originally published January 28, 2014
They tell me that chicks dig scars.
I’ve got one permanent battle etching upon my exterior, and when I was single it did nothing to improve my social life. Sure, it’s just a 1½-inch tic across two of my left knuckles from when I was dissecting a large clam in the seventh grade, but a scar is a scar, right? Perhaps if I’d tweaked the story a bit, maybe told the ladies I got the scar punching out a robotic dinosaur Nazi along the rim of a volcano.
From what I can tell, my problem may not have rested in the relatively tame (and stupid) nature of my wound, but in its arbitrary nature. Scarring these days is often a matter of intent, perhaps as a personal statement or as a form of social acceptance. I’m not one to get judgy about one’s epidermal ornamentation – tattoo art has come a long way from the requisite bicep anchor, and even the most absurdly inked typos on the face or neck can provide a hearty laugh.
Voluntary scarring? It seems a bit over-the-top for my tastes. But as much as the concept appears separated between its modern trendy incarnation and its use among tribal rites and customs in civilizations far removed from our own, there is a bridge: the high-society scar.
That’s right – someone’s wound-shadow upon their skin might have nothing to do with a meat cleaver juggling accident, a Nanumban initiation ceremony nor the desire to express “YOLO” to one’s peers. A facial cicatrix might denote one’s aristocratic roots. It could serve as a cheek-slung banner, boasting of the blue blood that had once oozed through those pores.
They’re called dueling scars.
This particular badge of weirdness is believed to have originated among Austrians and Germans in the 19th and 20th centuries. Poor kids never went to university back then – they toiled as brewers, chocolatiers, professional yodellers and whatnot. But those with some money tucked into their family belt were sent to school where academic fencing was a common pastime. Those steel-mesh helmets fencers wear in the Olympics? Those are for pussies. Real men spilled one another’s blood on the floor.
Inside schools and out, swordplay was not always seen as a sport, nor was it necessarily a battle between two foes (though of course that happened often). No, academic fencing was a way for men to be men, to display whatever swagger or attitude was necessary to validate their position among the social hierarchy. The winner was often not the guy who landed the triumphant blow, or the one who knocked the foil from the other’s grasp. It was the man who stepped up and took the wound like a mensch.
To be fair, most of these campus duels took place with swords that were not particularly sharp. The match was called as soon as either student received a one-inch scar with at least a drop of blood. Students could expect to fight in 10 to 30 duels throughout their academic journey – I suppose they were the keg-stands of the 19th century. But again, winning wasn’t important. Fencing was a character lesson.
Students were expected to perform a match at least once in their schooling with actual sharp blades, with a real element of danger. It was personality training, ensuring German and Austrian men would grow up to be brave and unflinching. Otto von Bismarck believed that the bravery of a man could be judged by the scars upon his cheeks. Sometimes men would pack the wound with horsehair in hopes of irritating it and creating a healthy, masculine scar.
Yeah, I can see how the clam story did nothing for my own social standing.
As any devoted reader of National Geographic will remember, scarring is a common practice among African tribes, often as an initiation rite or to indicate specific roles within the community. For my coming-of-age ceremony all I had to do was slap on a little hat and recite a few pages of syllables in a language that I did not (nor will I ever) understand. That was it – mazel tov, shake some hands, receive a pile of $18 checks. There was no need for permanent body damage.
In many tribes the scarring on a woman’s belly indicates her willingness to be a mother. The act of accepting the pain and discomfort of flesh mutilation acts as evidence that she possesses the emotional maturity to bear children. Really? I would think that mothers go through enough with the whole childbirth thing – forcing them to earn their stripes by soaking up some agony beforehand strikes me as a touch excessive.
Again, I’m not being judgy. These are traditions that stretch deep into the past, and which much possess at least enough merit within these cultures to have been passed down through the generations. If I’m going to be baffled at anything, it will be at those scars which have been adopted – often by bored hipsters – for no other reason than individual expression.
The two arguments in favor of scarring or branding for the sole purpose of voluntary body modification are visibility and euphoria. Visibility because scars and brands will stand out on dark skin more than a tattoo would. This makes sense to me. Also, there is apparently a natural euphoric state that one can achieve through either of these acts. I guess so, but I can’t help but think of a dozen other euphoric states one can achieve without a permanent physical reminder.
I prefer the notion of a scar that came to being through organic means. Scars that have been earned, not paid for by Visa or Mastercard. And I’m not alone – a 2008 study by researchers at the University of Liverpool found that women consistently rated men with facial scars higher on an attractiveness scale than men without. Similar faces were used throughout the study, and Photoshop was employed to add or remove scars in order to keep the experimental balance more level. It’s scientific proof – chicks dig scars, at least for short-term relationships.
For those students who wore dueling scars as badges of honor, I offer a weary salute at your willingness to be facially mangled in order to score points with the ladies. For those who escaped without scars, but then paid a doctor to simulate them or inflicted them on their own (and yes, this really happened), then congratulations on being a class-A poser in the pre-selfie era. We all applaud how bad-ass you are pretending to be.
I think I’d rather tell women I was beaten up by a clam.