Scars are beautiful

2 minute read

I was recently at the Getty Museum where I saw a wonderful exhibit of Ishiuchi Miyako’s photography. Her series titled “Scars” particularly struck me.

Scars by Ishiuchi Miyako
"Scars" by Ishiuchi Miyako

The images are hard to look at without wincing. The oversized prints were even more painful to witness in person. But after the initial shock washed over me, I began to appreciate the photography itself. There is beauty in these shapes.

Like a path winding through a forest, I get lost in the meandering edges of these scars, the delicate unevenness of each wrinkle. As I separate myself from the pain, there is an intriguing nature to these photographs that is undeniable. I find it impossible to look at these images without questioning the Western fetishism of perfection ingrained in us since youth.

For years I have been fascinated by a Japanese philosophy called wabi-sabi. It’s a worldview and aesthetic centered around the beauty of transience. An example of it is kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by joining the pieces together with gold lacquer. By doing so, the cracks are accentuated rather than covered up or discarded. The object becomes more valuable as it loses its sense of perfection.

Example of a kintsugi cup
Example of a kintsugi cup

Cracks, like scars, tell a story. They are not only beautiful to look at, they are also lessons in survival and perseverance.

There’s a quote by Neil Gaiman I like, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton:

“Fairy tales are more than true  —  not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

There is no learning, no victory, no good story without a share of failures, scars and the perseverance it took to overcome them. Western culture hasn’t translated that idea into its perception of beauty.

It’s important not to mistake wabi-sabi for a fatalistic view of the world. The appreciation of imperfection is not an invitation to let things break down and dilapidate. In the book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb rejects the notion that the opposite of fragility is resilience, thus he coins the word “antifragile”: things that become stronger or better when they are challenged or exposed to chaos and uncertainty.

Many things in nature are antifragile. For instance, the muscles in your body are adapted to become stronger as they heal from being torn by physical exertion. Likewise, products and systems can be designed to not only withstand aging but actually improve over time.

I find that much anxiety can be alleviated by finding beauty in transience, imperfection, and scars. Too often society judges us for our scars. This leads to a culture of fear. People follow the path that results in the least amount of pain, rather than the path that leads to the most amount of learning. Whether they are literal or figurative, do not fear the scars — be proud to earn them. Gild them like a kintsugi tea cup.

We are all participating in creating the mythology of our time. It is our responsibility to create a future where people, objects, systems  —  anything — can be allowed to thrive not in spite of, but because of imperfections.