I don’t see your scars.
The person who said this meant well, that I am more than my scars and the burns on my skin. But it didn't feel that way. It felt like a piece of me was invalidated, shut down. It felt like I couldn’t be my full authentic self with this person.
Now I know this is because that statement is a microaggression.
Microaggressions include microinvalidation, microinsult, and microassaults. They can be targeted at one's race, mental illness, sexual orientation, disability, and even one’s burn scars.
Merriam-Webster defines a microaggression as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group."
Microaggressions add up. "No matter how confident people from marginalized or underrepresented communities feel about their identities, microaggressions create unsafe spaces and make individuals feel perpetual outsiders” (Yang, 2020).
These unsafe feelings can cause increased depression, anxiety, and chronic physical ailments like high blood pressure. Researchers have said the effect on mental health is like a “death by a thousand cuts” (Matsumoto, 2020).
Microaggressions wound people by leaving psychological scars. One microaggression may not cause much harm, but the cumulation takes its toll on one's spirit. It divides people rather than connecting us to help one another be our authentic selves and thrive in today's world.
Below, you'll find the various forms of microaggressions my co-author Alexi Pyles and I have experienced as burn survivors, along with how we learned to handle them.
“Microinvalidations are verbal comments or behaviors that exclude, negate, or dismiss the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of the target group.” (Sue, D.W. & Sue, D, 2016).
When experiencing a microinvalidation, a burn survivor may feel like their full story and self are invalidated and that they are not accepted for their differences because of them.
“I don’t see the scars.”
Although I appreciate the sentiment, my burn scars and my burn injury have made me into the person I am today.
"Not seeing" my scars is like not seeing that part of who I am. This statement invalidates my experiences as a burn survivor and avoids acknowledging my story.
"Oh, was it a house fire? Was it traumatic?"
These statements choose a narrative and make assumptions about my story before asking. This assumption can come in a way someone asks as indicated, but I have also experienced it from people in subtle indirect ways. More specifically, when I opened up that I was going to partake in writing a book about my story, so many people assumed what my story is and what I was going to write about it. I felt as though I had to fight to say - “No, that isn’t my story, this is,” then often that person would shun my truth. This person had already presumed to know my story without asking or taking the time to learn this about me in an open and safe space.
"Don't wear that - it's too revealing and shows too much of your scars."
This silences a person's story
This one can be verbal, indicating you can’t show a part of your true self because of what others will think. It can also occur in subtle non-verbal cues.
Misuse of terminology: "Oh, that really triggered me!"
Healthline refers to triggers as “something that affects your emotional state, often significantly, by causing extreme overwhelm or distress,” (Raypole, 2019). In this case, trigger causes an individual discomfort when being reminded of a past traumas/experiences. When someone uses the word trigger without knowing the meaning of the word, undermines others when they are truly experiencing the meaning of the word.
Defining a person solely on their burn injury
Conversely, I have had people who only see me for my burn injury. Labels help us understand and make sense of the world, but defining a person solely by one label can prevent us from opening up to see all the other unique qualities an individual has.
I am a burn survivor, and I am so many other things. I am a friend, a sister, an equestrian, a lover of nachos and kombucha, just to name a few!
“Microinsults are unintentional behaviors or verbal comments that convey rudeness or insensitivity or demean a person’s racial heritage/identity, gender identity, religion, ability, or sexual orientation identity, Despite being outside the level of conscious awareness, these subtle snubs are characterized by an insulting hidden message,” (Sue, D.W. & Sue, D, 2016).
These insults, although unintended, insult a burn survivor for their differences.
"You're such an inspiration"
Stella Young, comedian, and activist said at TEDxSydney, "I want to live in a world where we don't have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning." This comment may not always be a microinsult, but if someone sees me as inspiring just because I am doing ‘normal’ things and I proved them wrong on the limitations they tried to set on me, this is not a compliment. This is patronizing.
“You’re lucky you get time off.”
I have had to take a lot of time off to heal from surgeries, injuries, or even to rest as my body doesn't have the strength or capacity to be pushed as someone who has not endured burns. Taking time off because I have to heal from surgery is not a vacation or an enjoyable time, and acting like it's a break only causes that person to feel more alone and isolated during a difficult time in which they more likely need more support and understanding.
"You can't do that because of your burn injury."
This is often referred to as “assumed helplessness.” This is where someone assumes that because of my burn injury and visible scars I am incapable, useless, or broken and unable to achieve the task at hand. One time a man grabbed my computer away from me to type our group project because he assumed I couldn’t type it. More often than not, someone can communicate their ability and their limitations. If needed, ask them if they need help, rather than assume they can’t do something.
“Can you even have kids, ya know, with your scars?”
