By Sarah Kinonen. Photos: Courtesy of Instagram.
When you first look at Victoria Graham, you'll see a lovely beauty queen, but spoiler alert: There's so much more than meets the eye. The 22-year-old college student from Maryland, who was crowned Miss Frostburg by the Miss America Organization last October, is using her platform to raise awareness for Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a genetic condition that affects connective tissue in the skin, joints, and blood-vessel walls. Graham was diagnosed with EDS when she was 13.
"I went through a period, up until age 19…[when] I was embarrassed beyond belief about my illness," she told [Yahoo Beauty](https://www.yahoo.com/beauty/beauty-queen-exposes-surgery-scars-to-bring-visibility-to-her-disease-210421661.html). EDS means that Graham has overly flexible joints and cranial and spinal instability. That has resulted in ten operations on her brain and spine — and Graham has a wide scar reaching from the nape of her neck to her tailbone to prove it. But the challenges of EDS aren't just visible. Each day, Graham takes 31 pills and a blood-thinning injection. Some days, she's temporarily paralyzed; others, her joints dislocate. And the pain is constant.
For a time, Graham was so emotionally and physically scarred by EDS that she never considered signing up for a public contest, let alone a beauty pageant. "I did not really understand them," Graham told Yahoo Beauty. "My roommate and I were sitting one evening discussing how we needed to do something 'crazy' and something we had never done before. We wanted to cross something off a bucket list. We decided either [auditioning for ABC's] The Bachelor or [entering] a pageant."
Fast-forward to the present and Graham is on a mission to use her voice — and her 25-inch spinal surgery scar — to educate others about the "invisible illness." Not only did the beauty queen name her pageant platform "But You Don't Look Sick — Making Invisible Illnesses Visible" but she also proudly displays her scars — front and center — on stage by wearing low-cut, backless evening gowns.
Graham now takes control of her condition by sharing it with others. "It may seem a bit juxtaposed that I am scarred and competing in a beauty pageant," she told Yahoo Beauty. "But in my opinion, the 25-inch scar on my back is the most beautiful part of me. It makes me perfectly imperfect. It shows where I overcame a weakness — both literally and figuratively."
If you've ever felt uncomfortable in your own skin or struggled with self-acceptance, Graham's Instagram posts might convince you to give yourself a little extra self-love: "Never lose hope in yourself, in the quality of your life, in the abilities that rest inside you," she wrote. "YOU are more than a diagnosis. YOU are more than the harsh words that misunderstood people say. YOU are more than an illness. and YOU can accomplish anything, never let anyone tell you otherwise." Preach.
This story originally appeared on Allure.
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