Michelle Elman
Body Confidence Coach

Michelle Elman is a body confidence coach and body positive activist based in London. She has a robust Youtube and started the hashtag #ScarredNotScared.

Laura Jane: I wanted to know a little bit about what you’re doing right now. You’re doing body positive coaching, you have your Youtube series. What else are you working on? 

Michelle: I’m a life coach by profession so I do coaching and I also do public speaking. I might occasionally go on the radio and tv to provide my expert opinion. It’s weird calling myself an expert, but that’s what they call it. And then I do my social media, my Youtube videos, and mainly my Instagram. I also write pieces for publications.  And that is pretty much the accumulation of my job. It’s been a bit busy. 

LJ: So much going on! Let’s go back to the beginning. Can you tell me in broad strokes a little bit more about your childhood and when you first started thinking about having a body? 

M: Definitely. I grew up like everyone else, not really being aware of my body. When you’re not aware of your body, you’re also not aware of your scars. So I never thought I was any different.  The moment for me was somewhere between the age of 7 and 10. I was shopping for a bikini. I lived in Hong Kong so it was really warm and everyone’s birthday was always a pool party. Being in the pool, being in swimsuits was part of your everyday life. I had noticed in the last few birthday parties that all my friends had started swapping from one-pieces to bikinis. So my mom and I went to the store and I remember picking out this beautiful bikini. I came running out of the changing room and there was a mother and daughter standing there and they stared at me with what I now know as a look of pity but at that age you don’t know what pity looks like. You just know that it’s not a very nice feeling. I remember asking my mom why they were staring she just said ‘Oh, I don’t know’ and kind of let it go. 

I kind of knew it had to do with my scars from how they were looking. I wore the bikini the next day to this birthday party and when I came outside I realized I had never explained all my surgeries to my friends. Some knew I had surgeries, some didn’t. And so I walked out and those who knew me weren’t surprised and the girls who didn’t know me were whispering. I just ran inside and went home. 

That was kind of the moment I realized that I had a body and that I had a very different body. I didn’t want to talk about it at that age. My mom kept asking why I was crying, why I was upset and I just didn’t want to talk about it. My solution was that I never want to feel this way ever again so I’m just never gonna talk about it. I didn’t wear a bikini until I was 21.

 

LJ: Can you tell me more about your scars? I can only imagine what it was like to have so many surgeries at a young age.

M: I was eleven-years-old when I had my worst surgeries. I had surgeries before that but my scars that are the worse and the deepest and the ones that created fat rolls are the one I got when I was 11. When I had those scars, especially the largest one across the bottom of my stomach, I became really aware that my stomach looked fat in a t-shirt, even though I wasn’t fat. I was tiny, I lost around 20 kilos in the space of 3 months and as a 12-year-old child, that’s a dramatic difference. 

I started gaining weight when I came out of hospital because, while I was in hospital for three months I couldn’t really eat and then your body goes into starvation mode. So you pile on weight really quickly afterwards. And I wasn’t allowed to exercise for six months afterwards. I remember I couldn’t play games in PE and a lot of my friends said things like, ‘Oh, I’m so jealous that you get out of the exercise.” But I remember this one girl sat next to me and said “Aren’t you worried you’re going to get fat?” And it honestly was something that never occurred to me. That would be the last of your thoughts when you’ve just had five life threatening surgeries. But it was something that ended up haunting me for the next five years as my weight continued to increase and increase. 

 

LJ: I imagine that your body felt different after have so many surgeries.   

M: The metabolism that I was used too had completely gone and I couldn’t just eat. I had lost control of my body completely. And my body didn’t look like the body I was used too, my body didn’t act like the body I was used too. My body started limiting me. 

But then I had this huge moment when I saw one of my friends talking about her body. You know how you always have that friend who you think is the most beautiful person in the world. Well I remember when we walked by our reflection in a door and she said “Fuck, I’ve got fat.” And I just looked at her and said, “You think you’re fat?” The funny thing is the first thing I went to go do when she said she looked fat is that I looked at her body when I would have never looked at her body liked that. I cared too much about my own body to examine hers. My eyes jumped to their thighs to check whether those thighs were big or not. And I realized that when we complain about our bodies, it actually brings more attention to the thing that you don’t want people to pay attention too. So I kind of made this decision at fifteen that I wasn’t going to complain about my body anymore. 

