Burns Survivor on Embracing Scars and Becoming “Woman of the Year”
A lifelong struggle
This episode of Our Voices shares the story of Sylvia Mac, a burns survivor who went from embracing her scars to becoming one of 2020’s Women of the Year. She discusses the physical and psychological impacts of a horrific accident she experienced when she was just 2-and-a-half years old.
She also discusses how embracing her scars has helped her develop the courage to challenge societal attitudes towards non-typical standards of beauty.
Life around family
Sylvia’s life has always been based around family. She grew up in a family of seven, being the youngest of five girls.
She describes herself as the “spoilt one”, often getting preferential treatment over her siblings. The reason for this was not just because she was the youngest, however, it was also due to a life-threatening accident she had at a very tender age.
A life-threatening incident
The accident happened when she was playing hide-and-seek with one of her elder sisters. She heard her mum shouting up the stairs to not go into the bathroom because of the boiling water which was left on the bathroom floor.
As a result of her mother’s warning, a young Sylvia thought to herself that the bathroom would be the perfect place to hide in. It was the place her sister would be least likely to search.
So, she went in oblivious to the fact that there was a bowl of boiling water behind her. Almost as soon as she’d arrived in the bathroom, she fell straight into the boiling bowl. The water covered her tummy and the side of her left leg.
Unlikely to survive
An ambulance arrived to take Sylvia to the hospital along with her father. When they arrived, the hospital advised Sylvia’s father to call his wife as his daughter had acute burn injuries and it was very unlikely she was going to survive.
Reflecting on how her mother must have been feeling at the time, Sylvia says:
“it must have been really difficult for my mom to be at the other end of the phone and to hear that her daughter was basically dying… it must have been really awful.”
Despite the pessimistic prognosis, Sylvia became a burns survivor. She was transferred to a hospital which specialised in burns and was put on life-support until, miraculously, she pulled through.
Sylvia had severe injuries, however, including a large hole in her back. She would need countless operations in order to recover.
“All the skin grafts, all the surgery was the most difficult thing for me. It was really, really hard to deal with. Really painful.”
Feelings of guilt
Fortunately, the operations allowed Sylvia to recover from her acute burn injuries. She also had the constant support of her mother.
“My mum’s a very strong woman. She was a really strong, amazing mother, really good, caring, loving – exactly what a child needs. Especially when something like that happens. She was always there for me.”
Yet Sylvia’s mum also felt guilty over what had happened.
“She’d always say to me, are you okay, does that hurt? Always making sure I was okay and I wasn’t in pain. And so I knew from the questions that she asked me that she worried… that she felt guilt.”
Psychological distress after burn injuries
Living with the psychological distress after her burn injuries proved to be difficult for Sylvia. She would wear long-sleeved clothing to cover her scars and hated the idea of anyone knowing about them. She especially struggled at school and was put in a particularly traumatic situation after a PE session in which she’d played hockey.
Her PE teacher was insisting that she have a shower after the session. Sylvia tried to plead with her teacher to avoid having to expose her scars but the teacher insisted. Feeling utterly exposed and violated, she took off her clothes and got into the shower.
“It was a power game that she was playing and she… threatened us. It was bad. It was really bad.”
Sylvia told her mum about the incident and it was agreed that Sylvia could be excused from PE whenever she wished. But the psychological distress after her burn injuries continued into adulthood.
Low self-esteem in adulthood
This became particularly apparent when Sylvia began dating. She felt that she would have to have the conversation with prospective partners regarding her scarring, fearing that knowing about her body would put them off.
“Then one day I met someone who actually didn’t care about my scars. And they were like, Yeah, I’m happy with that. That’s your body.”
Even though Sylvia’s partner accepted her as a burns survivor, Sylvia continued to experience low self-esteem. She struggled with anxiety and suicidal thoughts. She was torn between a desire to hide herself and a desire to fully reveal who she was.
“At times I wished that it was on my face so that people knew and that I didn’t have to go around and carry this little secret where it was under the clothes… I just couldn’t do anything. I felt so trapped.”
A family holiday
Sylvia’s psychological state continued to deteriorate. So much so that her family became worried. So Sylvia’s mother decided to take her daughter on holiday to Bulgaria. As they prepared to go to the beach, Sylvia went through the usual process of arranging her sarong to prevent anyone from being able to see her scars.
She quickly noticed, however, that a man behind her appeared to be filming the top of her back where her scarring was visible above her sarong. She confronted the man and he eventually moved on with his wife.
Sylvia and her mother then made their way to the beach. Sylvia’s mother tried to talk to her daughter about her scars:
“She said, are you in pain? Do they hurt? Can I touch them? And I’m like, Mum, I’m fine, Mum, stop asking me.”
Sylvia then went to the beachfront by herself. As she turned back to look at her mother, she was struck by how she appeared.
“I noticed my mum sitting on the end of the sun lounger with her head hung so low that it could almost touch the sand like she was feeling pain. I could feel from where I was standing, I could feel the pain. Like I could feel her hurt.”
It was at this point that Sylvia decided enough was enough.
“And something in me just said: sod this. No more. No more suffering. You look at what you’re doing to your mum, you’re hurting her, and this needs to stop… then I literally just pulled off my sarong, threw it down like it was a piece of rag. I had the bikini on underneath and I put my hands on my hips and started smiling, waving to my mom, shouting: Look at me. But in fact, I think I was saying to everyone: look at me.”
This moment changed the course of Sylvia’s life. No longer would she live in hiding. Finally, she had reached a point where she was embracing her scars.
Campaigning for inclusivity
Sylvia then turned her focus to helping others who were burns survivors and who had other physical differences. She recorded a video of herself in a bikini in which she encouraged those with visible differences to embrace their bodies.
The reaction to her video was so positive that she decided to launch “Love Disfigure”, an online support network for people with visible differences. Describing the network, she says
“ it’s about really challenging the so-called perfect body image and saying, actually, we are just as beautiful, we have got great bodies as well. And we want you to accept them.”
A new lease of life
Embracing her burns has given Sylvia, a third-degree burns survivor, a new lease of life.
She has become a Boots Wellness Warrior and continues to campaign for a more tolerant and accepting society. All along the way, her mother has remained as her greatest inspiration
“I don’t blame her for anything. I don’t blame her for the accident. I just praise her for being that strong woman that brought me up, cared for me, because now I’ve got a really strong, caring, supportive character. I’m like that with my children, my grandchildren. I’m like that with people. I treat people like they’re my family.”