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My girlfriend is graduating from college right now and starting her professional career in a medium sized, rather traditional company in Germany (~12k employees world wide). While being a teenager she self harmed and has pretty obvious scars on her left arm. Although the reason for it, the psychological issues, is gone the scars remain as a mark of that time. Now as the summer is coming she is also thinking about wearing short-sleeved shirts for work, what she avoided until now. She is insecure regarding the reaction of colleagues, heads, etc. and concerned about being seen as the unstable and mentally ill teenager she was years ago instead of the person she is now.

Do you have any advice or experiences whether hiding those scars is better in prospect of her professional career, so not offering the past hard times? Or are companies managing to deal past mental issues professionally in your opinion?

Thanks a lot.

  • Yes. If approached in a reasonable way she is comfortable talking about it. – froehr Jun 4 at 6:26
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    There is an article about tattooer who are specialized to scars and willing to help for free. This may be worth thinking about: jetzt.de (it is in german language) – Allerleirauh Jun 4 at 11:07
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    Reading the title, I thought this would be a question about "handling" working with someone that has self-harm scars. – Grumpy says Reinstate Monica Jun 4 at 20:08
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    questions like this always make me wonder, why didn't she post the question? why is OP acting as an intermediary here instead of letting her ask in her own words and receive the advice directly? and is it possible she maybe wasn't actually looking for advice? individually, this could be someone just trying to be helpful, possibly misunderstanding their partner's needs. as a trend though, i can't help but wonder how often people come on here to second-guess their partners' decisions. – dn3s Jun 6 at 5:42
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    Actually it‘s just because I had an account and she didn‘t know about the forum. In addition she also typed the trxt herself. – froehr Jun 6 at 5:58

11 Answers 11

87

I think Alison has a good answer for this, from a person who was interested in moving into management:

If they were fresh scars, indicating that it was ongoing, I think that would be on people’s minds, and their concern for you would probably get in the way of being able to see you in a management role. But they’re older scars, so I really wouldn’t worry about it too much. We all have scars from past behavior; yours just happen to be visible.

Given that they’re old, the thing that will have the most impact on people’s impression of you is how you operate now. If you come across as emotionally stable and good at what you do, and as a reasonably cheerful and pleasant person, I think your scars will quickly fade into the background in people’s minds. (And in a way, they come with the advantage of signaling to people, “I’m human and I’m probably not going to give you crap when you’re going through short-term difficulties of your own.”)

In other words, they are past and aren't who she is any more. If anyone is so rude to ask, a quick "Oh, that's long in the past - do you have those TPS reports ready?" type answer can help. It's past, it's boring, and let's change the subject to work, because that's why we're here.

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    I would however disagree with "they’re older scars, so I really wouldn’t worry about it too much". Most people won't be able to tell if a scar is a week old or ten years old, so uncertanities caused by that will happen. If she sees that people look at them, she should show people that it does not affect her now - don't hide them if someone looks (like crossing arms etc) and continue like nothing happened. I agree that if someone does ask - your answer of "Oh, that's long past." is a good choice, but she could even turn it into a good old "'tis but a scratch" or "It's just a flesh wound". – Rachey Jun 5 at 13:24
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    @Rachey Fresh scars are still covered with blood crust, that level of freshness everyone should be able to distinguish. Once it's indeed "just a scar", the difference is hard to tell indeed, but those typically do not trigger immediate concern as they are already healed. Many people will not even recognize they are from self-harm, but you are right that some will and will no matter what be concerned about you. – Frank Hopkins Jun 7 at 11:08
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    " If anyone is so rude to ask" Assumed hostility is a terrible motif. Assumed ignorance is more mature. – tuskiomi Jun 13 at 18:36
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    @thursdaysgeek unsolicited comments. Questions are a different story. – tuskiomi Jun 13 at 21:51
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    @tuskiomi I don't understand. Unsolicited questions about someone else's body are not rude? – thursdaysgeek Jun 13 at 22:03
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Back in my old career we used to have an ER nurse at a local hospital who had scars all up her arms that were very obviously self harm scars.

The first time I saw them I felt very awkward and tried my hardest not to look at them. After a few times I got used to them and ignored them. I always did have questions in the back of my mind about what caused it but never once did I blame her for it. The way I saw it she was a victim at some stage and has now moved on with her life, good on her.

Obviously for us we had a bit of experience with mental health issues so we could see past it. She was a great nurse and I think she might have even been supervisor of some sorts.

For people who don't know much about it, it could be a different issue. Hopefully people are open minded and enlightened enough to see past it but it might not always be the case.

Edit: I am still friends on FB with this nurse to this day and she is still doing great in everything she does.

