"To me it's about accepting the scars – that they're part of you, they're not all of you," Michelle Elman tells PEOPLE
Over the course of her life, Michelle Elman has had 15 surgeries to treat a number of medical issues – including a brain cyst, a brain tumor, hydrocephalus and an obstructed bowel – leaving her with several visible scars on her body that she tried to hide for a very long time.
But not anymore! The 21-year-old wore a bikini for the first time in years after overcoming her insecurities, and proudly posted a photo of herself in a two-piece on Instagram.
“I finally faced up to wearing a bikini, and although I love my body thoroughly and have for many years – this was one of the most difficult things I have ever done,” reads part of the caption. “Yet once it was on, it was one of the most liberating feelings to know that I wasn’t letting two pieces of material stop me from being comfortable in my own body.”
Elman didn’t even know she had been avoiding bikinis until a friend pointed it out. Upon reflection, Elman realized she had shied away from them since being teased as a 7-year-old.
“I tried a bikini on and I walked out of the changing room, and there was this mother and daughter there, and they were staring at me with this look of pity,” she tells PEOPLE. “I was looking at that pity thinking, ‘Oh wait, this is something to be sad about.’ ”
“Then I went to a birthday party and wore it, and all my friends actually didn’t know about my operations or my scars,” she continues. “There were the girls who were my friends, and they just were really shocked, and then there were the girls who weren’t my friends, and they started snickering and laughing, and I was just like, ‘Okay I guess I’ll just cover them up.’ ”
From that day on, Elman only wore tankinis, until this summer when she decided she was no longer going to hide her body or her scars.
“I think the only reason people are so scared to show off their scars is that no one talks about it, no one talks about their surgeries,” she says. “To me it’s about accepting the scars – that they’re part of you, they’re not all of you. They’re a story, but they’re not your most interesting story. You’re so much more than scars.”
While it took her a while to become confident in her body, she had a revelation when she was 15.
“I was walking with one of my friends and she looked at herself in a reflection and said, ‘I’m fat.’ I thought this girl was the most gorgeous girl, and I thought, ‘I never want to be that girl,’ ” says Elman. “I think the scars came into that. I couldn’t understand how anyone would like my scars, but I knew I had to like them first, so I got comfortable with them. I realized that I had to be my biggest fan.”
Elman is now encouraging others with scars – both physical and emotional – to embrace them through her #scarrednotscared campaign.
“The thing with scars is they only have power when you don’t talk about it,” says the London-based body confidence coach. “Once you talk about it, and you accept it as part of you, they don’t have control anymore.”
After posting her bikini photo, several commenters made negative remarks about her weight, but Elman says she doesn’t care.
” ‘Fat’ is just a word; it’s just an adjective,” she says. “I’ll say I’m fat quite happily. People in the comments will say I’m fat, and it doesn’t affect me because my validation doesn’t come from people’s comments, it comes from myself.”