Rosalind Jana is a freelance writer, sporadic model, and Oxford student who at the age of 16 won the Vogue Talent Contest for young writers. She has since written for a range of publications on topics from body image to sustainable fashion and her own experiences of spinal surgery, a theme she agreed to explore further for us here in this post.
I came across Rosalind when reading a brilliant piece on body image for the All Walks for Catwalks site and was struck by her astute observations, the kind that usually takes more than a couple of decades of life to realize. Rosalind has had a particularly challenging journey for one so young and we’re touched that she agreed to share her story again.
(ps Rosalind wrote me the most tear-inducing, beautiful poem for my birthday which we featured on our ‘Celebrators’ post here).
Mind, and body
The relationship I have with my back is complicated.
Ask me how I now feel about it and my answer could be one of intense pride and gratitude, or ambivalent gloom. Depends on the day. It’s certainly an improvement though. Several years ago it was more a partnership in which I concertedly tried to pretend that my other half didn’t exist.
This other half was less visible in the mirror, the worst parts hidden beyond the reach of reflections. But it wasn’t something separate from me. Quite the opposite. It was as integral as it gets – my spine. The central core holding up my skeleton had contorted itself into a wonky ‘S’ shape and been diagnosed as scoliosis.
It was discovered on a wintery evening when I was fourteen and a half. I was wearing a white vintage blouse. My mum tugged at it, thinking the fabric had bunched on the lower left part of my torso. The thick chiffon moved but the lump didn’t.
It was under the skin. Immediate thoughts were of tumors, or something similarly terrifying. Thus when appointments had been made and doctors seen, the initial label of scoliosis seemed almost a relief, a collective sigh of “thank god it’s not worse.
” However, my first x-ray showed a spine bent to 56 degrees. This should have caused more alarm than it did at the orthopedic hospital I’d been referred to. Most healthcare professionals suggest operating on anything above 45 degrees. Yet I was told by my consultant to go away, “live your life” and return for the occasional check-up. Six months and a growth spurt later and it had increased to 80 degrees.
My curvature was labeled ‘idiopathic’, meaning cause unknown. It’s one of those things that, until someone discovers how it’s triggered, will continue to be a condition that ‘just happens’ to an unfortunate few. As a female adolescent, I was in the group most likely to be affected. Although up to 10% of the population are thought to have it, most cases are slight – the vertebrae a little skewed, but hardly noticeable. I was one of the minorities where the spine doesn’t just tilt but twist until it’s both easily seen and always hurting.
I had begun modeling at thirteen and was still doing the odd job as my scoliosis continued its willful rotations.
Those are the medical facts. But it wasn’t merely a matter of numbers. Scoliosis affects the whole torso, in my case leading to everything from a rib cage pushed into unnatural prominence to a lopsided pelvis with one hip higher than the other. My shoulders were unbalanced, the right one sticking outwards like the stub of a wing while the left folded inwards. Outlines could be seen where they shouldn’t be. All the while the deep aches and stabs of pain increased, sometimes flashing like lightning – sparking tears.
To go from being a shy, skinny girl to having an appearance approved of by the fashion industry to having one unusual to even the most non-judgmental eye was hard. It was a quick, bewildering trajectory.
Puberty and scoliosis hit at almost exactly the same time, meaning I had to deal with an additional set of curves unknown to most. I tried my best to hide from what was happening, tetchy if it was mentioned by parents – yet over-sensitively aware at school of how I was perceived. I felt that it was weak to ask for help. I struggled, miserable in my uniform, miserable in the figure beneath the cheap sweatshirt.
I had surgery in October 2010. I won’t dwell here on recovery (I’ve written about extensively elsewhere, including in Vogue UK) other than to say that it was short-term agony and debilitation for life-long gain. I grew two and a half inches in height and lost two months from my school year. I cannot stress enough how grateful I am to live in a time and place where this operation is available. My life (and body) would be looking very different without it.
Now when I’m describing all of this in a hurry, I’ll say that when I was was fifteen I had scoliosis. That’s the easiest way to start the story – in the past tense. To remove myself from the experience, look back from a distance.
Several years on it’s perhaps the only way to approach it. But to say that I ‘had’ scoliosis suggests a complete narrative that’s over and done with, now encased in the glass of memory like a museum exhibit.
The truth is that I still ‘have’ scoliosis. Surgery doesn’t cure it but rectifies the worst of the damage. My curve, fused solid, has been reduced to 22 degrees – enthroned by metal rods, screws, and bolts.
It still hurts at times, both physically and emotionally.
I’ll fiercely affirm the importance and beauty of my scar, of the symbolic value of this mother-of-pearl shaded memento.
I wear it with pride, showing it off in backless dresses. I’ve also, inspired by Frida Kahlo (and Alexander McQueen and Elsa Schiaparelli), used my back for various artistic projects from photography to clothing to framing my scar with faux pearls (right) a la Chanel SS12.
Yet there are elements I’m less fond of. I can celebrate skin, but the bone beneath is more problematic. There are the traces left behind: the shoulder blade that curves out like a crease in a sheet of paper that should be smooth, deep-seated throbbing caused by heavy bags and books, the ribs still prominent enough to disrupt my waistline, the strange patches of numbness and oversensitivity surrounding the line the surgeon sliced to reach my spine. In order to scrape muscle from bone, nerves were severed. Some are still re-attaching themselves. Others were disconnected permanently.
The skin between my shoulders has been de-familiarized, made strange. Numbness serves to separate me from a body otherwise functioning without thought.
I love and resent my back.
I cannot imagine a version of my past that did not include surgery, and yet I can wonder. I am forever thankful for a body that works, that allows me to move and walk and dance for hours – but, every now and then, wish that I had a perfectly symmetrical set of shoulders. I appreciate the aesthetics of unbalanced and irregular shapes, can look back on my pre-surgery figure with an awed fascination, yet still recall how vulnerable and brittle I felt whilst inhabiting it. Contradictions and complexities are inevitable. It was one of the most formative things to happen to me.
Perhaps I’ll never fully accept my back as beautiful – but it’s a relationship I’m working on.
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