I was 14 when the late King Richard III was uprooted from his resting place beneath a reserved car spot in an unassuming Leicester car park. Year 8 History was a bit of a cracker that day: the blinds were drawn and my teacher was lurking in the corner with a manic glint in her eye, basking in the ghoulish blue light of the SmartBoard. Feast your eyes children, she must have said, upon this: a misshapen skeleton came into focus, still half-buried and backlit on the whiteboard. The reaction of disgust from my prepubescent peers was mild, but pronounced.
The next slide, this one less The Goonies and more Dr. House, featured bones arranged artfully on some sort of VantaBlack slab, revealing a disturbing – and unfortunately familiar – spinal arc. My fellow students squirmed in distress as I thought of my own folder of X-rays on some Orthopaedic surgeon’s database.
Scoliosis, my teacher enunciated, diagnosing both the dead King and me in the same satisfied declaration.
History – and mostly Shakespeare – has Richard down as a “poisonous bunch-backed toad”, a “lump of foul deformity”, and a “hedgehog,” among other things. While I can’t speak to Richard as a person – and by many accounts, he wasn’t nearly as fiendish as Bill made him out to be – what we can now say with some confidence is that he 1. had scoliosis, and 2. was most likely killed by a sword through the back of the skull.
I can relate to Richard re the former, and hopefully will never be able to say the same of the latter. While I am sure my teacher was unaware at the time that I had only weeks before been diagnosed with the same malady that has been used for centuries – if unknowingly – to marr King Richard’s public image, her expose did not do much to bolster what was, at the time, my quite delicate 14-year-old self and body image.
Scoliosis will affect around 1 in 15 girls, to varying degrees. There is no known cause. It is less common in boys, and generally develops between the ages of 9 and 14, or else in the growth spurt that often precedes puberty. I had no such growth spurt; instead of growing upwards like anyone else, my spine blossomed outwards and sideways, finally settling into a distinctive ‘S’ shape that was severe enough to warrant two spinal fusion operations, one at age 15 and the next at age 19.
My condition was found out when my father decided to take me to a chiropractor for the first and only time. Said chiropractor took one look at my back, said, “there’s something very wrong here,” and hastily sent me off for the first of many, many X-Rays. When I finally did see an X-Ray of my spine for the first time, my mother stated reassuringly that, “that must be an example of a very extreme case, just for show.” Alas, it wasn’t a macabre decoration; it was my spine, as the Orthopaedic surgeon attested upon his entry.
The sense of bodily betrayal was extreme. At 14, I was caught in a brief maelstrom of self-pity and self-hatred as I began to notice the outward symptoms of my internal deformity: that my belly-button didn’t line up with my nose, that my right shoulder blade jutted out backwards and that the corner of my left ribcage jutted out slightly forward. I began to notice these things in photos of myself, and stopped wearing dresses and strappy tops. I felt crooked. I was the shortest in my family by more than was reasonable. In a fit of high drama, I decided that the Spartans would have thrown me off of Mount Taygetus. The straightness of my spine was something that I had absolutely taken for granted; I had never heard of scoliosis until that point in my life, and had never even considered that that was something that could be wrong with someone. To find out that the thing that was holding me upright was not upright at all was like having a sort of anatomical rug pulled out from under me.
Left unchecked, gravity would have slowly pulled the curves of my spine downwards. I would have shrunk, and my lungs – among other things – would have been potentially compromised. I would have ended up looking something like King Richard did in his car-park crypt. But I was quite a severe case and, at 22, my spine has been – for the most part – corrected. It is relatively straight and now contains both bone and titanium screws and rods (cool), which has really given Sia and David Guetta’s Titanium a whole new meaning for me. My rib cage is still a little bit twisted and I’m probably not quite as tall as I might have been, but I have a pretty sick scar to show for it, vaguely know my way around the inside of an X-Ray machine, and am thrilled to report that I now have a small chance of setting some metal detectors off. It’s not all bad.
What’s more, Richard and I (and all scoliosis-sufferers out there) are in quite good company. John Lydon of Sex Pistols fame, Usain Bolt, Kurt Cobain, Elizabeth Taylor and Sarah Michelle Gellar are just a very few notable names who allegedly had or have scoliosis. I don’t know why it makes me feel better to have Johnny Rotten and Buffy the Vampire Slayer on board, but there it is.
When Princess Eugenie got married in 2018, I cried because I’m a sook, but also because she wore a wedding dress in which her spinal fusion scar was deliberately visible. For something that is relatively common, and particularly among teenage girls, I don’t think scoliosis is particularly visible. Aside from being the butt of a few jokes in The Office – mainly Phyllis related – it really doesn’t come up all that often, despite affecting around 3% of the population. In some ways, because of Princess Eugenie’s visibility, I wear dresses again. I wear strappy and backless tops. I actually think my scar is pretty cool now, and I don’t mind showing it off. I’m a far cry from that Year 8 history class, being stared down by Richard’s spine with a mixture of shame and apprehension.
For those of us with curves on the inside – we’re in the domain of royalty and rock stars, baby.
Cover by Emiliano Vittoriosi