By Hannah Stevens @Hannahshewans
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Videographer / director: Marcus Hessenberg
Producer: Hannah Stevens, Ruby Coote
Editor: Ed Rius
From a young age, Michelle Elman had 15 surgeries to correct an obstructed bowel, a punctured intestine, resect a brain tumour and remove a cyst in her brain.
Michelle, from London, who also lives with hydrocephalus, quickly became aware of how different her body was to her peers and spent years hiding her scars away.
After coming to terms with the trauma her body had been through, Michelle, now 24, decided to bare all and embrace her bikini body.
She told Barcroft TV: “I decided the solution was to hide my scars and never talk about them again.
“It started feeling like it was a burden that I had this big secret and that I was deceiving people if I was in a relationship with them without telling them first.
“It just got to this point where I was like, ‘this is me. This is just who I am.’”
The body confidence activist remembers becoming more aware of her scars after attending a friend’s birthday party in a bikini.
Michelle said: “I became first conscious of my scars when I was 10 years old. All of my friends started wearing bikinis and I wanted to wear one too. I remember saying it to my mum and she sort of hesitated and I couldn’t understand why at the time.
“We eventually went and bought a bikini and when I came out at this birthday party all my friends started to stare at my stomach and I realised that there was a difference between my stomach and theirs.
“That was the moment I realised I was different and that different wasn’t necessarily good. Although, I would debate otherwise right now!”
Having grown up in hospitals and operating theatres, Michelle’s relationship with her body grew harder as she got older and reached peak insecurity at 13 years old.
“The surgeries gave me a difficult relationship with my body. All of my memories of my childhood, unfortunately, are tainted by illness- I didn’t know a life without pain. It was kind of the same thing with scars, where you don’t know any different,” she explained.
“When you don’t have body confidence you spend all day thinking about your body you obsess about what you look like all day, every day and then you don’t go out there and live your life.
“So when you have body confidence, you have so much space in your head to live your life and do more things.”
Michelle later set up a campaign to encourage more people to accept their own scars and to spread more body positivity.
She said: “There are so many people with a scar and they aren’t being represented. So, I was at the point in my life where I thought, ‘Why can’t I be that person? Why can’t I be the person creating space for the people who have illnesses, who have surgery scars?’
“Then within six months I had launched, ‘Scarred not Scared’ and wore a bikini myself and then it went viral.
“Everyone has something, that they’re awkward talking about or something that they don’t want everyone to know or something that’s little bit more guarded.
“I am just in a different position now where my most guarded secrets are also the things that I talk about most.”
Now the campaign has a life of its own and Michelle is continuing her work by taking part in more body confidence campaigns, like Be Real’s body confidence campaign.
She added: “I got involved with the Be Real campaign because I’ve been looking at their social media for years now. admiring the work they do and I just wanted to be a part of it because I think the work they do is important.”
YMCA’s Head of the Be Real Campaign, Liam Preston said: “The Be Real campaign is designed to support people around their body confidence and we want to create a body confident nation, where people feel more confident in who they are and the lifestyles that they lead.
“We wanted to have a campaign that’s said, it’s not okay to shame the way people look. It’s not okay to tell people how they should and shouldn’t look.”
Elman, who recently gave a Ted Talk on her experiences, has also set up a YouTube channel to share her body confidence secrets.
Michelle said: “If someone is struggling with their body image, what I think they need to realize is that they don’t need to change their body in order to be body confident. Everyone’s capable of having confidence in their body.
“Body confidence is a muscle; it requires practice. You don’t get born confident, or born insecure, you are taught these things. So you need to unlearn them.
“My relationship with my scars now is a happy one, it’s such a simple one. They’re me, they’re part of me. I don’t think twice about them.
“It’s just natural. It’s normal, It’s not this overbuilt, over done complicated thing - it’s just simple.”