Baring more than just their bodies, this group of women share their stories about their fight, their survival and their resilience
baring more than just their bodies, these women share their survival and resilience
Over two days in early autumn, a group of women came together to have their photograph taken. But this was no ordinary photoshoot. Having all gone through very different experiences, the thread that weaves these women’s stories together is the scars each has chosen to show. ‘The project was about being able to allow women to share their stories, to encourage them not to be ashamed of their journey to recovery. And to meet other women who’ve gone through something similar, because unless you’ve been through it, you just don’t know,’ says Nicola Cooper, trend analyst and cultural strategist, who founded this project as a homage to the fight and bravery of the women around her; the women who’d survived or were in the process of recovery. Nicola, herself, was involved in a near-fatal car accident two years ago. Many of the women photographed expressed the hope that by sharing their story and their scars, they’d help other women feel comfortable with theirs. ‘So many women have gone through similar experiences,’ said one of the participants, who discovered she had breast cancer for the second time while pregnant with her son. ‘While being photographed for this project, we were actually looking the disease, trauma or event in the eye and saying: “Fuck you! I survived you and I survived this.” It was therapy and I felt beautiful.’ The two days of shooting were filled with kindness, reassurance, shared stories of courage and overwhelming support, says Nicola, whose hope for the project is for more women to wear their battle scars proudly. ‘I really hope this becomes something bigger; that we get to share more stories. They’re necessary in a world of manipulated images of women and the proliferation of filters on social media. There’s truth and honesty in this and there are authentic stories that will make someone say: “I’m exactly who I’m meant to be. I’m exactly who I should be.” I want to help women feel like they are enough.’
ITUMELENG In 2014, Itumeleng had surgery on her small intestines due to a bowel obstruction.
The whole experience was very intrusive. I literally just woke up with a big scar on my stomach. But it made me very, very grateful for my health. It took me a while to get used to it being there, but it didn’t take me long to accept it – it was a part of me now. And once you do that, you realise that people will accept it because you accept it. I felt it was important to tell different stories when it comes to how beauty’s perceived. Beauty isn’t one-dimensional. It’s not perfect. It’s not flawless. You can have scars and flaws and all these experiences that you’ve had and still be a beautiful and amazing person.
NICOLA On 22 November 2015, Nicola was involved in a head-on collision while driving home. She woke up three weeks later in hospital, not knowing what had happened.
The whole experience changed me. Doing the smallest things for yourself and being able to repair your own body and be responsible for yourself is special. It felt empowering to be that weak and then get back to being strong. My scars have become a symbol of who I am. I just [wish that we could] rather make women look at something that’s perceived so negatively as a delicate illustration on their skin. It’s a map; it’s a journey; it’s a little line that defines your character.
MELANIE Melanie was born in 1984 with a cleft lip and no palate. Now 34, she’s had seven facial and two jaw operations.
Whether it’s physical, mental or emotional trauma, everybody has – at some point in their life – experienced something that’s going to leave a scar. I think it’s just about how you use that to create your own story. Your scar isn’t you: it doesn’t define you, but it sort of creates your story. It’s personal; it’s yours. Even when I take a photo of myself, I struggle to look at it. I always look around it, at the make-up, the eyes, the hair – everything else. I wear gold, shiny shoes, so people notice my shoes and not my face. I think now there’s nowhere to hide because this is a photo of my face. Don’t let the thing that happened define you.
“You have to be very strong and realise that the way you look is just one facet of who you are. It’s not the total package”
PEARL In 2002, Pearl was involved in a car accident. The driver was drunk and racing another driver. The car went over a bridge and landed on the street below. Pearl suffered many cracked ribs and tangled intestines and her spleen had to be removed. Her scar is a result of the surgeries to save her life. LEONI Leoni was born with congenital constriction band syndrome (a congenital disorder caused by entrapment of foetal parts in fibrous amniotic bands while in utero). She had to have numerous surgeries straight after she was born, one of which included her back muscle being transferred into her right hand. She’s had many more surgeries over the years.
I think it’s made me very resilient. If you look slightly different from what the norm is, people judge you. As a result of that, you have to be very strong and realise that the way you look is just one facet of who you are. It’s not the total package. I think it’s important to live your truth. We need to celebrate some of the things that we’ve been through. Living with a scar is a bit challenging, but they had to open me up to put me back together. To save me. Sometimes when people see it, they ask: ‘What happened!?’ I like to keep it private. I don’t like explaining, because people do exaggerate about it. But I’ve learnt to live with it. I’m just glad I’m alive. And now, maybe it comes with age, but I’m at the point where the older you get, the more you say: ‘I don’t care how I look, as long as I’ve got a good heart. And I’m a good person.’ I just want to be myself. Without hiding anything.
SAM Sam has multiple scars on her arms and legs, all self-inflicted.
I am – well, I was – a cutter. It started when I was 13 and it’s been going on for a really long time. Cutting is more than what it seems. It’s an addiction. I’ve battled this addiction for 17 years. It’s about finding other coping mechanisms. It’s not that there’s something wrong with it. There are other ways that aren’t permanently scarring if you need to feel that kind of pain, like an elastic band. But it’s OK if you’ve done that. You need to be proud of your stripes. I believe that mental illness is still too much of a taboo. I’m no longer ashamed of the scars. They’re now part of me. I do look at them sometimes and feel remorse, but there’s nothing I can do about them now. It’s very strange, particularly because the idea of beauty is so perfect, compared with what I am. This shoot was empowering. Hopefully, it will help people who perhaps are going through the same thing.
CHRISTIE AND NATASHA Sisters Christie and Natasha were involved in a car accident in 2014 when their vehicle was pushed off the road by an 18-wheeler truck.
CHRISTIE: Our entire universe was shifted. Tash forgot everything. She forgot who I was, she forgot who our parents were. And slowly, over the months, she re-learnt everything. I constantly wanted to forget, whereas Tash constantly wanted to remember. One thing I learnt is when you go through something hectic in life, you either become constructive, like you want to fix yourself, or you want to destroy yourself. There’s no excuse – you just have to deal with the grief and the resentment, and you just have to push through it. And we have. Our relationship’s a lot better now. NATASHA: In the beginning, I felt like a Frankenstein. I felt like pieces of my body had been stitched back together. I felt almost humiliated by myself, as if I shouldn’t be alive. And when I’d worked through that, I started to become aware of images, of art. I started to be more aware of things around me. I started becoming a lot more grateful for being alive and kind of accepting that there was a higher power and there was a reason for me being here.
“I was grateful for being alive and kind of accepting that there was a higher power and a reason for me being here”
ITUMELENG ILLUSTRATION BY HEIDI FOURIE
MELANIE ILLUSTRATION BY MARIA MAGDALENA VAN WYK NICOLA ILLUSTRATION BY TULIPS AND CHIMNEYS
LEONI ILLUSTRATION BY AMOR COETZEE
PEARL ILLUSTRATION BY JOHAN DE LANGE
CHRISTIE & NATASHA ILLUSTRATION BY SARAH GRACE
SAM ILLUSTRATION BY LAUREN SCHULTZ