Published:  12:41 AM, 09 April 2019

'People with scars suffer in silence and are forced to hide away'

'People with scars suffer in silence and are forced to hide away'

Natalie Morris

For many women, 'strong' is a problematic label - it comes with a stigma and can put women off from being active altogether. A huge study by Sport England found that 75% of women say fear of judgment puts them off being active. So it is more important than ever those women reclaim their definition of strength and find ways to make fitness part of their lives.

Any woman can find their strength, love their body and be physically fit - regardless of outward appearance. Michelle Elman is a body confidence coach. 15 surgeries before the age of 20 left her with significant scarring; now she campaigns to include people with scars in the body positive conversation.

I first started working out after my last hospitalization when I was 19. I was bed-ridden for six weeks and when I was re-learning to walk, and I found that I developed a sudden interest in learning to run and that's where my love of exercise started. Especially post-hospital, it gave me a lot of control around my body and reminded me that my body was still strong and capable of doing a lot.

The main reason I hadn't tried anything previously was around fear that I would injure myself, but that happened anyway - so I started trying new things from dance classes to hiking. I went back to a lot of my old favorites that I used to do, but had stopped out of fear, like horse-riding, and paddle boarding and wakeboarding. In school, sports and PE lessons always gave off the mentality that you had to be good at a sport to play it, especially when as you got older.

 If you weren't on the team, you weren't allowed to play, so as an adult, what I love most is being able to enjoy those sports, whether it is squash or netball, and not have to focus on the skill of it - just the pure enjoyment. Sport also provides a break away from work and a vital release for my emotions. Being in hospital at 19 was a real turning point. I realized how many fun memories I had missed out on and, for the first time, it made me realize that my body had a much larger purpose than to be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing.

As I found the body positive community online, I started realizing how much of the fitness industry used really body-shaming language and always equated movement to numbers on a scale or calories burnt.

So I started using my social media presence to talk about how your relationship with exercise didn't need to be that, and that the harsh language we use about our bodies (kill your workout, burn that fat, no pain, no gain) can actually be harmful. (Picture: Michelle Elman/Metro.co.uk) When you talk like this, you override your body's signals for when you need to rest and you also use exercise as a form of punishment.

Last year, I particularly started talking about how a lot of exercise was actually landing me in a physiotherapist's office and how she had told me I really needed to take a step back from everything. Society likes to body shame fat women in particular - telling us to 'go to the gym and lose some weight', but it is important to show that sometimes health is about stopping exercise. I massively reduced my workouts last year and went back to simply walking and the most basic of exercises, like learning how to press the lift button using the right muscles.

As a result, in January, a year later, I've been able to return to playing squash and swimming with the least chronic pain I have ever had. I believe it's important that when we talk about health, it's not just about being thin or being what society believes 'health' looks like.

To me, health is experiencing the least chronic pain I have ever had in my life and the fact that I have not been hospitalised in six years. Tell us about your scarred not scared campaign I believe Scarred Not Scared is important because before I launched it in 2015, there wasn't a space for people with scars to feel heard and comfortable in their own skin.

People with scars are often taught to hide them because it 'makes people uncomfortable' and so the majority of scarred people have suffered in silence around their body shame. Since my campaign predominantly focuses on surgery scars, I include conversations about varying ability in the gym and how to advocate for your body when you can't always keep up in a class. I think we too often only see one type of body when it comes to a strong or fit woman.

We are never shown that "strong" is not an appearance, or told that your fitness cannot be assumed by your size have been photographed, laughed at or condescended in a gym. Whenever you have had health difficulties, surgeries or live with a chronic illness, your relationship with fitness becomes warped and it becomes really easy to focus on what you can't do. That led to a personal struggle that I was never as capable as my peers. But, over time, focusing on the fun of exercise helped me to overcome this struggle.

That's why I think it's really important to not worry about the skill necessarily. When you go to classes, often you have to make amendments and that can be really nerve-wracking if you are new to the gym. Especially when personal trainers don't take the time to ask about any injuries before the class, and then take the "push harder, you can do it!" approach.


The writer is a reporter of METRO

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