Body positivity may be a message we're slowly starting to embrace, with many fashion and beauty brands taking steps to diversify the models they use. But for burns survivor and founder of Love Disfigure, Sylvia Mac, the industry still has a long way to go. It's not just about age, shape, gender and ethnicity, she argues, we need to see more people with disfigurements and skin conditions.
For now, Sylvia’s taken it into her own hands, this week launching a swimwear campaign to not only challenge the fashion industry to be more inclusive, but also to provide support and encouragement to others living with disfigurements, skin conditions and body imperfections. “I really want the fashion industry to understand that people that are disfigured need to be included,” she explains. “They need to know that we are not forgotten people, we are here to make a difference. That we are strong and we are brave”. London-based photographer Sophie Mayanne, who’s pledged to not digitally manipulate bodies or skin in her photographic work as of October 2017, volunteered to shoot the images, which also include men and children.
Having suffered severe third and fourth degree burns to her back, stomach and legs in a childhood accident, Sylvia was plagued with insecurity for years. Although a talented swimmer, Sylvia admits she’d hold back in races for fear of drawing attention to herself and the scarring exposed by her swimming costume. After years of battling depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, she set up Love Disfigure in 2016.
“It was just me wanting to help others get out of the situation I was going through all those years ago,” she says, reflecting on the growth of the Facebook group, which has seen her receive support from around the world, including from former Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies, for her swimming scheme, which helps people with disfigurements and skin conditions feel more confident in using public pools.
Sylvia knows too well the challenges hot weather and swimwear can pose for those with a disfigurement, worried that uncovering it will lead to unkind comments and stares - both of which she’s experienced. Her turning point came when on holiday abroad with her mum a couple of years ago. Sensing a man filming her at the hotel pool, they left for the beach where Sylvia threw off her sarong, strode to the sea and started posing. “The best thing is to either block it out or think positively and smile”.
Sylvia says she’s has been overwhelmed by the “amazing” feedback and reaction she’s received on the campaign so far. For many of those featured in the images, it is the first time they’ve been photographed professionally and Sylvia is clearly proud of what they have all achieved: “To see so many people wanting to come forward and show their skin and not be afraid meant so much to me. Every time I look at the pictures I feel so emotional.”