…aaaaahhhhhh what will we do? We watch reruns on Amazon Prime. After the last season we’ll have to buy the box set. Meanwhile, today on KevinMD, Scars are the theme of the week: http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2015/08/after-surgery-the-scars-will-always-remain.html

    2. Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D. (Post author)

      I LOVE the prom story!! How wonderful of you to use your experience to ease something hard for others.

  3. Kassi

    Girls should grow up with this mindset. Hollywood is no longer beautiful or glamorous. The grotesque faces of barely recognizable ‘stars’ (some only 35 or 40) hopefully have given ordinary women pause when considering plastic surgery.
    I love your message. Scars show the lives that we have lived, and that is something to be proud of. Not something that is to be shamed.
    Thank you for a thought provoking, positive article.

    1. padrooga

      I like your comment Kassi. Tattoos are merely bumper stickers for the body.

  4. padrooga

    The song by Montgomery Gentry, Tattoos and Scars, embodies much of what you say here. I couldn’t find the original video, but this has the lyrics as well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T37UqfkmuY8

    For me the difference is, for the most part, we don’t choose our scars. As someone whose had a bilateral mastectomy (Not sure if that should be plural or not as they were separate procedures!) I completely understand what they are about, in this song. Tattoos don’t mean you’re tough…scars, tell tales of strength and courage.

    1. Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D. (Post author)

      Thanks for this – I had never heard it before and listened all the way through. Yes, scars can be badges of courage in a way.

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