Jessica Vander Leahy will show you her scar if you show her yours.
Actually, she’ll show you regardless. The founder of Project WomanKIND, a website dedicated to celebrating women, just launched a photo and video series titled #ShowMeYourScar to encourage “people to look past the forced idea of perfection and to more of a celebration of their own unique beauty,” she says
Through the series, five women, Jessica included, share how their scars helped shape who they are and challenged them to look and think about themselves differently and what they’ve learned through “past pains.”
Leahy was inspired in part by her own scar. She was 6 and at work with her dad at a coffee plantation when she lost the top half of her pointer finger through a freak accident with an industrial coffee grinder her dad was fixing; Leahy stuck her finger in a bolthole as a concrete slab was getting dropped in, and the weight of it took off the top of her finger.
“It’s such a catalyst for sharing and connecting,” the plus-size model said about her scar in the YouTube video. Further, she tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “I know losing the top of my finger is not a completely devastating or life-threatening injury, but it’s something on my body that when people notice, they ask questions. They look, they touch, and when I tell them I sliced it off in a machine, they wince and then almost immediately pull off their shirt or shoes or something to reveal their own wound that’s now healed over.” These exchanges, she says, the “’you show me yours, I’ll show you mine’ sort of thing,” has really fascinated her, because “by being vulnerable and showing people you’re human, others open up.”
“It doesn’t really bother me,” Leahy said in the video of her finger. Unfortunately, it does bother some people in the fashion industry; a photographer once told her it would be a “big issue.” But once she learned to look past it, so did others — she’s since modeled in NYFW for Dia & Co.
“I would go into castings thinking, Oh my God, is someone going to notice my finger? But honestly, they don’t.” Unfortunately, she knows the fashion industry still has a long way to go around so-called imperfections, which is where her series appreciating and normalizing scars comes in. “It’s kind of preposterous to me, though, that in the fashion industry, or in the beauty industry, little things like that are still seen as so damaged, and they’re not; they’re human. We are human,” she says, beautifully referring to scars as “little bookmarks on our body, showing the chapters that have been lived.”
The participants in the photo series agree. To participate, Leahy found international model turned fashion agent Penelope Benson, model and heart-transplant survivor Bec Craven, breast cancer warrior Felicity Parker, and surfer-florist Phoebe East in Australia.
“The women I found for the series were actually local women from where I’m based at the moment, Byron Bay,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I’ve had this idea to create a project on scars for a while, but finding women who were open to speaking and being photographed and filmed for the project was tough.” She was also on the hunt for nonmodels. “In my last series (you can also find on YouTube), I had only young models, because that was the story I was trying to tell, but here I wanted to be more diverse and have women who weren’t used to being in front of a camera.” And it worked out well for the diversity activist. “The women I did get were brilliant and interesting and able to articulate so much wisdom about how they’ve been challenged and how those challenges have shaped them, and I think that’s really special,” she said.
“I got my scar from having a heart transplant last year,” participant Bec Craven explained in her YouTube interview. “Before that I also had a mechanical heart, so I’ve had two open-hearts now.”
The model was 24 when she was diagnosed with heart failure. “They told me that my heart function was down to a point where … I don’t even know how I was still living.” She learned the following year that she’d need a heart transplant, which required grueling tests before the surgery.
“When I tell people about my scar, a lot of people just go ‘Oh my goodness,’ their jaw drops, and they are like ‘How old are you?’”
She has a long scar down the middle of her chest, which she flaunts frequently. “I don’t ever wear something to cover it up … it was hard to get used to, but once I got used to it, and then having my second open-heart surgery, I just figured, I’m not going to change my fashion sense or change who I am to cover this. When I see my scar in the mirror, it’s a battle scar. It’s a story for me.”
To her, “scars are a story that is not in words … it’s a medal almost … It’s beautiful, and if people don’t accept that, that’s their problem. I think scars are beautiful, I really do. And I’m not just saying that because I have this one.”
Phoebe East lost half her vision when she was 29. She was surfing at her local spot when she went to duck dive over a wave. Instead of clearing the wave, something she’d done thousands of times before, she got she caught in the lip and the force of the water flung her board back toward her and it sliced through her eye. Before her accident Phoebe had perfect 20-20 vision, but after it she could see only out of her right eye.
“I think it probably brings up quite a bit of fear in people, the idea of losing vision,” East said in her video interview. “It’s kind of just harrowing having your whole life ripped apart.” She said she looks in the mirror a lot less now, “not because I’m grossed out by it or anything, but it’s just easier if I don’t look at it all the time and don’t focus on it. … It’s strange knowing that you’re still the same person but you look different physically.”
Felicity Parker is actually thankful for the experience that led to her scars. “I was in a very emotionally abusive marriage, and through breast cancer I’ve learned that I’m in the driver’s seat of my life, and I can’t give anyone the power anymore. … I have learned to live and not just survive, and so for that, I’m very grateful.” She said her illnesses have completely turned her spiritual life around. To those who are uncomfortable with their scars, she advised them to “sit and just really feel who they are within, because what we see on the outside, that’s just a house, and it houses so much more than what we can ever imagine.”
Penelope Benson has a scar on her neck from a large tumor, “one that could have quite possibly been growing since she was a teen,” Project WomanKIND wrote. “At the beginning I was so mortified that I had to not be a model for a little while,” she said in her interview. As Penelope began to treat her cancer, her weight fluctuated, she lost her hair to chemotherapy, and, though she tried, she eventually became too weak to work. But she said the illness helped her “cut through the bullshit of her life and discover what really matters.”
The photo series on Instagram focuses on the scars in beautiful black-and-white images. “The myth that we’re perfect is done,” Leahy says. “This beauty-positive project is all about trying to make that clear to anyone who sees it; we will no longer be made to feel less than so you can sell us something.” To brands, the scar series says, “We’re smarter and we want you to capitalize on our joy, not our insecurities.”
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