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    How do you know by looking at a scar that it was self inflicted? – thisisaname Jun 4 at 6:32
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    @thisisaname They are not typically "a scar", but a large number of scars along an arm. – Sanchises Jun 4 at 8:00
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    @thisisaname many scars with similar length, regular intervals between them, etc. Once you know it, it is hardly possible to mistake it with chaos of an accident - it is either self-harm, or torture, the latter way less probable. – Mołot Jun 4 at 8:02
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    @Mołot After multiple 'sessions', not necessarily regular intervals. There'll be overlap and a slight angle. But once you've seen it once, you recognize them on other people too, yes. Usually the marks are nigh impossible to replicate by accidents. – Mast Jun 4 at 11:35
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    @thisisaname Look up pictures on image search. They are unmistakable. – only_pro Jun 4 at 19:07
22

One trick I've used is to wear a very light long sleeve top, made of thin cotton or synthetic. It can be semi-transparent and allow plenty of air flow.

I found that just wearing it signalled to others that whatever issues I had with my arms I didn't want to discuss. It's kinda like make-up, it's obvious you are wearing it but tells other people that whatever it is concealing isn't something you want to talk about.

Even if you only wear it for a while just to let everyone get used to the fact that you have scars, it helps communicate your desire to avoid the subject to them.

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    It may also say to people that you wish to avoid sun exposure. That's my motivation for often wearing lightweight shirts with arm coverage. Now you're making me feel like people may be talking behind my back about why :-( – user90842 Jun 4 at 17:37
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    I might think it's a bit odd if I saw someone wearing a long-sleeved shirt even in warm weather, but the thought that they have any sort of "issues with their arms" probably wouldn't occur to me. After 5 minutes, I'd probably completely forget about it and not even notice it any more. – The Guy with The Hat Jun 5 at 21:37
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I have relatively prominent scars on my right forearm and used to be embarrassed. I wouldn't wear short sleeves. I'm 25 now and have worked with a great number of different people, both from the US and UK (i'm British).

I've found that from the most part people may glance once or twice, but there will be no comments and once you come to accept that, you forget about it completely. In my experience it's been no different to maybe having a small mole on the skin - people glance and don't mention it

13

I prefer the "that's old stuff" answer, but I do know one person who incorporated them into a tattoo. Of course that might create its own issues, depending on the work environment.

5

She should consider plastic surgery to diminish the appearance of the scars. At the very least, she should visit a plastic surgeon and find out what changes are possible.

It is very common for people to have scars removed, and this is no different. It might even heal more than the physical scars; it can be mentally healing as well.

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    I don't think she should feel she has to do anything about them. Depending on the extent and severity of the scars plastic surgery might be either impossible or way too expensive, however this should be her decision either way and she should not feel compelled to undergo significant cosmetic surgery in order to do well in her career. – Ilythya Jun 6 at 15:34
  • @Ilythya For some reason plastic surgery is a controversial topic. Regardless of whether we agree with plastic surgery or not, it is a viable option. It should be one of the answers. I 100% agree that she should not feel compelled to do surgery, but what does it hurt to be informed about this option? – axsvl77 Jun 7 at 7:56
  • then perhaps your language needs softening from "should" to "could". – Ilythya Jun 7 at 9:49
  • @Ilythya "Should consider" is what I wrote. Can she consider and reject this it if it is wrong for her? I don't know about you, but I try to consider all options when facing a problem, then reject the ideas that don't work for me. – axsvl77 Jun 7 at 11:15
  • @Ilythya BTW, I am honestly sorry if this answer offends you. As I said before, this is a topic with some controversy. I am not sure where I stand on this issue, but this is something worthy of consideration. – axsvl77 Jun 7 at 11:16
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I worked with a woman who a wore skin colored sleeve which went from her hand to above her elbow; it had a thumb hole so it wouldn't slip.
The only place I've ever seen something like it was volunteering at Camp Celebrate (a camp for children who are burn victims).

I have no idea if it was a burn, a birth defect, a tattoo, or scarification - I never asked and she never volunteered it.
We are pretty good friends and still lightly keep up. I feel it would be rude to ask her or one of her close friends. If she ever wants me to know she will tell me. I'm not aware that anyone else asked her either.

If a therapist has told your girlfriend that it is part of her healing, maybe this isn't good advice for her.
But I see no difference between that sleeve and her limiting herself to only wearing long sleeve clothing - which you said she is currently considering.

