Yesterday afternoon, Sylvia Mac stood in front of a room full of people to celebrate the swimwear campaign she’s created to “firstly challenge the fashion industry to become inclusive of people with disfigurements and differences. And secondly, to invite leisure centres to use the images and help support and encourage everybody to swim.” It’s a topic she knows all too well, having herself been scarred from her neck down to the bottom of her legs after being scalded by boiling water as a child. And to be talking in front of a room filled with friends (some with disfigurements, some without), family, press and strangers goes to show how far she’s come, having spent years of her life trying to hide away.
“This is really important to me,” says Sylvia, who founded her website, Love Disfigure, to raise awareness and provide support for people suffering with disfigurements in 2016. “I swam a lot when I was younger. I should have been confident enough to become a competitive swimmer, but I always held myself back because I didn’t want to be seen to be winning anything. I didn’t want the attention on me.” In fact, she’d wait in the pool until everyone else had left and seek sanctuary in the changing room. For many with disfigurements, wearing a swimsuit is a particularly uncomfortable and daunting experience. Many worry they’ll be stared at and their bodies commented upon. Sylvia wants to change that.
The fashion industry is (slowly) embracing age, size, gender and ethnicity, but disfigurement is something that’s still seldom talked about, let alone seen. “True diversity should also include those living with scars, health and skin conditions that affect their appearance both facially and bodily,” says Sylvia. The fashion industry, the media, everyone and anyone “should be opening up doors for people with differences", says Sylvia, so more people like Winnie Harlow (who has vitiligo and is a supermodel) can make it through. “Let’s take a step forward and start making the changes now.”
So, Sylvia decided to work with photographer Sophie Mayanne to create the images she yearned for herself, as an initial step towards normalising the sorts of scars, imperfections and disfigurements that have left so many feeling self-conscious or ashamed of their own bodies. “There are so many children with disfigurements who think, ‘Look at me – people are staring at me; I don’t look great,’ and they’re going to end up in the same position I was all those years ago, hiding away. It’s really important for them to have role models who look like them,” says Sylvia. “We’re all unique and we shouldn’t have to be trying to look like someone else – we should be looking like ourselves.”
Although she only established Love Disfigure two years ago, Sylvia has already made a huge difference to people living with a wide range of issues, many of whom took part in the photoshoot. Kira, 24, was burned in a house fire just after her 14th birthday, suffering 3rd- and 4th-degree burns on some parts of her body. “I am so grateful to have met Sylvia,” she says. “I’d always been in denial, but seeing Sylvia and the people she works with has helped me become able to speak out for the first time.”
And Ahlia, 37, was diagnosed with psoriasis aged 22. “I am challenging the definition of beauty to move beyond having clear skin. Exposing psoriasis lesions has previously been taboo, but I’m keen to change the societal norm and remind all that no one has the power to define us.”
Chloe, 18, started self-harming at the age of 13. “I’ve worked so hard on myself within the last five years and a big part of that is becoming self-loving and forgiving toward myself,” she says. “My scars don’t define me and where I am now, but what they do show is all the places I’ve been and all the amazing people I’ve met… psychiatrists, therapists, mental-health charities, Sophie Mayanne (the shoot’s photographer) and Sylvia.”
Elsie, now aged five, was two years old when she was scalded by a saucepan of boiling water. Despite burns to her back, chest and arm, her mum and dad say she’s a confident, outgoing little girl with the world at her feet. “Her mum follows me on social media,” explains Sylvia. “She told me that Elsie really wants to be a model, has followed my journey and really wanted to meet me, so they came all the way from Scotland to London to take part in the photoshoot.”
Coming terms with her own scars has not been easy, but Sylvia is determined to spread her message. “You can become models; you can become Olympic swimmers. Anything you want to be, you should be allowed to be that. It’s taken me all my life to get to where I am today. But now I’m here, I’m here to stay and I’m going to shout my message from the rooftops.”