How This Model and Amputee Learned to Love Her Body: I'm Not 'Odd — I'm Unique'

Marsha Elle opens up about her struggles with self-confidence and how she is inspiring others

As a singer-songwriter, model and motivational speaker, Marsha Elle is used to the spotlight, but there was a time when she just wanted to hide.

“As a kid, I used to always wear big jackets even in the summer heat. I didn’t want [my prosthetic] to show,” says the Haitian-born, Miami-based Elle, who was born with one leg and identifies as an amputee. “In my culture, when you’re disabled it’s kind of shunned, so my mom would always put pants under my dresses, not because she was ashamed but because she wanted me to be sheltered from the ridicule and the looks.”

At 16, she attended her first amputee camp which boosted her self-confidence. “They taught us to embrace our bodies,” Elle, 25, tells PEOPLE. She calls herself someone with “diverse ability,” which “is a term I coined because I have diverse abilities … I do everything.”

That confidence eventually spilled over into the creative aspects of her life. She wore shorts for the first time in a photo for her debut album. She also started modeling, including one runway show which promoted body positivity.

“Like [my] music, I had to embrace myself and with all the positive energy, I kept going and taking photos. I was hired for a few things and the rest is unfolding now,” she says.

Elle also posted bathing suit pictures on Instagram, and learned to tune out the haters.

“You’ll definitely see some hurtful comments, but the positive feedback definitely is well worth it,” she says. “I was terrified. I’m a congenital amputee so I have this huge abductor roll, it looks odd. It’s not even like a normal amputation. I have a deformity. My doctor had said if I wanted to, I could have surgery and get [the abductor roll] taken off.”

But instead she decided to embrace it. “I was like, I’m going to face this fear and do a photo shoot. As odd as it may seem. But, I’m the type of person – I’m afraid of heights and then I book a ski trip. Because it’s the only way you’ll ever either overcome it or know if it’s really a fear. How do you know, if you don’t look it in the face.”

And she’s been able to inspire others. “Shriners Hospital does prosthetics for children across the world and they bring them in. I was able to be a counselor and a mentor to speak to the youth,” says Elle, who also does motivational speaking work with people with different types of disabilities. “It’s been a great experience because they have someone they can relate to.”

And Elle, who is also working towards a nursing degree, is still influenced by that first camp experience.

“It was the first time I met amputees my age, and I came home and I penned [my] song, Unlimbted,” she says. For years, I would go to the camp and sing it to amputees and I finally released it when I released [my second album]. It was perfect because I wrote it in future tense. I was learning to embrace myself. That camp showed me that I wasn’t odd. I’m unique and this is who I am.”

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