Michelle Elman: “People do want you to hold up this inspirational image and I refuse to do that”

“Calling someone a role model, you put them on a pedestal and it’s almost like they’re not human”

Michelle Elman is not your role model. Or so she tells me on a sunny Sunday whilst we sit comfortably ensconced in her large cream sofa in the living room of her west London flat. The body confidence coach and social media sensation, who went viral in Summer 2014 for a powerful Instagram post revealing her personal struggle with her own body image because of several scars, does not want to conform to an ‘inspirational’ ideal.

Although it’s easy to see why people try to put her in that role. In Summer 2014, Michelle, having started life coaching a year ago, posted a photo of herself in a bikini on Instagram. Her goal was simple: to draw attention to scars and chronic illness, and to begin a conversation about these issues by using her own experience as a starting point. After posting that photo and grabbing the attention of mainstream media outlets from The Daily Mail to Buzzfeed, Michelle’s campaign Scarred Not Scared was born.

“I found that by sharing that story, it’s liberating and it removes all the shame around it”

Michelle tells me her medical history casually and with patience, despite the fact that she has inevitably had to do so countless times before. This history involves 15 surgeries throughout her life to tackle a brain tumor, a punctured intestine, a brain cyst, glandular fever and an obstructed bowel, the last of which recurred earlier this year.

All of this began when she had just turned one. The result of this trauma at such a young age meant that Michelle didn’t fully understand what was happening to her, and as such couldn’t fully process the experiences. Aged 11 she underwent many of these surgeries and returned to boarding school and ostensibly back to her normal life, which meant even less chance of discussing her experiences. She tells me, “it’s almost not socially acceptable. You’re a downer on the conversation. I always felt that growing up”.

Despite growing up in an environment without an emphasis on her physical limitations – “I don’t think my parents felt like they needed to have a conversation about it” – Michelle became aware of her physical differences when she first wore a bikini around her friends. She tells me: “when I wore my first bikini I realised that my friends didn’t know about my operations and were staring at my scars. That’s when the body image stuff started”.

“You have to start a conversation about it. And then it has to stop being a conversation”

Scarred Not Scared is Michelle’s passion project; it is her way of helping both herself and others with scars to have a conversation in mainstream media that allows them to feel properly represented. She finds herself continually frustrated by the way chronic illness is portrayed in the media, almost glamorising the issue rather than allowing sufferers to speak. “What I like about my campaign is I’m raising up their voices and not speaking over them”. Her Instagram page is testament to this, as she regularly posts photos sent to her by contributors who want to tell their story and engage in her campaign. Rather than talking for other people with scars, Michelle simply provides a platform for them, something which the mainstream media has thus far failed to do. 

“The word healthy shouldn’t have anything to do with your worth”

Whilst discussing this idea of providing a platform, I ask Michelle about the concept of ‘wellness’, a word so pervasive in the media we consume every day. Instagram confronts us with images on a daily basis of women preaching a very specific, very finely filtered view of health. Michelle hits the nail on the head when she says: “the whole idea of wellness has got very elitist.” The figures spearheading the wellness craze present health as something you choose – something you obtain through diet and lifestyle choices. This leaves Michelle understandably frustrated, because of the idea that health is a choice. 

“I know that my account is helping the right people”.

What is most refreshing about Michelle, amongst the sea of social media accounts preaching a heavily filtered, elitist approach to health, is her entirely unabashed ‘no filter’ attitude. After going viral in 2014, when glandular fever hit, Michelle posted a photo on Instagram of a hot water bottle, openly telling her followers that she felt incredibly low and wasn’t sure about continuing her account. When she began to notice symptons of her second bowel obstruction a few months ago, she posted updates on Snapchat as she waited for her doctor’s call. It made her feel less alone, she tells me, and also serves to highlight the constant sense of doubt you feel with chronic illness.

Both of these instances did cost her some followers, but she has no regrets. “That’s how I want to tell my story”, Michelle states simply. Her conviction in her approach is admirable, and she feels no pressure to change her attitude despite the emphasis on presenting her story in an aesthetically pleasing way. 

Perhaps that is what is so compelling about Michelle’s campaign. She focuses on helping herself and in turn helping others who are receptive, but she doesn’t bend over backwards to conform to any body positivity ideals. Follow her, quote her and listen to her – she’s got a lot to say. But whatever you do, don’t call her your role model: she’s far too busy starting a  major conversation to sit on any pedestal.

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