43 Beautiful in My Own Skin
(By Tahlia Brookins)
My scars were a part of me - the part I always tried to hide.
I had just taken a bite of my hot dog when I heard a familiar voice yelling at me from across the crowded school courtyard. I looked up and saw a group of popular girls. They were all laughing.
How's the model? The same voice called. More laughter.
Yeah, Tahlia, another girl shouted, "what kind of modeling are you going to do? An ad for the Frankenstein movie?"
How could they humiliate me like this, in front of the entire high school?
As I blinked back the tears, my best friend Jackie stood up and yelled back. "Like you guys are any better! I don't see any of you on the cover of Vogue!"
My friend Jesse turned his back to the mean girls. "Don't listen to them," he told me. "They're just jealous of you."
My stomach twisted into a tight knot . As I got up from the picnic table and headed inside to the cafeteria, I glanced at the thick, dark scars outlining my right hand.
When I was only 9 months old, my mother had been brewing tea in an electric pot. She placed me in my walker and stepped just outside the kitchen to talk to my father. In those few seconds, I rolled over to the counter, yanked on the cord, and dumped boiling tea all over my hands, stomach, and legs. My parents rushed me to the hospital, praying it wasn't too serious. But I had second- and third-degree burns over 26 percent of my body. Ten percent can be deadly. I had to have several painful skin graft operations, where surgeons took healthy skin from my buttocks and thighs and put it over my burned areas. For an entire month, my mom sat by my bedside, praying I'd survive.
I did survive. But anytime I had a growth spurt , I'd outgrow the grafted skin and have to have surgery again. Over the next 13 years, I had 13 surgeries. I was in so much pain! But I learned to handle it. I'd take an aspirin , rest, or find something else to do that would take my mind off it. What hurt me most were the cruel things people said about how I looked.
Like that day at lunch. The girls were being super mean to me because they heard I was considering doing some modeling. My friend, who is a psychologist at the burn center, had suggested it. "Tahlia, you are so beautiful," Dr. Rimmer had told me. "Don't let your scars limit you!" Her idea really got me thinking. It would be such a rush to walk down the runway in glamorous clothes, or pose for the beautiful photos in a magazine. Why should I be afraid to let people see my scars? I could still be considered beautiful.
But after that scene at school, I was sure I'd made a huge mistake. When I got home, I ran to my room and covered my mirror with a blanket. I didn't want to risk catching even a glimpse of my scarred-up self. Then I fell on my bed and sobbed. Dr. Rimmer isn't a modeling agent. What does she know? What was I thinking?
As I lay there, a rush of images flooded over me. Like the time when I was 10 and wore a bikini to the public pool. As I came out of the dressing room a girl stared at my scars, and said, "Ewwww! You should cover yourself up!" And the time when I tried out for volleyball in seventh grade - wearing jeans and turtleneck .
The next day, I forced myself to go to school. But I hung out in the cafeteria at lunch instead of going outside, to avoid any confrontation with those girls. My two best friends, Jackie and Jesse, sat with me and tried to give me a pep talk. "You really are pretty, you know," Jackie told me. "Don't worry what other people say."
Jesse, though, felt like enough was enough. "You can't hide forever, Tahlia," he told me. "You've got to face your fears. So what if you have a few scars? Just go outside and show them that you're just as good as they are."
Although I knew he was right, I couldn't imagine standing up for myself like that. I'd spent so many years covering up and distancing myself from people.
That night as I sat on my bed, I glanced at the blanket over my mirror. Jesse's words replayed in my mind. "You can't hide forever." I'm even hiding from myself, I thought. How dumb is that? Covering my mirror - that wasn't going to take my scars away. And neither was hiding under layers of clothes.
I stood up, walked over to the mirror, and tossed the blanket aside. Looking back at me was a tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed girl. A girl who had a few scars. But I had to admit, she looked just fine.
The next day I wore a comfy T-shirt to school. And at lunch, after I grabbed my burger and fries, I headed over to Jesse and Jackie. "Okay, let's do it," I said. "Outside."
They both smiled and followed me into the school courtyard. I walked right past the mean girls. They stared at me, but they didn't say anything. I guess they were shocked that I even dared to walk into their territory.
Jackie, Jesse, and I sat at our favorite picnic table, just like always.But this time was different. I felt free. I felt happy.
Sometimes people still look at me strange. They whisper and stare, but I don't let it get to me. I wear what I'm comfortable in - and that means shorts and T-shirts to play volleyball, and yes, a bikini at the beach. I am now putting together a modeling portfolio , and at least one agency is considering me for jobs. Maybe I'll never end up on the runway or in the pages of Vogue, because modeling is a tough business.
But I do know one thing: I'm done hiding.