Let's take a minute to talk about positive body image. Do you feel positive about your body? Do you love everything about yourself? Do you embrace everything you have and your flaws? This question is becoming increasingly hard to answer. Now imagine you have something on your body which is a little unusual. A scar, stretch marks, a burn... or in some cases, a little part of your intestine sticking out of your stomach to form an ileostomy bag. This little bag has saved your life. The scar has saved your life. Yet why is it so hard to get it out in public?
I have lived with an invisible illness for over twenty years, which at the age of twenty-five, is pretty much my entire life! Crohn's Disease is an autoimmune disease, which can affect any part of the digestive tract. The body attacks itself, causing bleeding, ulcers, extreme stomach pain, nausea and diarrhoea (I know, mega glam!). I am just one of over 300,000 people in the UK living with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (we abbreviate to IBD). The disease can manifest itself in a million and one ways, which mean every single person's journey is different. No two IBD stories will be the same - but the feelings at the core often are. My journey started when I was four years old and to date I have been under the knife seven times. Which means of course, my body has taken a bit of a bruising - internally and externally. Simultaneously, my confidence has taken multiple blows too.
The journey I have come on to accept who I am and what I look like has been long, arduous - and painful. And I'm not talking physical pain here; I'm talking about gut wrenching emotional pain. At the age of twelve my large intestine was so ulcerated and swollen, the only answer was to remove the whole thing. To be in a position where your body is rejecting an organ is a funny concept to get your head around, but I was so sick, I just wanted it out. To remove this, they had to make a 30cm incision, from just below my chest to below my pelvis. They then had to form an ileostomy, which I lived with for three years. This ileostomy transformed my quality of life and medically, I was the healthiest I had ever been. My confidence however, was on the floor.
My family has always instilled a great sense of perseverance in me, and so even though my teenage years were a monumental struggle, I still did everything my friends did. I went on school trips, sleepovers, did P.E classes and even had boyfriends. But I was constantly anxious, private and not myself. It was like my ileostomy and my scar had wrapped me in a Perspex box and I whilst I was physically there, I couldn't engage in the way I wanted to. Most of all, I kept everything a secret. I didn't talk about my Crohn's, I certainly didn't talk about my bag and I DEFINITELY didn't talk about my gut issues. This was ten years ago now and I have since had my ileostomy reversed, but the memory of how I felt remains strong. I often open up my social media accounts and feel proud about how much awareness has been raised in the past few years and how many people are open about their IBD experiences. There was a time when talking about gut issues was taboo and embarrassing. Whilst it still might not be the best dinner chat, the grow of Insta-famous nutritionists and health bloggers mean there is now a forum for talking about this kind of stuff; there is a community sitting there waiting for you to unlock it and find the support you need. The fact I am even writing this article is a beautiful thing!! The growth of online support and awareness really couldn't come at a better time; the rate of IBD diagnosis in young adults is at an all-time high... and rising.
Scars are beautiful because they demonstrate a battle won. The point is that there is no such thing as an 'imperfections'. Who defines what is or isn't perfect anyway?! If you have stretch marks because you've carried a baby, own it! If you have stretch marks because you've gone on an incredible journey to lose weight, own it! If you have spot scars from your teenage years, own it! And why should you own it? Because ultimately, not accepting the way you are will only make you unhappy. Everybody is beautiful in his or her own way. If you're body has overcome something amazing why should that be hidden? I'm not saying it's easy by any stretch of the imagination, and there will surely be tears lost along the way to finding your way to body confidence. I used to walk around in a bikini with my hands covering my belly to hide my scar! But to my mind, if your body has been through the wars and has overcome it, then it should be screamed from the rooftops! MY BODY IS AMAZING AND THIS SCAR SHOWS YOU WHY!
Living with an invisible illness is a paradox, with which I still struggle. I want to look healthy and the same as all my peers, yet I also want people to understand the pain and struggles felt on a daily basis. Whilst looking completely normal, I want someone to rub my back and say 'don't worry Bryony, I understand you're in pain/you feel sick/ you're exhausted... Why don't you take it easy today?' On paper, it sounds absolutely bonkers (and also SO unrealistic!!) - yet this is the genuine dilemma of so many of us living with invisible illnesses. You can't see it, so I'm fine, right!? It's a total double-edged sword. Yet I've come to realise that humankind is pretty amazing at times. People understand more than you know and if they don't, I'm no longer scared to put the record straight. Everyone has life experiences, which should be shared and learned from. Visual body victories are no different!! Share your knowledge, own your scar and tell the world what you're all about. Your perspective on life is unique; and so very precious.
HuffPost UK Lifestyle has launched EveryBody, a new section calling for better equality and inclusivity for people living with disability and invisible illness. The aim is to empower those whose voices are not always heard and redefine attitudes to identity, lifestyle and ability in 2017. We'll be covering all manner of lifestyle topics - from health and fitness to dating, sex and relationships.
We'd love to hear your stories. To blog for the section, please email email@example.com with the subject line 'EveryBody'. To flag any issues that are close to your heart, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, again with the subject line 'EveryBody'.
Join in the conversation with #HPEveryBody on Twitter and Instagram.