I just stopped saying negative things about myself. It wasn’t just one simple decision, it took years to phase that out, but it was the conscious decision to be to stop talking badly about myself. Then I guess because I wasn’t talking about it, people started assuming I was confident. And I really liked the fact that people assumed I was confident because i really wasn't confident. And the crazy thing was, I started being more confident. 

What made me start loving my body was when I finally talked about everything that my body and I had been through.

  LJ: How did that play out as you got older? What about when you got additional surgeries? 

M: When I went to university, I was really worried that someone was going to see my scars and I’d have to explain it. I worried about it to death. But on the fourth day of university, my top came up in a game of truth or dare. I had to explain to everyone what these scars were and what these surgeries were and then everything went back to normal. That liberated me. The fact that it didn’t change anything — it didn’t change anything with my friendships, no one treated me as if I was different or that I was less capable — really changed the way I talked about it. 

Throughout the whole first year at uni I just started telling these stories that I never told anyone, experiences I’d had in hospital. Telling these stories was what really cemented my relationship with my body. Up until uni, I had what we now call body neutrality, where I was just apathetic about my body. I felt like my body is my body, I just need to accept it. But what made me start loving my body was when I finally talked about everything that my body and I had been through. Then in the second year of university I went to hospital and that just made me ten times more grateful for everything my body has ever done because I was lying in that bed. How many times had I decided to not do something because I was scared or that I was worried I was going to hurt myself and then I ended up in hospital anyway. So, that is when I became really secure in my body. 

When I came out of hospital, because I had been bedridden for six weeks, as soon as I was able to walk again I wanted to use my body to the max. I felt so appreciative for having a body. I felt so silly and petty to be worried about cellulite and stretch marks and scars on my stomach when they are the sole reason that I’m able to get up and walk and run.

 

LJ: In your Instagram, you’ve talked about the idea of happy but not healthy. I think that’s pretty interesting since there is a lot of emphasis even in the plus size movement about health. You have a particularly unique view because you’ve grown up that, as you’ve said, at different points has been happy but not healthy.

M: I go to the gym five times a week but I make a point to not say that online. I shouldn't have to justify that I’m overweight. The funny thing with that happy not healthy photo is that I didn’t really think about it in the context of weight until I woke up this morning to a comment that said ‘You should not be proud.’ it clearly someone that hadn’t read the caption. I find it so interesting that most people who come to my page,  the first thing they see is my fat. They don’t know about my scars. And some of my posts aren’t even about my surgeries and scars, they’re just about weight. Last month I went viral for a post saying that I was a size 20 and that didn’t mention my surgeries or my scars at all. 

The first thing people comment on is something like ‘You’re really unhealthy.’ I almost want to say ‘Yeah, I am, I’ve had 15 surgeries and that's not exactly healthy.” But for me, the weight is a consequence of the surgeries I’ve had and not the other way around. These people are preaching about health to someone who thinks about their health all day, every day. 

My health is not your concern and you have no clue about my health. This is why, especially now that it’s been five years, I just get to the point of deleting these comments. I’m like, ‘You’re really preaching to someone who has had 15 surgeries and all I do all day every day is worry about my health and how to manage my headaches and you really think my priority is getting in the gym. I will get into the gym, if i don’t have a headache, if i don’t have pains.’ It’s too simplistic to be like ‘Go to the gym, eat less.’ The “healthy” option is not always the same for everyone. And also, it’s not your business if someone chooses the healthy option or not, it’s their choice and if they don’t want to care about their health, if their health is their lowest priority, then that’s their choice, and you shaming them for it is not going to help anybody.

 

LJ: That reminds me of something else I want to talk to you about. What has being on social media been like for you? You’ve said you’ve dealt with trolls, but I’m curious what your community is like?  

M: Honestly, I feel like I’m one of the lucky few. I do have an extremely positive community both on Instagram and Youtube. I call it my internet bubble. I have my safe internet bubble which is my page, the people who follow me and love what i do, and know what I’m about. 

