Over several years, I had all kinds of serious problems which would knock me down time and time again...but ultimately made me fall truly, madly and deeply in love with my body.
My body’s victory over illness was what led me to find victory in accepting and loving my shape, my skin, my scars and my stories.
I can pinpoint the moments when I realised and appreciated just how powerful and beautiful my body is…
1. When it stopped working.
No, really. For the first few months of 2014, the entire right side of my body became more and more unresponsive to the messages my brain was sending it. This was later explained to me by the neurosurgeon; apparently my tumour (which had been growing deep in the left side of my brain for 10-15 years) had some cysts attached, which were ‘bumping’ against other bits of the brain and affecting my basic motor skills as well as my balance and perception.
The symptoms began to show when my right hand started twitching and trembling almost constantly, even when the rest of my body was perfectly still. I also lost the ability to handwrite (unless scrawling awkwardly across a page with a pen in my fist like a toddler counts) and I was suddenly dropping everything I picked up with that hand. Then my arm joined in – at first it was simply a wobbly, swaying movement that would happen while my hand twitched, but then by Easter that year my right shoulder was turning and grinding weirdly. By that point my face had also started to slump on one side, like I’d had a stroke, and I found I could only speak from one side of my mouth. I was also falling over, walking into doorways, veering off to one side as I walked down a corridor – my then boyfriend took to linking arms with me as we walked through town together; partly out of affection, mostly out of necessity.
The whole time these awful and unexplained things were happening, I found myself marvelling at how resilient and adaptable the human body can be. It’s true for us all – whenever we get a nasty cold, for instance, or even lose use of a limb, the body repairs itself but also adjusts and makes up for what isn’t working as it tries to heal. Isn’t that amazing!?
Exuding confidence in Victory
2. When it started working again.
A few days after my first brain op, it was my grandma’s birthday. And bless her, she came into hospital with the rest of the family to see me and celebrate both of our achievements – hers being reaching another birthday, despite her illnesses, mine being getting through major, complicated surgery at just 20. Before the grandparents were due to arrive, Mum came to my hospital bed with a card she’d got me to give Grandma. I took it from her to write a little message from me and my sister. I didn’t even think about the handwriting, until I’d filled the page with a birthday message and signed my name – then I realised I’d just done something I hadn’t been able to do for months and months, no problem at all. I stared down at my hand, holding the pen as it always had, for the first 19 or so years of my life. And I burst into tears.
3. When I was told to cover it up.
Fast-forwarding to 2017 now, when I was 2 brain surgeries down, having also had radiotherapy, and I’d got the wonderful news that I was ‘stable’. I finally had a sense of direction and had tentatively started to form a career path; for five weeks I interned at a well-known publishing house in London, getting experience in the editorial and publicity departments, and I’d been crashing with various friends in the city. I was exhausted, and suffering a lot of discomfort – I had an upset tummy most days, my periods were irregular, and every weekend I’d go home to the family and sleep 10 hours a night only to wake up still tired, and aching. It wasn’t until I finished the internship that I really felt proper pain in my lower abdomen. After two weeks of pleading with various doctors to run the right tests, I finally got myself into surgery and had my massively infected bowel saved from disintegration – my appendix was removed, all the inflamed organs were cleaned, some of my lower bowel was removed and then what was left was fused back together. Five weeks later I suddenly had a total obstruction in my smaller intestines, which led to more surgery and drastic physical changes which included weight loss, vast areas of bruising… and a whopping, thick 22cm scar from just above my belly button down to my panty line. This scar had to be dressed and redressed for weeks following both surgeries by my local nurse, who did so with the utmost care and kindness. I grew used to having a wad of paper dressing stuck over my tummy – and it felt strange finally having it removed weeks later, and seeing my scar in all its glory.
Anyway, one day, while I was being checked and my wound being redressed by the nurse, a GP came into the room to observe. She (that’s right, it was a woman, which makes this even more shocking) looked down at my belly, frowned and said ‘wow, you’ll be left with quite a scar. You may want to wear tankinis from now on!’
