By Danny Baggott @Dan_Baggie
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Videographer / Director: Nathan Pellow-Jarmin, Dustin Weber
Producer: Danny Baggott, Ruby Coote
Editor: Grant Hanson-Vaux
When she was just 23 years old, Neli Zuma was fighting for her life in ICU with internal bleeding after her friend’s car span out of control and hit a wall.
Neli was left with a gaping hole in her stomach and doctors had no choice but to remove skin from her thigh and sew it to the open wound to prevent her bleeding out. Unfortunately, there was nothing they could do for her close friend who passed away two days later.
Neli, who had just started out on her modelling career, was left with scarring on her stomach and thigh and she had to use a colostomy bag for 10 months. Her body-confidence had hit an all-time low.
But after months of trying to improve the way she saw herself, Neli from Durban, South Africa, decided it was time to show the world that she is no longer ashamed of her scars.
Neli, now 25, told Barcroft TV: “I remembered waking up after three weeks in ICU and when I looked down I had a colostomy bag and my stomach was covered in plastic.
“I used to cry and cry for days.
“I remember writing in my diary, ‘No more happy Neli’, ‘no more wearing crop-tops’. This was supposed to be a positive diary and it took me months and months to actually realise that I need to stop beating myself up.
“And now, I’m rocking my scars. And I rock them with a smile.”
At first, Neli found it very difficult to show her scars in public, with strangers often asking her, ‘Why do you have a stomach like that?’.
But after experiencing some of her darkest days, Neli battled on and found the inner-confidence to take her first professional photograph since the accident – with her scars fully on show.
She said: “I started calling a friend of mine who is a photographer.
“I said, ‘Can we do this? I am willing to take a picture of myself to show people that I am back.’
“The first picture I posted on social media was on Facebook. I was so shocked with how people reacted to it.
“People started sharing it and there were so many comments about others trying to embrace who they are.
“And from that, I decided to post more pictures of myself that would inspire others around the world.”
In addition to using her modelling to raise awareness on social media, Neli decided to create an online blog where she could share her journey and talk to others who have been through similar hardships.
Neli’s family and close friends also played a crucial role in her regaining the confidence to embrace her body.
Neli’s twin sister, Thembalisha Zuma said: “When I look at Neli’s scars, I don’t know how I would have accepted them.
“She is such a strong person.”
Despite everything she has gone through, Neli no longer dreads going out in public during the summer time and she looks forward to a bright future.
“I want to inspire people and encourage them to be better,” she said.
“It takes a lot to accept yourself. You need to love yourself first, care for yourself and be gentle to yourself.
“All before the outside world can do the same thing.”