Sylvia, 52, was severely burnt as a child. After coming to terms with her scars, she believes it’s her calling to help others do the same through her online support network, Love Disfigure. Here’s our Wellness Warrior winner and her powerful, moving story:
‘The day I was burnt, the house was full of screams. I wasn’t quite three years old and Mum was boiling water and putting it in bowls in the bathroom to stockpile for baths (our electricity would often cut out). She’d told us not to go in there, but when playing hide-and-seek, I hid behind the door. My sister swung it open, it knocked me into a bowl and I got third- and fourth-degree burns down my back. After that, I remember always being in pain.’
‘I was eight when I first became acutely conscious of how my scars looked. I joined a swimming club and was a good swimmer, but intentionally never won competitions, because I didn’t want everyone looking at me. The scars feel like thick ropes running down my back. You could easily feel them through my school shirt, so I never let anyone hug or touch me. I “knew” I’d never have a boyfriend or children. I couldn’t see the future I have now – with three children and two grandchildren.’
‘I did build a life for myself, but it wasn’t until a holiday in 2016 that I finally accepted my whole self. I was on the beach with Mum, complaining, “I can’t sit here, everyone will stare at me.” Mum asked if I was OK, but I snapped and walked off. And then it hit me: she’d been suffering all these years, too. So I threw my sarong on the floor and shouted over: “Mum, look at me!” and began walking like I was on a catwalk. A switch had flicked. Later, I shared a “video reveal” of my scars on Facebook. People who’d known me for years messaged, saying they had no idea. Then strangers started thanking me. I figured I survived for a reason and could make a difference. So, at 48, I founded Love Disfigure.’
‘People often say, “You’re so lucky your scarring isn’t on your face”. But supporting people with hidden differences is important, too. Burns survivors need hope. A young girl who’d recently been burnt wrote to me, saying: “I already know I’m going to be in a good place because of people like you”. Love Disfigure might be just me, working full-time, but it’s worth it when I get messages like this.
‘My mission is to challenge the fashion industry, media and society to be more inclusive of people who look “different” for any reason. I’ve campaigned for diversity at London Fashion Week and outside Victoria’s Secret stores in my underwear. I’ve been on This Morning and I received a Points Of Light award from Theresa May, which recognises people making a difference through voluntary work. I’ve also completed the Bosphorus swim [6.5km] from Asia to Europe. It shows neither physical nor mental health issues have to hold you back.
‘“You may not be able to change your path in life, but you can change the way you walk it.”
I live by this motto, so to win the Wellness Warrior Award is a real honour. I’m launching a podcast called Survivors & Thrivers, and there’s so much more I want to do… a TEDx Talk, an annual festival, a book. I’d never felt I could achieve anything, yet now I’m a creator, a campaigner and an activist.’
Find Sylvia at: lovedisfigure.com; Instagram @love_disfigure; Twitter @LoveDisfigure; Facebook, Love Disfigure
MEET OUR RUNNER-UP
THE GRIEF GURU
Linda Magistris, 56, is founder and chief executive of The Good Grief Trust, the UK’s leading bereavement support network, offering immediate help. When Linda lost her partner in 2014, she struggled to find support, so founded The Good Grief Trust, an umbrella charity with over 800 specialist bereavement services, to help with everything from the loss of a child to losing someone to suicide. Linda and her team have distributed tens of thousands of their Good Grief cards – from GPs and hospital Trusts to funeral parlours – connecting the recently bereaved with tailored support.
They also run virtual (due to pandemic restrictions) pop-up Good Grief Cafés around the country and launched National Grief Awareness Week (2-8 December). Plus, they teamed up with the Government to launch the first All Party Parliamentary Group On Bereavement Support. Linda is passionate about busting the taboos around grief and offering help and hope in one place.
Find Linda at: thegoodgrieftrust.org; Instagram @thegoodgrieftrust; Facebook @thegoodgrieftrust; Twitter @goodgrieftrust
A WORTHY ‘HIGHLY COMMENDED’
THE GYNAE CHANGE-MAKER
After suffering for years with undiagnosed gynaecological problems, Elizabeth Amoaa, 37, founded Speciallady Awareness to bust taboos, fight period poverty and combat gender bias in healthcare. Elizabeth was born with uterus didelphys, meaning she has two wombs, two cervixes and two vaginal canals. For years she suffered from chronic pain and a miscarriage. Finally, a specialist diagnosed the condition, plus severe endometriosis.
Her mission has been to help other women and girls: as well as giving talks in schools and organisations, she’s donated menstrual hygiene products to schools in Ghana, where being infertile is sometimes considered a sign you’re ‘cursed’. Elizabeth runs Speciallady Awareness alone and unpaid. Respect!
Find Elizabeth at: specialladyawareness.com; Instagram @speciallady8253 Facebook @speciallady8253
AND LET’S NOT FORGET
So many of the nearly-1,000 nominations were for pandemic-related work. Here’s just a taster…
Gail Johnson, nominated by Kirsty Martin
After 37 years as an NHS nurse, Gail came out of recent retirement: she drove staff to and from work
and made sure patients had everything they needed.
Kirsty says: ‘This wonderful lady doesn’t like the spotlight, but she deserves it. She always goes above and beyond.’
Linda Rumford, nominated by Valerie Pratt
Super-seamstress Linda hand-made more than 4,000 reusable face masks and has given over 1,500 for free to key workers, care homes, homeless people and charities.
Valerie says: ‘My sister has worked tirelessly to make as many key workers as she could as safe as possible.’
Julie Commons, nominated by Amanda Swanson*
During the pandemic, Julie sourced donations and surplus food from supermarkets to provide free essentials – and a friendly chat – to NHS workers. She’s also helped with supplies to schools and families.
Amanda says: ‘She works tirelessly to help others, and always with a smile.’
Lynn Wingfield, nominated by Lesley Lane
Fitness professional Lynn ran free Zoom fitness classes for women aged 50-90+ – many isolated at home – to keep them feeling fit and connected.
Lesley says: ‘Her classes give me strength to face the world with an optimistic and joyous spirit.’
Watch THE 2020 Women Of The Year Awards!
Get cosy on your sofa and watch the recorded ceremony at womenoftheyear.co.uk.