Learning curve: Why Princess Eugenie is proud of her scoliosis scar
She has shown that things that may once have caused us pain can be turned into a force for good
When the world watched Princess Eugenie walk down the aisle of St George’s Chapel in October, they bore witness to more than just a love story.
As the bride made her way towards her fiance, Jack Brooksbank, she was also making a powerful statement with each step. Her Christopher de Vos and Peter Pilotto gown, with its folded neckline and full skirt, had been deliberately designed with an open back in the shape of a deep-V to show off, rather than hide, a scar as thick as a piece of string which runs neatly down her spine. Many may not have noticed the slightly pinker ridge of skin, nor perhaps would I, had I not known that the princess, now 28, was diagnosed with scoliosis at the age of 11, as I had also been. But it was only on her wedding day that it really became clear how much the princess’s young life had been affected by her condition, both physically and emotionally.
“I believe scars are like memories that tell a story on your body, that remind you how strong you had to be, and that you survived to talk about it,” Eugenie tells me in her first interview about her condition since her wedding day.
“Your scars are a way of communicating, and sharing a trauma can be healing in so many ways. It can release that stigma you might have given to yourself and by talking about it you can show people how they can heal, too.”
Scoliosis is a painful condition that causes the spine to curve to the side at a significant degree. In eight out of 10 cases the cause is unknown, but it is thought that three in every 1,000 children require treatment for the condition, which most commonly affects those between the ages of 10 and 15.
Treatment can be twofold: patients either wear a brace until they stop growing or undergo invasive surgery, where the spine is broken and set straight. The latter can take months to recover from, with the person effectively learning to walk again.
At the time of her operation when she was 12, Buckingham Palace described the planned surgery as something routine and “minor”. However, being in the same school year as Eugenie and battling the condition myself, I was paying more attention than most.
While I spent my teenage years scared into submission by wearing a back brace, worried that if I failed to complete my treatment I would be cut open and put back together with a “nasty scar” to prove it, Eugenie went ahead and had the operation which she knew would mark her for life.
While I strapped myself into the plastic device, which rubbed my hips until they blistered and left me tossing and turning during sleepless nights until I trained myself to rest entirely still, the princess was undergoing her own torment.
The palace may have downplayed her surgery, but while most young girls were enjoying the freedom years of their childhood, Eugenie was undergoing treatment so severe that it would effectively lead to her life being put on hold. The reality of what 11-year-old Eugenie was about to endure would have been unimaginable compared with the enchanted life she had until then led. Growing up in the Grade II-listed Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park, Berkshire, playdates consisted of running around with her cousins Prince William and Harry and her older sister, Princess Beatrice, with whom she has always had a close bond.
Eugenie was sent to the best schools in the country, took ski holidays in Verbier, travelled the world on royal engagements, and even when her parents, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, divorced, the two stayed remarkably close. Yet beneath all of this fortune were bleak times, with the age of 12 marking the turning point of her life – from a little girl’s dream to an eight-hour operation in which her back was rebuilt with titanium rods. The scar was prominent. Yet it was not so much the scar itself that fazed her (hers “has always been a point of pride”), but more having to make sense of the fact that she was going to lead a very different life to the one she had previously known. There would be a long recovery period, during which playing outside with friends and even, simply, moving, would be halted.
“I don’t think I actually thought: ‘Oh, I will have a scar’,” she says. “I was only 11 years old when I was told I needed surgery and that bombshell left me reeling, as well as the idea that I would not be at school, or be normal like the other pupils.”
In her early years Eugenie was educated in and around the Windsor area, at Upton House School, Coworth Park School and St George’s School, which has a view of Windsor Castle. The idea of not being able to attend as she recovered affected her deeply.
“There are so many emotions and worries that go thundering through your head,” she recalls, having wondered: “Will I be able to play sports, or will I look the same, or will I miss a lot of school and be behind?
“I think the most upsetting time was before the operation – the fear of the unknown and having a condition that made me different. Afterwards, I couldn’t move for a while in hospital or when I came home. I had to wear a neck brace and be moved very gently in bed for a few months. That was very frustrating and I remember being angry about not being able to run and play.”
Eugenie “went back to school eventually”, but “it was upsetting not to be able to do the normal things I loved but in terms of the condition – I always believed that if doctors and parents are telling you that you will be okay, as a young person you have total faith in that, and they were right”.
It has not always been the case that Eugenie, now a patron of the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, has been so open about her condition.
I can empathise. As a teenager I did everything in my power to hide my brace, which was no mean feat given how bulky it was. I would be mortified if someone who didn’t already know about my condition asked why I sat bolt upright or questioned the “thing” that stuck out the top of my school jumper. I did not want to admit there was something “different” about me.
For the princess, at least in the beginning, she was “very closed” about her scar.
“But as I got older I became very proud to show it to people who were going through the same thing,” she says.
“I remember going back to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital and showing a little girl who couldn’t yet sit up from her operation. Her eyes grew so big and eventually a huge smile lit up her face when she saw I had such a big scar and was standing up tall in front of her.”
Her mother instilled a huge sense of pride in her daughter regarding her surgery; in true Fergie style, turning something potentially harrowing into a hugely positive experience.
“I do believe the people around you also help to take away the stigma,” she says, adding that upon meeting other scoliosis sufferers, her mother “was amazing at saying: ‘Eugenie had the same operation and look at her scar and how she stands now’.
“It made me realise that I can help others by showing it, and that there didn’t need to be a scared, embarrassed girl standing alone.”
While Eugenie has taken so much of her experience in her stride, it has not always been plain sailing. “Time is such an amazing healer, and you learn to live a certain way over the years. Not necessarily hindering the way you live, but just being more aware of what you do or how you move. I remember putting cream only on my scar for years after the operation. There was an unexplainable feeling – like a kind of emptiness.”
But now that scar is a symbol of something far greater. When meeting with her wedding dress designers, Eugenie specified that it was to be seen.
“After one or two initial meetings where I said I wanted to show my back and scar, we had a fitting and in their first attempt at the shape and design of the dress, they got me and the vision in one,” she recalls.
“From there we realised that the back of the dress was the centre point and a veil would take away from the scar and the beautiful design they had created.”
The morning Eugenie stepped out of the 1977 Rolls Royce Phantom VI on October 12, her scar proudly on display, an important message was sent to young people everywhere growing up with some form of disfigurement. The moment that I saw her myself, proudly displaying the mark of what she had been through, I couldn’t believe how wrong I had been opting for my uncomfortable brace, believing surgery would leave me with something uglier.
With the rise of Instagram and social media, though, young women have never been under so much pressure to look perfect, and it is more difficult than ever for those who don’t. The princess agrees.
“I think it’s hard to define exactly why there is pressure to look a certain way. I’m sure there are countless young girls going through that pressure right now, and all I would say is you are amazing as you are. You are defined by your heart and soul, not by the way you look.”
This is the sentiment we should be encouraging. Our bodies are not perfect but, as the princess has shown, things that may once have caused us pain can be turned into a force for good.
Her message remains simple: “Be proud of the story you can tell and inspire people with.
“I have loved being able to see smiles on young people’s faces when I showed mine, and knowing they have found some comfort in my story is pretty cool.”
– © The Daily Telegraph