Scars, rosacea, and adult acne: Meet the Instagram stars who turned their visible differences into social media campaigns

Em Ford became famous when the video she made detailing the trolling she endured for her beauty blogging went viral Credit: Em Ford When Michelle Elman was 15, she decided she was ugly. At her all-girls boarding school, she stuck out like a sore thumb — she was mixed race, bigger than most of her classmates, and bore secret scars all over her body from the multiple operations she had endured in her early teens. She listened day-in, day-out to her friends agonising about their skin, their hair, the latest diet they were trying – and a wall went up in her mind. “Is this all we are?” she thought. “God this is boring. Count me out.” Unlike most teenage girls, Michelle understood that there was more to life than beauty. Having been born with a brain tumour, later suffering from a condition called Hydrocephalus (where an excess of CSF fluid is produced around the brain and spinal cord) and twice suffering from obstructed bowels, Michelle had undergone 15 surgeries by the time she was 13. “My process was to go ‘you know what, my scars aren’t going anywhere, so I just need to accept them. I’m ugly. Cool, that’s done. That’s a fact of life, now let’s try to create something with the rest of it.”

She convinced herself that she would die young; that 21 would be it for her, and was all the while wracked with guilt for having such negative thoughts when she had, against the odds, survived. “I had this belief around my scars that if I talked about it people would notice, so I never spoke about it,” she remembers.

It wasn’t until Michelle was 18, and forging a new life at university, that she finally felt able to tell people about her scars, and deal with the trauma – by the time she was 11, she had seen 30 children die in hospital – which had been lingering under the surface for so many years. “God knows how my friends put up with it — once I started I couldn’t stop.”

Graduating with a degree in psychology from Bristol, Michelle decided to become a life coach, but before long she felt herself becoming more and more drawn to clients who were struggling specifically with body confidence. “One day I mentioned casually [in a group session] that I’ve had some surgeries and mentioned my scars. [A client] was like: ‘why don’t you talk about this? It helps me to know that you’ve been through it as well’.” Michelle Elman runs @scarrednotscared on Instagram Credit: Andrew Crowley The idea of it filtering into Michelle’s professional life remained anxiety-inducing. It wasn’t until she was on holiday with a friend that she decided to put her money where her mouth was. “My friend was like: ‘just out of interest, how are you going to be a body confidence coach if you won’t wear a bikini?’” Michelle’s immediate reaction was “People with scars can’t wear bikinis”. But she vowed to push herself: to wear a bikini, and take a picture in it. She posted it on Instagram with the caption: “People with scars can’t wear bikinis” and it immediately went viral. The response from people who took comfort and confidence from her picture was overwhelming. It was clear to Michelle she was onto something. Three and a half years on, Michelle has 124,000 followers on her Instagram account @scarrednotscared. She has published a book called ‘Am I Ugly?’, launched a successful podcast, spoken at countless body positivity events, and delivered a Ted Talk in which she and many of the audience members broke down in tears.

This kind of overnight popularity is par for the course for influencers like Michelle, who use their visible differences to spread the gospel of body confidence. Lex Gillies (known as @talontedlex on Instagram), began building a following as a beauty blogger, gaining a dedicated band of women who devoured her posts about nail art and the latest makeup trends. But she lived in fear that one day someone would ask her: “why don’t you ever post before pictures?”, or “why do you wear such heavy make up?” Lex had been living with rosacea (a long-term skin condition which typically affects the face and results in redness and swelling), since she was at university, when doctors eventually diagnosed her but dismissed her requests for help and advice. “What are you complaining about,” one doctor said. “It’s just skin.” Lex Gillies runs @talontedlex on Instagram Credit: Andrew Crowley “I just had this really horrible feeling that someone would expose me,” she recalls, “so I decided to do it myself. As soon as I did I had so many people get in touch with me.”

Eight years on, Lex has become an expert in how to use makeup to cover up skin conditions, posting regular shots of her own skin during a flare up, and after careful makeup application. It’s a dicey topic, I suggest, as there are some who see covering up your visible differences as fuelling shame, not acceptance. Lex is very clear, however, that this is simply not the case. “I think makeup can be written off as something quite superficial and silly. But I was just trying to get to a point where my skin wasn’t the first thing people notice about me. I believe makeup is the thing which can make me myself.” Meet Instagram’s new skinfluencers

1. @emeraldxbeauty

A former true devotee of Photoshop, Kadeeja Khan now proudly bares her make-up-free face, cystic spots an all, to 196K of her followers. The skin-positive beauty blogger is best known for these filter-free selfies, unapologetically displaying her acne-prone skin. But not everyone is seemingly so accepting, Kadeeja was reportedly dropped by cosmetics behemoth L’Oreal, who she was due to work with on a new hair dye campaign, over her ‘skin issues’. Not letting it hold her back, however, she’s continued to work with the likes of cosmetics brand Nip + Fab and watch company Daniel Wellington. 2. @_katiemeehan

Katie, who was born with the condition Cystic hygroma—where cysts form on the left side of her face, neck and tongue—isn’t your typical beauty blogger. At five years old, she had already undergone pioneering surgery to have some of the cysts removed and has had a series of invasive surgeries ever since. But through the difficulties, Katie, who is originally from South Shields, found solace in the digital makeup community, starting her blog in 2013 to help eradicate standardised beauty ideals she saw in magazines.

The self-taught make-up artist decided to create her own crew of beauty-lovers. Now, she’s racked up nearly 20K Instagram followers and nabbed sponsorship from major brands such as Sanctuary, Cadburys and Aussie hair. Of the whole experience, she says, she’s delighted to be able to help “others who are going through something similar”, and show them “that they can do what they love and follow their heart.” 3. @marianamendes.m

Today, we’re all so obsessed with uniqueness, keen to find something that makes us special, a cut above the crowd. Brazilian model Mariana Mendes, from Juiz de Fora, has surely found it, but it’s something that took her a little while to fully accept. Born with a large facial birthmark across her eyes and nose, at just five years old she underwent laser surgery to reduce its appearance. But, by now, she has learnt to love what she sees in the mirror and is proud of her nevus. And it’s also the very thing propelling her career, recently participating in an advertising campaign, #inyourownskin, by women’s clothing brand Missguided and Instagram collaborations with big name companies like Head & Shoulders. 4. @katesnooks

London-based Instagrammer and vlogger, Katie Snooks, first hit the social media big-time when a Youtube video she posted, detailing her own personal experiences on taking acne medication Roaccutane, amassed an impressive 2M views on Youtube. Initially wanting to document how the treatment transformed her skin, she’s gone on to become a social media sensation, now boasting 69.1k Instagram followers, producing slick make-up tutorials and paid partnerships with brands like Eucerin and Fujifilm, and being recruited by L’Oreal to be the face of their Colorista hair dye. There were even once (false) rumours that she might be making an appearance on last year’s Love Island. 5. @shalomblac

US-based beauty social star and burns survivor, Shalom, turned a tragic childhood accident into a startling online career. Burned by hot oil as a nine-year-old back in her birth-country, Nigeria, she now produces transformative make-up tutorials to inspire other burn survivors, she says, to recognise their life is valuable and to be bold. The cosmetics artist and blogger, who has 1.1M YouTube subscriptions and 652K Instagram followers, spent “hours upon hours” mastering the make-up brush and now collaborates with wet n wild’s new #breakingbeauty campaign, runs her own channel and has even appeared on American talk show: Rachael Ray show.

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