As I have gotten older rather than others asking me my wants when it comes to a family, it has turned into a question on my ability. This question is not only insulting - it's invasive.
"Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry!"
Someone becomes overly sympathetic, feeling sorry for me, and turning it into just a sad story. I don’t want your pity. I'd prefer empathy, understanding, and awareness.
"You look so normal, your feet aren't that bad."
It's true that I can walk, talk, eat, laugh and ride horses, but I do have some limitations with my burn injury. For example, my feet are two different sizes and very sensitive and prone to chafing with different shoes.
I have made the accommodations I need in order to thrive, yet because I have made can do so many things, others easily overlook the severity of my burn injury.
"Get over yourself, it's just a few scars."
Comments like this dismiss the importance of a person or events. A burn injury is so often more than just a scar, it also indicates a story of trauma and pain. There is no ‘just getting over’ trauma, it changes a person, their worldview and perspective of life. Yes, healing is possible and occurs but the story always remains.
“The term microassault refers to a blatant verbal, nonverbal, or environmental attack intended to convey discriminatory and biased sentiments. This notion is related to overt racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and religious discrimination in which individuals deliberately convey derogatory messages to target groups” (Sue, D.W. & Sue, D, 2016).
Similar to bullying, microassults can make burn survivors feel like they are being attacked because of their differences.
"You look like a bearded dragon." (Also, alien or even monster)
Calling names dehumanizes me and anyone else with scars.
"What did you do to yourself?" "Why did you do that?"
I had a professor ask me what happened once in this way when I was seeking help on an assignment. I immediately felt so unsafe and unable to ask for help on the assignment. Instead, I felt the need to defend myself and prove that I didn’t cause my burns.
This kind of comment not only makes assumptions about a person's story but also can make them feel like they are being attacked for their choices and differences.
“You just have to push yourself harder.”
I have spent so much of my life fighting for everything I have. For my ability to walk, my ability to use my hands, for my education, for my health, and for my independence. I have learned I do not need to fight and push myself harder to do the things a fully able body/healthy/non-burned person does, rather what I need to listen to my body and take care of myself.
This comment implies that if I just pushed my body harder I could do everything, without recognizing that no amount of pushing my body is going to help me achieve more.
For example, I cannot “push myself” to tolerate the heat. I will just pass out and get sick from heat exhaustion.
Unwanted nonverbal gestures or staring: "Wow, wow, wow."
This came from two ladies who almost dropped their drinks after seeing me in a bathing suit with all of my visible scars showing. On a smaller scale, I have had people continue to stare at my hands because of their differences.
These verbal or nonverbal gestures can make burn survivors feel like they don't belong.
It's not okay to touch my skin without permission. I wouldn’t and don’t just walk up and feel someone's unburned skin. I understand my skin looks and feels different but doing so without permission is violating personal space and touch boundaries.
Call it out - tell the person that was a microaggression
Express your feelings
Pretend you don’t understand
Promote and embrace empathy
Engage in self-compassion and don’t take it personally
(A Guide to Responding to Microaggressions, n.d.).
Is what I am saying belittling or empowering the recipient?
Will this help them feel heard and understood?
Am I patronizing them by responding in the way that I have?
What is the purpose behind this comment/question?
Am I treating this person as an individual?
Will this undermine their strides toward healing, growth, achievements and independence?
“For some people just being themselves can be a revolutionary act because their very being is crushing stereotypes of who and what they should be” (Alvoid, n.d.).
Microaggressions make it hard for one to be themselves, because they make them feel excluded and judged. Rather than lifting a person up, they can drag one down and create wounds. By spreading awareness to different types of microaggressions, changing the way we speak to one another we can create a world and culture in which all can live life to their fullest potential.
Michelle Lauren Anderson (author), MA, MBA, is a Minnesota native. At 2 years old, she was burned on over 91% of her body. She learned how to navigate life with her scars on her sleeves. After attending a camp for burn survivors in Colorado, she fell in love with horses and spent years training and competing horses. She is now an Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning and a Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor. When Michelle is not spending time with her animals she is a Business Analyst and is writing a book about her burn survivor journey. Visit her website for more information.
Alexi Pyles (co-author) is a child burn survivor with 2nd and 3rd degree burns on her neck and chest. Alexi was burned when she was six months old in Xiamen, China. Alexi was adopted at the age of two and brought to the United States to be treated by Dr. Peterson at the Sherman Oaks Hospital burn unit. Alexi is now finishing her last semester of graduate school to receive her Master's of Science degree in Counseling with an Option in Rehabilitation Counseling and Certificate in Clinical Counseling. Alexi currently works for a non-profit helping homeless adults become housed and sustain permanent housing. Alexi is working towards earning her licensure in clinical counseling and wants to specialize in burn trauma.