Burns survivor shares body positivity journey at Great East Swim launch
PUBLISHED: 19:12 24 April 2019 | UPDATED: 19:14 24 April 2019
A body positivity campaigner and ambassador for this year's Great East Swim has shared her story of self-acceptance after suffering fourth degree burns in a horrific childhood accident.
Sylvia Mac almost died after falling into a bowl of boiling water at just three years old, leaving her with severe scarring across her body.
Now a campaigner for body positivity, the 50-year-old wants to spread the message that difference is to be celebrated, not shunned.
Speaking at the launch of this year's Great East Swim at Alton Water, the open water swimmer shared her story in an effort to inspire others to embrace their bodies and don their wetsuits.
After four decades of hating her scars, Miss Mac's turning point came roughly three years ago when she noticed a cruel man filming her on a beach.
“I was on holiday on the beach with my mum and my son, and a guy was filming me and he kept following me, and I was just getting so paranoid,” she said.
“I kept saying to my mum: 'I don't like this', so we went down to the beach to get away from it, and it was at that moment I had a turning point in my life. That's when everything changed for me.”
Miss Mac realised she was done with hating her body, and decided it was time to show her scars off to the world.
“My mum had her head hung low, so I knew that she had been affected as much as me and it was time for me to help change that,” she said.
“So really that moment was for me to take that guilt away from my mum, and I decided while walking down to the water's edge I was going to turn around and just pose. I thought if anyone wants to take pictures of me, I am going to look good.
“So I began to shout to my mum: 'Hey mum look at me', and she just had the biggest smile on her face. I went back to her, put my hand on her shoulder and said: 'You know from now on everything's going to be okay'.
“And from that moment everything just took off.”
Miss Mac was inspired to do a 'video reveal' online, where she could publicly embrace her differences and encourage others to do the same.
“I let people know that it's okay to look the way that you do and we should start embracing our bodies because we are survivors,” she said.
The popular campaigner went on to set up a brand called LoveDisfigure, which encourages people with scarring and other physical differences to accept their bodies.
The body positivity group has since amassed 12,500 followers on Instagram, and in excess of 1,000 on both Facebook and Twitter.
“There's so many people that go through their daily lives that are not happy with the way they look, so it was important that I encouraged them to come and join me,” Miss Mac said.
“We are all here for a reason, we are all survivors, we all go through something in life. Our outer body is just the shell. It is what's on the inside, but you know what, just embrace the way that you look.”
Now a strong open water swimmer, Miss Mac said she was “proud and honoured” to be chosen as an ambassador for this year's Great East Swim.
“When I was about nine years old I started swimming, and I was a competitive swimmer for about five years,” she said.
“I was bullied – I didn't have much confidence because of my scarring, but I was a really good swimmer, so later on in life I kind of looked back to find what really made me happy because I had suffered such severe depression and low self-esteem.
“I realised that water was such a great therapy for me, and it was just a wonderful place for me to be. So I decided to go back into swimming and try and get other people involved that had physical differences or hidden differences like scars and skin conditions.
“The Great East Swim and the Great North Swim has now become part of this challenge I am doing for the summer. I'm really excited, I can't wait to get started with it – just letting everyone know that it's such a diverse sport that anyone can get involved.
“Nobody's going to look at you, regardless of how you look. So just come and join in.”
Also keen to promote the swim was Army veteran Stuart Ellis from Woodbridge, who lost his leg in an accident 10 years ago.
Speaking at the launch, he said: “I was in Berlin with some friends and my wife, and I got up to this train – I was the first one in the group to get there – I pressed the button, the door opened, the lights were on, everything seemed normal. We have since found out that the train was out of service.
“As I stepped on, it suddenly pulled away with the door open. I reached around to try and get my wife on board, but she couldn't keep up with the train. The door then tried to close, hit me in the shoulder, I flew out, hit a concrete post – that knocked me out and tore my ear out, which they kindly sewed back on.
“I then rolled off that, punctured my side on something, and then rolled off the end of the platform underneath the train, and that took my leg clean off.
“Sport and being fit really does help mentally. You have these internal batteries, and every now and then I need to go off and have them charged through doing things like this. And then that sets me up for the next few months.”
Thousands of people of all ages and abilities are expected to take part in the John West Great East Swim on June 22, 2019.
Event director Alex Jackson said: “For over 10 years we've consistently seen a range of body shapes, levels of fitness, types of disabilities, ages and different motivations for taking part reflected in our Great East Swim participants.
“Open water swimming is a sport that continuously challenges expectations. This year we really want to challenge the wider world's preconceptions of who an open water swimmer is, and hopefully encourage people who think it's not for them, to give the event a go.”
Anybody keen to enter, or find out more about the event, should visit the website.