This statement she’d uttered so seriously left me speechless at that moment – in fact, I was overcome with the urge to cry. I was still stunned as I left the surgery, and then found myself angrily taking to Twitter and posting a whole thread questioning why one of my doctors would feel the need to say that to me – as I lay on the nurse’s bed, at my most vulnerable, a couple of stone lighter than I was pre-op and having trouble walking without support. Why would I care how I looked, at that time? I was far more concerned with healing, and coping with the horrible pains in my guts which I still get to this day when I feel anxious or eat too much (which then triggers what docs have said is minor PTSD). Why did this GP, a fellow woman, think it was relevant or necessary to comment on my appearance? After posting these angry tweets, I was overwhelmed with support from online friends and total strangers, telling me I mustn’t worry about how I look after surgery – the important thing is I survived, and I’m okay. This experience actually made me all the more proud of and happy with my scarred stomach; as soon as my dressing came off, I was whipping it out at every opportunity to show friends and impress family members. I was rubbing healing oil on it every night, not entirely to help it fade, but to keep it beautiful.
Grace and Jen
4. On the beach.
I spent Christmas last year in Australia with my family who live out there. It was a surreal experience to say the least; on Christmas Day the sun was blazing from early morning, and it reached 37 degrees by lunch time! The entire time I was staying there – from November to January – it was steaming heat that never let up, and the beaches along the Gold Coast were swarming with people all day, every day. So obviously, I was often joining the masses in laying on the sand and swimming in the sea. But the first few times on my trip when I made my way to the beach, alongside the surfers, swimmers and sun worshippers, I would feel nervous. I had my bikini on under my T-shirt and shorts; it was deep blue, bandeau top and high-waisted pants. To begin with, I’d lay my towel out and strip off very carefully, making sure my pants were pulled right up to my belly button. I’d tell myself it was to protect the scar from getting burnt, when really it was a fear that I’d be judged somehow for that bright and bobbled line that cut my tummy down the middle – and gave it strange bulges either side of the pale staple marks.
But then after a week or so of visiting the beach, I came to realise something that seemed crazy but was absolutely true – nobody cared. There were eighty-year-olds strolling along the shoreline in smocks and speedos; teenagers jumping off rocks and skinny dipping, adults covered in tattoos sprawled out baking under the sun… and there were scars. I’d say every third or fourth person I saw – because of course, I was noticing them more than anyone else – had some kind of mark on their skin, whether it was a mottled burn on their arm or a gash down their leg; a dimple in their lower abdomen or even one nipple-less breast. So many people were walking around with their scars on show and, more importantly than that, they seemed to not care at all who saw them. It truly inspired me. Before I knew it I was folding over the top of my bikini bottoms and letting the whole beach get a peek at my badass belly; I felt the sea spray it, and let the sun kiss it. It was an incredible, freeing feeling.
Grace modelling Victory Black
Body positivity is so important to me. The movement means so much to so many people, because it doesn’t tell them how they should look, it simply and kindly lets them know that there’s no shame in being who they are and owning their appearance. And after years of seeing just one type of body in the media or on TV, that means a lot to me and my entire generation, as well as the ones before us. Imagine how the future generations could be, if we let them embrace themselves in a properly positive way!?
Another big thing we have to thank body positivity for, is finally being allowed to feel sexy. Being somewhere between sizes 10-14 for the past decade, it’s been shockingly hard to feel my body is ‘hot’, what with the media’s selective imagery and shops’ terrible sizing. Underwear shopping has always been tricky for me, because I am broad across my chest and have a bigger butt, and apparently in most high street stores this means you won’t want to dress them up for yourself or anyone else – no no, you needed to keep them restrained in the ugliest, almost medical-looking contraptions. Coming across Curvy Kate at a body positive event in London was wonderful, and I am so grateful to now have their whole range of sexy sets to choose from, that will keep my body comfy while making me feel utterly gorgeous.
I say it so many times; this is the only body you’ll ever have. Dress it up, decorate it, take care of it, nourish it – and be proud of it.
By Grace Latter
Watch the full campaign that Grace stars in with 5 other inspiring ladies!