  • Reminds me of the gloves Rouge wears in x-men – Notts90 Jun 5 at 12:00
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    @Notts90 Similar. Hers was colored very close to her skin tone and without fingers (which is why I used the term "sleeve" instead of glove) and she only used one. Good picture. – J. Chris Compton Jun 5 at 15:44
  • @J.ChrisCompton This sounds like a compression sleeve. Some medical procedures may require removal or damaging of lymph nodes, which causes fluid to build up. If an arm is affected, it can lead to severe swelling, and can be extremely painful. The sleeve basically puts pressure on the tissue, reducing the fluid buildup. They're the arm equivalent of compression stockings. – barbecue Jun 6 at 16:31
  • @barbecue Yeah, I guess it does sound like a compression sleeve. But she's worn it for 5+ years, so I don't think that is the purpose. – J. Chris Compton Jun 6 at 18:07
  • @J.ChrisCompton the lymph condition I described is permanent. People may wear them for decades. – barbecue Jun 6 at 18:19
4

Is there at least one person at work that she can confide in? I feel like she would be much more comfortable on the first sleeveless day* if she had an ally at work that knew the situation, and knew that day X was going to be the "take a deep breath and plunge in" day. A big part of what is going on is that she doesn't know how people are going to react. If she has someone who she knows wil be "in her corner", it reduces that uncertainty.

Overcoming such difficulties in her past is something to be proud of, and should be celebrated, but she is completely rational to think that there might be people who don't take it that way, and it's reasonable to take preemptive defensive measures in case people display ignorance or unkindness.

*Assuming she decides she wants to go that way--not implying that she should, just to be clear.

3

My wife didn't notice these scars on one of her younger friends. As I have some contact with young women, I noticed them instantly. I don't think they will get much comment from people who don't recognize them, the same way they wouldn't say anything about a large birthmark.

Is your girlfriend prepared for interaction about the scars with people who do understand? When I saw some on a regular clerk in a shop I frequent (covered by clothes except on the hottest days), I gave her the card for the local crisis line. She was excited and grateful that someone cared enough. But your girlfriend may feel very much otherwise, and should be prepared.

2

"Own" them. The scars communicate something about her past.

I think about a comparison with tattoos that communicate something about the personality. Think of tattoo motives with some kind of emotional symbolism, as opposed to decoration. These are created with the knowledge of being permanent. I think creating the scars is mainly motivated by the effects of the pain, but the aspect of permanent communication is part of it: To create pain is possible using many locations on the body, and the arm is often chosen repeatedly. The first time it may be a spontaneous choice, but it is consciously repeated.

So the scars could be seen like a tattoo expressing "I've seen worse times than now" - as long as they do not look clearly new. A statement that became part of the personality. Many tattoos communicate the same in much more detailed ways.

In a way, it is not even a particularly strong statement, because it is unspecific. (In comparison, the most specific I have seen is a man with text around his neck. Yes, visible, black on skin text, all around. I never dared to read it.) I have, As a fellow German, some intuition about the local etiquette for big German cities (Berlin): It is just nothing special, it is not something attracting attention. Somebody seeing it either understands what it is and means and will understand the statement about the past, or does not know it and sees a normal, minor scar. (My own sister has some of them - I never even bothered to ask for details. And I see no problem to publicly and permanently reveal this information here.)

So, the scars say "I had bad times earlier in my life.". Which is pretty normal.
What's wrong with that?

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This depends a lot on the actual scars. A scar on the arm can easily be from an accident. Is there something about it that would make people believe they were self inflicted? If yes then she must choose between wearing a t-shirt and keeping it a secret. If no then it's not really an issue and if someone happens to point them out, have a reply ready like "these are from an incident a long time ago which I don't feel like talking about".

Also would make up be able to hide the scars?

Since the answer is down voted already, I'm going to be honest. I wouldn't consider someone fully recovered if they aren't able to talk about it.

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    This answer suggests that you are unfamiliar with such scars. They do not look like they are from an accident, and they cannot be hidden with a spot of make-up (and neither should they be - from what I gather, no longer hiding them is often an important part in the recovery and acceptance process). I would suggest deleting this answer. – Sanchises Jun 4 at 7:32
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    Covering up visible scars on the body arms and legs etc, is not a long term solution that can be maintained. It takes a toll on ones mental health and perception of self worth. Particularly with the constant reapplication that is required to maintain a concealing layer on the arms throughout the day. Covering your scars for a day because you want to look your absolute best for a event is possible. Covering them up 5 days a week every week while working is something i would not advise anyone tries. – J.Doe Jun 4 at 8:49
  • This answer is useful because of the comments on it--I upvoted it because I hope OP will leave it in place so that people can understand why makeup is not a good solution. – msouth Jun 5 at 15:24
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    This is a good answer that mentions a practical solution and a potential solution (alternative explanation provided by the person with scars). +1 – Blondie Jun 5 at 19:19
  • Clarifying questions should be asked in comments, not in an answer. Once those have been answered there, you can answer in a way that's more useful to the asker, once you know whether your suggested solution even works. – V2Blast Jun 6 at 9:33

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