body dysmorphia

I was twelve years old when I first started to avoid looking at my body in a full length mirror. Growing up I had always had puppy fat, with that innocent round face and equally round belly. Like most people, when I got a bit older I quickly lost that through a combination of puberty and eating less. But to me, my body was still imperfect: flawed in every curve, cellulite marks and mole. I constantly compared myself to the women I saw on television and in fashion magazines – it’s not a new story, one shared by too many young girls, but it’s mine still. We’re surrounded; from the photo-touched adverts plastered around town to the myth of the “ideal” women. The advent of social media did nothing to help my endless comparisons; now millions of photo-touched and gorgeous women were online, many sharing their holiday snaps, with their long legs, tanned bodies and unblemished skin; a stark contrast to my own body, with my sallow skin and 5”1 stature. These women were meant to be ‘normal’, or ‘real’ – this was presented everyday life, not a glamourous magazine.

It wasn’t until I was twenty years old that I heard the phrase Body Dysmorphia. A doctor at University mentioned it in one of our weigh in session; I had low blood pressure and was having regular checks ups. But by the age of twenty-one, I was a regular at my University’s gym, lifting weights and becoming stronger than I had ever been before. The regular gym sessions made me incessantly hungry, and rather than snacking on sugary foods I was eating healthy and nutritious meals. I felt like I had it sorted. My body was a temple and I was finally treating it with the love it deserved. Of course the negative thoughts that had plagued my mind and body for almost nine years were still there, that kind of thing rarely just leaves you, but I was able to ignore them. I could tell myself they were false, that my mind was lying to me; I knew I was healthy, and I knew that my body looked strong and healthy. This felt like the calm.

In July 2017 I was required to undergo minor surgery to remove part of my bowel. I’d had appendicitis and an ovarian abscess removed two months prior, and the operation had revealed a small and benign tumour – a NET. In order to guarantee that I would be 100% NET free, it was decided that the part of my bowel where the tumours could grow should be removed as well.

Seven days after my operation, my dressings were removed, and I found myself looking at a horizontal cut through my belly button. It was a slash just above my hips; a cut much larger than I had anticipated or imagined, black in colour, which caused part of my stomach to dip like a ski jump and the other half to stay risen. I couldn’t look at it. The scar in the centre of my body should have been a sign of health for me, and sign of resilience, but all I could think of was how I could never be an underwear model. I’d never really had any ambition to be an underwear model; I’m far too short by industry standards and until a few months ago I hadn’t been able to look at myself in underwear, never mind let anyone else. Yet for some reason, all I could think about was how noticeable my scar would be if I chose to wear a bikini, or model underwear. It felt like the defining feature of my body now; all my heath and strength went out of the window.

Throughout my life I had rarely seen anyone with red scars on their bodies. My father has some faint scars on his leg, back from his canoeing days, but these are small and pale. You wouldn’t find them unless you knew where to look – and even if they were more noticeable, they’d probably be deemed rugged rather than ugly. I searched Instagram, looking at women in bikinis – searching for any scars, finding only smooth skin staring back at me. Celebrities who I knew must have scars from operations and caesareans didn’t appear to have any, or they didn’t show them. None of the underwear or swimwear models on huge shopping sites could be seen with prominent scars, nor any Victoria Secret models. I was nowhere, and I could feel those old feelings of discomfort and insecurity creeping back slowly. Everywhere I looked, the world seemed to be telling me I needed to hide this, put it away. It wasn’t for public consumption – this sign of a life possibly saved.

There must be hundreds more young women and girls like me, who bare jagged scars, dipping skin, and the marks of small and large incisions. Stretch marks simply from the miracle of growing, or growing another human. I know myself that my scar is tiny in comparison to others, and that it is a sign of my now healthy body, a sign that I’ve overcome something. So why am I so ashamed of it? Why do I view it as a blemish on my body? If muscle mass and gym hours logged felt like a sign of strength and health, why didn’t this? Scars haven’t always been viewed as a sign of imperfection. But somewhere along the way we lost sight of what a scar actually means, a reminder of all the things we’ve survived. They have become something to hide away, to moisturise in bio-oil until they have faded. I spoke to my surgeon a few days ago about my scar, commenting on my surprise at its size. He proceeded to justify the length and shape of it before I could comment on the triviality of my concern. His response surprised me, rather than agree with me, that the size of my scar was trivial, and that what was most important was my recovery, he stated that my concerns were important, they were significant. The size, shape and prominence of a scar has become such as focal point for people that it has become one too for surgeons.

While nowhere near the main benefit of keyhole surgery, the surgeons operating on my younger sister promised her that with this type of surgery she’d be able to wear a bikini when she was a young woman. They explained to her that the scars were so small that by the time she was in her late teens, you wouldn’t be able to see them at all. They never told her not to worry about her scars, to think of her scars as a sign that she was better, that that ailment could never bother her again. The same way that my own scars were not explained to me in this light. That our bodies are not explained to us as ours, as the things that keep us alive and let us breathe, move and enjoy life. Our beauty marks, and moles are not sold to us as what makes us unique, but as things to be covered up. Scars should be viewed for what they are, stories of improved health and stories of survival. They should symbolise your recovery and regrowth after an accident, or serve as story of your life’s journey so far. Just like my father’s scars symbolise his long forgotten sporting career, of escaping a fast rapid or his own brother’s attempts to free him from his canoe, my own scars too should help to tell my own story. A story of passing my finals despite having my appendix removed a week prior, a sign of my now NET free body. They shouldn’t be hidden, or photo-shopped, and they shouldn’t prevent one from becoming an underwear model.

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