Hattie Gladwell 30th August 2019
When I was 19, I underwent major surgery to have my large intestine removed after it perforated due to ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease.
I woke up with a stoma bag.
At the time, I was a young, body-conscious girl with a previous eating disorder. Looking down at my stomach to see a bag on my abdomen and a large scar from my sternum to my pelvis filled me with fear.
I worried I would never feel beautiful again. I worried I would no longer be attractive. I worried my then-partner would no longer look at me the same way.
As you’ll know from my previous column, I was in a sexless relationship for many years. And so, as you can imagine, leaving the hospital with huge scars and a bag on my stomach and heading into a relationship where intimacy was rare, I struggled to feel attractive.
Not being touched is one thing, but not being touched when you have been through life-changing surgery and your confidence is at an all-time low is another.
I felt unwanted, unloved, and in an irrational mindset, I put it all down to the scars and the stoma bag. That’s why we were no longer having sex. That’s why he didn’t want me anymore. Because I wasn’t beautiful anymore.
I tried to remain as confident as I could on the outside, telling all of my family and friends that it was okay, that I didn’t mind the bag or the scars and eventually, this was partially true. I didn’t mind the bag, I realised it had saved my life and I was thankful for it. It didn’t affect my quality of life and I was able to do all of the things I could do before the bag, with the bonus of having no pain.
But inside, I felt insecure and alone. Not being touched is one thing, but not being touched when you have been through life-changing surgery and your confidence is at an all-time low is another.
After ten months with the stoma bag, I opted to have a reversal, which is where the stoma bag is removed and my small intestine was stitched to my rectum to allow me to go to the toilet normally again.
This was yet another major surgery. I was re-opened close to my first large scar, and I now have a horizontal scar on the right of my lower abdomen where my stoma once was.
Over time, I came to terms with my scars, they faded and I got a tattoo on my sternum which made me feel more confident. I soon realised that without these scars, I wouldn’t be alive today and I should embrace them, not reject them.
I taught myself to be confident. I sadly didn’t have the help of a partner to reassure me that I was still beautiful, and so I reassured myself.
I realised that this insecurity had been all in my head
I spent time following other people who had had similar surgeries and who had been left with similar scars, taking photos and showing off their bodies without a care in the world, and it inspired me to do the same.
For a while, I had been scared to wear a crop top or a bikini in case people would stare — but I talked myself down, realising this was probably all in my head. And I realised that the only way to prove this to myself was to rip off the bandaid and rip off my clothes.
And so, that’s what I did. In the summer, I ditched covering up and I flaunted my body in a bikini. And warm days, I wore crop tops. And It was alright — nobody stared. In fact, nobody batted an eyelid. I realised that this insecurity had been all in my head. I learned how to be confident in my scars in a variety of ways and it got to the point where I no longer worried about them. I looked at them as just another part of my body. They no longer bothered me at all. In fact, they’re actually pretty neat scars and people often compliment me on my surgeon’s work.
But there was one insecurity that I still had: having my scars out while being intimate.
Being in a sexless relationship had meant that I had missed out on one crucial part of self-healing. I knew not to rely on another person’s perception of me to feel totally fine about my scars. For the most part, I’d worked on that alone. Still, just to know that I was still attractive to the person I wanted to be intimate with would have meant a lot. It would have been the final part of my healing process, to realise that my body is still beautiful.
And I’m almost ashamed to say that I actually didn’t reach this point until the age of 23, four years after the initial surgery. And yes, it was with someone new.
It felt like it was something I had to disclose just in case he didn’t fancy me anymore
After thankfully leaving the relationship where I was isolated, I was lucky enough to meet someone a few months later who makes me feel like the most beautiful woman in the world. It’s almost like being in a relationship for the first time all over again — I am with someone who constantly wants to touch me and compliment me and tell me how gorgeous I am. It’s something that I haven’t been used to for a long, long time and it has made all the difference in making me feel wanted.
When we first had sex, I was very nervous. I didn’t realise the amount of insecurity there was left in me until I actually warned him about my scars. It felt like it was something I had to disclose just in case he didn’t fancy me anymore. And as he shrugged it off and wondered why
I had even brought it up, I wondered why I had been so scared to reveal what is just another part of my body.
why had it taken me this long to believe somebody else would still want to be intimate with me?
When we first had sex, I was body conscious and admittedly nervous but he made me feel like I had absolutely no reason to be. He wanted to touch me and pay attention to my body, he didn’t want me to hide it away.
After years of being untouched and unsure of myself, it was like a whole new world had opened up to me. Someone was actually taking the time to appreciate my body. And what’s more, he didn’t avoid my scars either or make me feel uncomfortable. He embraced them, which was an amazing feeling.
After the first encounter, I realised I had been being silly for so long. It was like an awakening. I’d spent so long accepting every other aspect of my scars, why had it taken me this long to believe somebody else would still want to be intimate with me?
Stripping down in front of another person was my biggest fear but after doing it once and feeling liberated
I blame a big part on feeling so rejected in my past relationship, but also another part on myself for not giving my body the credit it deserves, realising that someone else will love it just as much as I do.And now, I’m no longer afraid to take off my clothes and show off my scars in the bedroom. In fact, I don’t give it a second thought. My scars don’t even cross my mind anymore.
I’d say embracing my scars fully came from a mix of both myself and my partner. I don’t think anyone should rely on another person to fully embrace themselves and experience self-love, but knowing your partner cherishes your body when it has fought so much is an amazing feeling.
Ultimately, what I have learnt is the best way to fully embrace your scars, in and out of the bedroom, is to do what you’re afraid of.Wear the crop tops. Buy the bikinis. Flaunt the sexy underwear. Look in the mirror, look at your scars and see them as a reminder that you are still here. That you are still beautiful. That they simply tell a story.
Stripping down in front of another person was my biggest fear but after doing it once and feeling liberated, I’ll never be wearing a baggy top in the bedroom again.
Hattie Gladwell 30th August 2019