Strong Women: 'People with scars suffer in silence and are forced to hide away'

For many women, ‘strong’ is a problematic label – it comes with a stigma and can put women off from being active altogether.

A huge study by Sport England found that 75% of women say fear of judgement puts them off being active.

So it is more important than ever that women reclaim their definition of strength and find ways to make fitness part of their lives.

Any woman can find their strength, love their body and be physically fit – regardless of outward appearance.

Michelle Elman is a body confidence coach.

15 surgeries before the age of 20 left her with significant scarring, now she campaigns to include people with scars in the body positive conversation.

When you talk like this, you override your body’s signals for when you need to rest and you also use exercise as a form of punishment.

Last year, I particularly started talking about how a lot of exercise was actually landing me in a physiotherapist’s office and how she had told me I really needed to take a step back from everything.

Society likes to body shame fat women in particular – telling us to ‘go to the gym and lose some weight’, but it is important to show that sometimes health is about stopping exercise.

I massively reduced my workouts last year and went back to simply walking and the most basic of exercises, like learning how to press the lift button using the right muscles.

As a result, in January, a year later, I’ve been able to return to playing squash and swimming with the least chronic pain I have ever had.

I believe it’s important that when we talk about health, it’s not just about being thin or being what society believes ‘health’ looks like. To me, health is experiencing the least chronic pain I have ever had in my life and the fact that I have not been hospitalised in six years.

Tell us about your scarred not scared campaign

I believe Scarred Not Scared is important because before I launched it in 2015, there wasn’t a space for people with scars to feel heard and comfortable in their own skin.

People with scars are often taught to hide them because it ‘makes people uncomfortable’ and so the majority of scarred people have suffered in silence around their body shame.

Since my campaign predominantly focuses on surgery scars, I include conversations about varying ability in the gym and how to advocate for your body when you can’t always keep up in a class.

I think we too often only see one type of body when it comes to a strong or fit woman. We are never shown that “strong” is not an appearance, or told that your fitness cannot be assumed by your size.

As a result, a lot of people don’t feel comfortable or safe in workout spaces, and this is enhanced by the multiple instances where fat people, (I use fat as a descriptor and not an insult) have been photographed, laughed at or condescended in a gym.

Whenever you have had health difficulties, surgeries or live with a chronic illness, your relationship with fitness becomes warped and it becomes really easy to focus on what you can’t do. That led to a personal struggle that I was never as capable as my peers.

But, over time, focusing on the fun of exercise helped me to overcome this struggle. That’s why I think it’s really important to not worry about the skill necessarily.

When you go to classes, often you have to make amendments and that can be really nerve-wracking if you are new to the gym. Especially when personal trainers don’t take the time to ask about any injuries before the class, and then take the “push harder, you can do it!” approach.

It’s assumed you are being lazy, when actually you are trying to exercise in a way that is safe for you.

I think my relationship with fitness differs most in the way that I exercise out of fun and enjoyment, and not out of compulsion.

You will always hear people say, ‘I need to go to the gym’ or, ‘I have to go’. You shouldn’t need to, or have to. If you don’t enjoy the gym, don’t go.

Find something else that actually adds to your life. I don’t see the gym as punishment or a way to work off the latest chocolate bar I ate. I focus on what I enjoy.

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