A New Lens for Scars

By Ashley Oden

The curvature of my spine progressed from chronic to acute. It was shaped like an ‘S.’ I told myself ‘S’ is for ‘stupid’ or ‘shameful.’ For two years, twenty-two hours a day, my back was caged in cold, hard nylon. My brace was a 21st-century corset: a shell that left my back bruised, my confidence hollowed. 

I remember that scorching day six years ago, prior to my imprisonment –  before I hid from camera lenses, before my closet was flooded with plus-size shirts, before I was swallowed in shame. I mounted the guard rail with ease, unfazed by the “No Diving” sign. As others backed down, afraid, I counted to three and jumped from the bridge, free of fear.

That freedom died the summer after my freshman year as I underwent a spinal fusion surgery that screwed two steel rods into my spine. Laying in my hospital bed, I sulked about privilege lost: six years as lacrosse captain down the drain. Hours of practicing my back-handspring each week for gymnastics wasted. Summers jumping off of State Beach Bridge rendered unrealistic. 

Simple tasks I had mastered at the age of three were suddenly foreign. During recovery, I relearned how to walk and sit up in bed. The slow progress made me cold to the warmth of the friends and family who turned my house into a revolving door of paid respects. Each day felt like a new funeral for the girl who had died during surgery, the girl I would never again recognize. It was as if the State Beach Bridge had vanished as I found myself stranded, swimming in circles to find the shoreline.

I returned to school that fall to the sympathetic but hollow voices of others: “I’m sorry you went through that.” I was pierced by eyes of pity, but not embraced by eyes of understanding – I was now the girl who couldn’t run or carry a backpack, warned to keep out of the sun for its UV rays would stain my melanin permanently. It was not until I could sit in peace, free from constant pain, that I realized I was finally adjusting.

Despite my physical limitations, I soon learned photography enabled me to distort, magnify, and portray the positives of my reality. Photos served as a form of time travel, a way for the past to be remembered and the present to be escaped. My desire to manipulate my own image, to control the way others perceived my beauty, soon expanded into showcasing the beauty of others. Though initially a product of insecurity bleeding into my daily life, it transformed into a passion: capturing the best sides of others allowed me to regain the sense of control my surgeon’s scalpel stripped away.

That feeling – reclaimed autonomy – was something I knew I had to preserve and promote for younger girls about to embark upon that same lonely journey of discovery. During my junior year, I won a grant from the Lawrenceville School to make a documentary about my life with scoliosis. My fifteen minute film examines the fears, anxieties, and misconceptions of scoliosis in order to highlight girls raw scars of resilience. Though these scars are passports to our pasts, we will not let them dictate our futures. They are medals of honor, attesting to our ability to endure pain and still stand up straight. 

Today, I see the photo of that fearless 11-year-old on State Beach Bridge. She was oblivious to the difficult journey ahead and the innocence that would be stripped away. But if she could have seen our reflection in the water six years later, as we once again crashed down from the bridge, our scar no longer our captor but rather a tattoo of triumph, then she wouldn’t have had to learn the hard way that pain is fleeting and despair is temporary. 

Ashley Oden, a 2019 graduate of the The School, will be a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania in the Fall.