Before I launched any of this, I sat down and was like ‘Ok, I’m going to get negative things. Is it worth it to go through things like that?’ And then I thought, ‘If my life is still being dictated by what other people think, then that’s not true body positivity.’ 

I started using this phrase, share your scars but not your wounds. Because if your wounded and you’re looking for your followers to heal that wound, you’re placing too much expectation on the people who follow you. You are not just opening up yourself to the people who follow you, you’re opening up yourself to the entire world. It takes one person to write an article about one of your posts and you could have all these trolls on your page. I’ve had it before where someone has taken one of my posts and posted it on a anti-feminism website. I had 200k trolls coming in my direction. I had to go to the police and it was really annoying. It was vulgar things like rape threats and death threats. And they came after me because I called myself a feminist online. I’m in ahead space where I can’t care about other people’s opinions. If i don't respect you, i don't respect your opinion. 

I felt so silly and petty to be worried about cellulite and stretch marks and scars on my stomach when they are the sole reason that I’m able to get up and walk and run.

LJ: That’s terrible. And so impressive that you have that mental strength. Have you developed responses to trolls?   

M: My mentality around trolls was very much decided when I launched “Scarred not Scared.” I knew I was going to have negative things happen because that’s what happens on the internet. So I asked myself, ‘What is the worst thing someone could say about me?” I knew they were going to say that I’m fat. And to be honest, I’ve called myself fat in my head all the time so I figured, that’s fine. 

I had one comment come through that said “They are not staring at you because of your scars, they are wondering what the Michelin Man’s wife looked like.’ And I replied with, “Thank you so much for taking the time to read the article. I really appreciate the time and energy you took to write that comment. It’s a shame we disagree, but I actually think the Michelin Man seems like a really lovely guy. My nickname used to be Michelin Man because I think MIchelin Man and Michelle Elman have quite a nice ring to it. Have a lovely day.”

And what is crazy is that he replied! He said, ‘I’m really sorry for what I wrote. That was really insensitive of me. I’ve checked you out on all social media and I think what you’re doing is really inspirational. The fact that that comment was water off a duck’s back has really blown me away and really shows you know what you're talking about. Good luck i’ll be following you online.’ It was that comment, which changed literally everything for me. It showed me that trolls can be normal people who know how to interact with people in real life, but with this anonymous-ness of the computer screen, they become these like keyboard warriors. That experience just changed how i viewed it. It humanized it and made it easier to deal. I feel really sorry that they are going through such a bad time and sorry that they put their energy into such a negative place. I’m sorry that body positivity cant be like as positive a source for you and you just want to drag it down. 

 

LJ: That’s amazing that a troll apologize, even though it’s terrible what he said in the first place. I think you’re totally right that people who are so unhappy with themselves that seeing someone so confident and happy they just can't fathom it.

M: It also challenges them, it challenges a very fundamental belief that people have, which is that they have to lose weight to be happy. So when i come along and I’m not even talking about my weight, it makes them realized that they could be happy too, which is actually, if you’re not in the right headspace, really threatening. It challenges this fundamental belief. If you’ve pinned all your negative thoughts on the fact that you’re overweight and then you see a happy overweight person, you’re like, oh wait, why am I unhappy? It will forces you to have to question yourself, which is a really uncomfortable thing to do.

 

LJ: If you had to think about your own journey and what was the most helpful for you, what advice you would give to those who want to feel more positive about their bodies?  

M: I would actually say the first step is to just realize that it’s possible to love your body at whatever size you are and that there is no change required externally. There is nothing with your body that needs to be fixed or changed in order for you to actually start practicing self love. You don’t need to earn self love. You automatically deserve it. You loved yourself when you were born. This is what I tell a lot of my clients, I’m not teaching you self love, I’m re-teaching self love. You were born loving yourself, you just got taught by society to stop loving yourself. And so we’re going to relearn, which actually is easier, because relearning is a lot easier than learning it from scratch. Every child loves themself until they’re taught not too.


This interview has been edited and condensed.
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MICHELLE ON INSTAGRAM

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