The most (conventionally) beautiful I’ve ever felt was in a dress of midnight blue with my dark and usually untameable curls framing my face. I had delicate and subtle eye makeup on, with a shimmery pink lip to finish the look. I was headed to the Emerald Ball, a princess floating on her fairytale moment. The Emerald Ball is a charity event held every year to support the Kids Rehab Department at Westmead Children’s Hospital, a place I am deeply familiar with, as a kid who grew up with a disability. It’s ironic to me that, that night felt like such a fairytale, given the fact that the very thing we were celebrating had been such a villain for my self-esteem and for a long time, completely shattered my relationship with beauty.
At last count, I have ten scars along my hips, thighs, knees and groin. They came as the gift not from a dance with Prince Charming in a grand ballroom but instead from an unwilling dance with the blade of a scalpel while I lay on an operating table, at the Children’s Hospital. This dance would be repeated ritualistically for several years, as much a part of my calendar as school photos or a friend’s birthday. Now, I know in recent years that there’s been a lot of work put into shifting the narrative around scars and seeing them as something to be embraced, instead of judged and hidden away but when you’re a tween and then a teenager, who is already so clearly marked out by difference, seeing those angry slashes of red and purple when you try on a bikini or put shorts on, it’s hard to think of them as anything but ugly and damaging.
Beyond the scars though, the worlds of fashion and beauty have forever felt wildly inaccessible for a body like mine. There’s always a great divide between how clothes look on an upright mannequin or rack, versus on me who’s crooked, out of alignment and always sitting down. Fabric doesn’t always fall in the right place, sometimes things are too short, sometimes I feel like they accentuate my stomach too much, which is a point of real self-consciousness for me, because by virtue of the way I sit, my stomach is constantly jutting out. I was always the girl who loudly proclaimed how much she hated shopping, not because there was anything inherently wrong with the pastime but because every moment under those fluorescent lights in that air-conditioned ‘wonderland’ was a moment of painful hot shame and insecurity. I could never look like that. Those clothes or that makeup was never meant for me. I was never looked at to be admired or because someone found me pretty, but because I was ‘other’, a conduit for people’s discomfort and fear.
How can confidence be expected to grow in a world where up until very recently, no one who looked like me was given space to be thought of as beautiful?
Thankfully, that’s slowly changing for the better, with the elevation of disabled women into the previously inaccessible worlds of beauty and fashion. One brand that has opened that door for me and done a lot to sow seeds of confidence is Inégal, a company founded by supermodel and activist Martha Hunt, who lives with significant and life-impacting scoliosis. Martha uses her position as one of the most sought after women in the world to advocate for the fact that all bodies deserve to feel beautiful and empowered. Through her collaborations with other disabled artists, she creates clothing that feels both fierce and comforting, a combination that I’m beginning to see as the most beautiful of all.
But the truth is, I’m still figuring out exactly what beauty means to me, and where my experiences as a young woman fit in the many complex and convoluted narratives women are expected to absorb about these worlds. Right now though, it means beginning to believe that my scars and differences are not symbols of shame but resilience. Recognising and accepting that I’m never going to fit the impossible standards able-bodied women are taught to break themselves for, but that I don’t need or want to. Not punishing my body for the way it is, or the things it needs but instead learning to nurture and empower it.
Importantly though, beauty for me exists beyond the aesthetic too. It’s in the way that I get to live out my childhood dream for work and that we live in a world where voices like mine are starting to be heard and listened to, even if there is a long way to go. It’s in the fact that amidst the clamour of insecurity and self-doubt, there’s now a voice in my head that says Yes you can.