When Michelle Elman was 15, she decided she was ugly. At her all-girls boarding school, she stuck out like a sore thumb — she was mixed race, bigger than most of her classmates, and bore secret scars all over her body from the multiple operations she had endured in her early teens. She listened day-in, day-out to her friends agonising about their skin, their hair, the latest diet they were trying – and a wall went up in her mind. “Is this all we are?” she thought. “God this is boring. Count me out.” Unlike most teenage girls, Michelle understood that there was more to life than beauty. Having been born with a brain tumour, later suffering from a condition called Hydrocephalus (where an excess of CSF fluid is produced around the brain and spinal cord) and twice suffering from obstructed bowels, Michelle had undergone 15 surgeries by the time she was 13. “My process was to go ‘you know what, my scars aren’t going anywhere, so I just need to accept them. I’m ugly. Cool, that’s done. That’s a fact of life, now let’s try to create something with the rest of it.”
She convinced herself that she would die young; that 21 would be it for her, and was all the while wracked with guilt for having such negative thoughts when she had, against the odds, survived. “I had this belief around my scars that if I talked about it people would notice, so I never spoke about it,” she remembers.
It wasn’t until Michelle was 18, and forging a new life at university, that she finally felt able to tell people about her scars, and deal with the trauma – by the time she was 11, she had seen 30 children die in hospital – which had been lingering under the surface for so many years. “God knows how my friends put up with it — once I started I couldn’t stop.”
Graduating with a degree in psychology from Bristol, Michelle decided to become a life coach, but before long she felt herself becoming more and more drawn to clients who were struggling specifically with body confidence. “One day I mentioned casually [in a group session] that I’ve had some surgeries and mentioned my scars. [A client] was like: ‘why don’t you talk about this? It helps me to know that you’ve been through it as well’.”
The idea of it filtering into Michelle’s professional life remained anxiety-inducing. It wasn’t until she was on holiday with a friend that she decided to put her money where her mouth was. “My friend was like: ‘just out of interest, how are you going to be a body confidence coach if you won’t wear a bikini?’” Michelle’s immediate reaction was “People with scars can’t wear bikinis”. But she vowed to push herself: to wear a bikini, and take a picture in it. She posted it on Instagram with the caption: “People with scars can’t wear bikinis” and it immediately went viral. The response from people who took comfort and confidence from her picture was overwhelming. It was clear to Michelle she was onto something. Three and a half years on, Michelle has 124,000 followers on her Instagram account @scarrednotscared. She has published a book called ‘Am I Ugly?’, launched a successful podcast, spoken at countless body positivity events, and delivered a Ted Talk in which she and many of the audience members broke down in tears.
This kind of overnight popularity is par for the course for influencers like Michelle, who use their visible differences to spread the gospel of body confidence. Lex Gillies (known as @talontedlex on Instagram), began building a following as a beauty blogger, gaining a dedicated band of women who devoured her posts about nail art and the latest makeup trends. But she lived in fear that one day someone would ask her: “why don’t you ever post before pictures?”, or “why do you wear such heavy make up?” Lex had been living with rosacea (a long-term skin condition which typically affects the face and results in redness and swelling), since she was at university, when doctors eventually diagnosed her but dismissed her requests for help and advice. “What are you complaining about,” one doctor said. “It’s just skin.”
“I just had this really horrible feeling that someone would expose me,” she recalls, “so I decided to do it myself. As soon as I did I had so many people get in touch with me.”
Eight years on, Lex has become an expert in how to use makeup to cover up skin conditions, posting regular shots of her own skin during a flare up, and after careful makeup application. It’s a dicey topic, I suggest, as there are some who see covering up your visible differences as fuelling shame, not acceptance. Lex is very clear, however, that this is simply not the case. “I think makeup can be written off as something quite superficial and silly. But I was just trying to get to a point where my skin wasn’t the first thing people notice about me. I believe makeup is the thing which can make me myself.”
Though both Michelle and Lex now boast huge followings of women who send them daily messages of support and thanks, they still have to endure their fair share of trolls (someone recently messaged Lex saying “if I looked like you I’d kill myself”). Skin positivity blogger Em Ford, who has nearly 1 million followers on Instagram, including a whole host of celebrities, found fame when she turned the trolling she received blogging about her adult acne into a viral video. “My acne developed from nowhere,” she says. “When it first happened I didn’t want to share what I was going through. But after researching and learning how common it was - 80 per cent of people will be affected in their lives - it made sense to talk about it.” In the video, titled ‘You Look Disgusting’, Em detailed all the horrendous comments she had received about her appearance online. It reached over 10 million views in the first week it went live and is still her most-viewed video three years on. Since then, she has made a BBC documentary about online trolls, and her YouTube channel and beauty blog have been a force for change. In November last year, Em made another viral video titled Redefine Pretty, interviewing 20 diverse women about their own relationship with their looks; now, the majority of the messages she receives are of support or calls for advice. “I can’t remember the last negative comment I got on a no makeup picture,” she says. “After [You Look Disgusting] everything really changed. Now it’s a community of acceptance and a celebration of individuality.”
For all three women, the purpose of sharing their stories about coming to terms with their looks has been to help others like them, and make sure younger generations grow up in a world where they see images of all kinds of people. But it’s also been a form of personal healing. For Michelle, the moment when she was finally able to look at pictures of herself in hospital after her surgeries came in the middle of her Ted talk, when they flashed up on the slideshow behind her. “I started crying. The child who needed this, this now exists. I had to wait to accept my body. There are people who go through their entire life and don’t accept themselves.”
Changing Faces is one of the Telegraph’s three chosen charities for its annual appeal. To make a donation call 0151 284 1927 or click here: telegraph.co.uk/charity