Burns Survivor on Embracing Scars and Becoming “Woman of the Year”

Burns Survivor on Embracing her Scars

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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.

Sylvia Mac - body burns survivor

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.”

Burns survivor

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.”

Body burns survivor sylvia Mac bravely embracing her scars

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.”

Embracing scars

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 is a body image campaigner, who is also founder of Love Disfigure and provides a support system to the poeple with visible differences.

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.”

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Laura is the mix engineer for the Our Voices podcast. She has a BA in Music from Nottingham University and an Advanced Diploma in Music Production and Sound Engineering from Abbey Road Institute. Alongside working for Our Voices she is a freelance sound designer and technician. Her highlights include sound design for JK Rowling audiobook ‘The Christmas Pig’, and sound effects editing on The Outlaws, on the BBC.

For the Our Voices podcast, Laura is typically provided with a Voice Over and interview. She then cleans the dialogue, integrates the podcast intro and outros, chooses the music that will add to the storytelling and pacing of the episode, then bring all the elements together in the mix, followed by mastering and then delivering the final edit.

 

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I’m the community manager at Our Voices. I spend most of my time focusing on the implementation of our marketing strategy, achieving goals and KPIs, and the rest of the time listening to the amazing stories of our guests from all around the world. What I love most about working for Our Voices is the impact it has on peoples’ lives. It requires a lot of courage to tell your story out loud so I make sure these stories are heard by as many people as possible.

 

I was born and raised in Pakistan and I’ve been living in Hungary for over two years now. I have a Master’s degree in Marketing and I live for mastering the art of digital marketing.

 

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I run Fascinate Productions, the production company behind the Our Voices podcast. I’ve had a wide variety of roles in media, from underwater videography, to live televised sporting events around the world. But since listening to my first audiobook in 2016, I’ve been all about audio and jumped in with two feet. Podcasts are enabling the world to democratise its most valuable information. They’re about spreading messages, and sharing ideas, and it’s my mission to help those holding the knowledge, to distribute it far and wide.

When Alex approached us with the idea of making a short stories podcast, with a big social impact, he got our attention. As the producer of the show, I’ve heard his guests’ highest highs, their lowest lows, and the moments of change that made them who they are – it’s been a privilege helping to craft their most intimate experiences into stories for you to enjoy.

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Richard Willan is the CEO of Fascinate productions, a podcast production and promotion company. Before starting Fascinate, he worked an audio engineer, mastering tracks for artists on major and independent labels.

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Favourite Show: Fleabag: the writing and acting create a thrilling kind of intimacy I haven’t seen anywhere else.

Favourite Movie: Victoria is an incredible German thriller that’s all shot in one take – it’s a real trip. Plus it’s beautifully soundtracked by Nils Frahm.

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While running Swoosh English, an online English school from 2013 – 2021, I had the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and many of these people had incredible stories. This inspired me to start ‘Our Voices’ because I wanted to give these people a platform to share these stories with the world.

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