Michelle Elman created her body positive campaign, Scarred Not Scared, in 2015 to increase the representation of scars in media. Using the hashtag #scarrednotscared she posted a photo of herself in a bikini and within 24 hours the post had gone viral. It was featured in publications worldwide and was shared by celebrities Zooey Deschanel and George Takei. Michelle had 15 operations before the age of 20 for a number of health conditions including a brain tumour, a punctured intestine, a cyst on the brain, an obstructed bowel and a condition called Hydrocephalus.
She talks exclusively to classfinder.org.uk about body positivity and her relationship with exercise.
Q. You created Scarred Not Scared to share your body positive message and help people embrace their body and scars. Are you surprised how well received this message was?
A. Before I launched Scarred Not Scared, I actually sat down and thought about all the criticism I could possibly receive and the only thing I could come up with was that someone was going to mention my weight. Apart from that, I knew there was nothing else to dispute. The conversation of scars was not happening, scars were not seen as part of body positivity and there are millions of people who go into hospital every year so I couldn’t be the only one with a scar. Somehow it took me until I was 21 to see a scar in real life outside of a hospital setting so I wasn’t surprised that it was needed, but I was surprised to the extent it was shared, so much so that it went global and was in newspapers and media outlets across the world.
Q. You endured 15 major operations before the age of 20. It inspired you to write your book ‘Am I ugly?’. What has been the best moment since it was published?
A. For me, it’s been the people who have Hydrocephalus or the doctors or nurses who message me and say it informs the way they treat their patients. My neurosurgeon still had my first draft from when I was 12 years old, and back then he said he used it to talk to patients about patient care. So when it was released I got a lovely message from him saying that he’s glad he can update his copy and that he’s going to use my memoir to share the patient’s perspective.
Q. What was it like to be recognised for your campaign Scarred Not Scared when you were awarded Body Positive Activist of the year in 2018?
A. I was so honoured and shocked! 2018 was a massive year for body positivity and loads of campaigns had started the conversation around bodily differences, so for mine to be recognised meant the world to me. It made me think of how, 10 years before, I thought the solution around my scars was to stay silent. In fact, what was needed was the exact opposite!
Q. What does body positivity mean to you?
A. Body positivity is a political movement that works to end the discrimination, oppression and stigma that marginalised people face by living in their bodies. I believe it’s important to distinguish this from body confidence which is one’s relationship with their own body.
Q. Research has found that 40% of females aged 16 and over aren’t currently active enough to get the full health benefits of physical activity. ‘Women in sport’ and ‘This Girl Can’ campaigns are encouraging women to get into sport and fitness with body positive messaging and imagery. What do you think about this shift towards a more realistic representation of what fitness is?
A. I think the largest thing standing in the way of people being active is fear. Fear of looking stupid, fear of not knowing what to do in a gym, for example, fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of not wearing makeup, the fear of sweating. All of these factors are important to address and I think it starts in schools. In school we are taught that if you aren’t good at something, you shouldn’t bother. In my school by year 9, you were no longer allowed to play netball unless you made the team. I loved netball (I still do!) and yet I wasn’t allowed to join in. This feeds into adulthood because it creates a pass/fail mentality around exercise and this is perpetuated by diet culture. The narrative around fitness focuses too much on results and aesthetic gains which creates the mentality that unless you look different, there is no point. We need to return fitness back to how we felt about it as a child - where we naturally wanted to move our bodies.
Q. Do you ever face negativity on social media? If so, how do you respond/tackle it?
A. Yes, I do and usually it doesn’t get to me. If it does, I try to ask myself what else is going on in my life because usually focusing on the negative comments is a distraction from the larger issues I’m experiencing. Occasionally, it all gets too much and at that point, I turn my phone off or will delete the app for a few days. My mental health is way more important!
Q. What does a typical day look like for you?
A. I wake up fairly late, it’s a perk of being a freelancer and I tend to be quite a night owl - I get really inspired and creative between 2-4am. One habit I want to kick is starting my day in bed scrolling for way too long! I then go make some breakfast and start with emails. I schedule most of my meetings for the middle of the day, so I get ready and head out to my meetings. Some days it can be a photoshoot, some days it’s a fashion event or some days it’s me shooting content. I tend to try to wrap up work things by 8pm but sometimes it does go into the night and the cycle starts over!
Q. Do you have any advice for people returning to fitness after surgery?
A. Take your time and go see a physio. I wish I had had more rehabilitation post-surgery because I only sought help 5 years after my most major operation and by that point, there was so much I had to undo and relearn, rather than preventing the pain in the first place.
Q. How do you manage any restrictions to your movement day-to-day and when working out?
A. I take it as slowly and easily as I need to. If I want to walk out of an exercise class, I do. If I want to stay in the class and skip a few exercises, I do that. I’ve had to learn to ignore people’s assumptions around the fact that my needing to slow down is due to laziness. This has occasionally come from the fitness instructors themselves, but I know me better than anyone else and I know pushing it, often means me getting injured.
Q. What is your number one fitness tip?
A. If you can do 5 minutes, that is enough. We need to remove the hierarchy of exercise that says doing an hour means you are a better person than if you do 5 minutes. An hour is not better if you injure yourself! Going to a high intensity class is not more worthwhile than going for a walk. All movement is still movement and all movement is valid.
Q. Do you ever get approached by followers/fans when out and about?
A. Yes, I do and I always tell my followers to stop me and say hi, because the saddest thing is getting home and checking my DMs and seeing a message that says that they saw me but were too scared to approach me. Whenever I am walking about in London, I have my headphones in and because my headphones are black, they blend into my hair so most people don’t realise I can’t hear anything but I always love meeting people who follow me - it’s so lovely to meet people in a one-to-one setting and it makes what I’m doing more real.
Q. How do you relax and unwind after a busy day?
A. Going to the gym or going for a walk are my favourite ways. Anytime I’m moving my body, my mind quietens down and that’s exactly what I need after a busy day! Failing that, a good TV show always helps me unwind.
Q. What would you tell someone who didn’t feel confident enough to go to the gym/group exercise classes?
A. To remind yourself that you can leave at any moment. The only way I got to my first exercise class was repeating to myself “you can leave whenever you want AND you have to actually mean it. Don’t lie to yourself and tell yourself that you can leave when you want and then force yourself to stay - that’s breaking your self-trust!
Q. Do you prefer to exercise in a group or alone and why?
A. I prefer to exercise alone, with the exception of dance class. I’m more focused on my body and actually feeling the exercise when I’m alone whereas I get really distracted when I’m in a group.
Q. You embrace wearing bikinis that show off your scars. What advice would you have for someone who is worried about wearing a bikini or avoids activities that require swimwear?
A. There is a lot of emphasis on the bikini but I actually don’t care what you wear, as long as you are going out there, joining in and living your life. It’s really important to challenge thoughts in your head around the fact that you need to look a certain way to wear a bikini. What you wear is not as important as making memories and joining in!
Q. If you could only play one song on repeat, what would it be?
A. I love On Top Of The World by Imagine Dragons!