If I can feel good in my own skin anyone can! KITTY DIMBLEBY bravely reveals her scars from a lifetime of operations after transforming her mind and body
The bikini is a scarlet halterneck made from the softest material. Its simple yet stylish design makes you think of chic women sunning themselves on the Riviera — the kind of look I’ve always admired in magazines or shops.
When I put it on, it fits perfectly and isn’t too revealing, but I feel almost naked wearing it.
I was a few years younger than most women are when they learn to hate their body (because, let’s face it, at some point most of us do)
Then, before I step in front of the camera, I dare to look in the full-length mirror.
I’m in my 40th year, exactly the age when most women resign their two-pieces to the bottom drawer and opt instead for a sensible swimsuit to hide wobbly tums and postpartum stretch marks.
Yet, here I am choosing to wear a bikini for the first time ever. Yes, ever. Not because I’m planning on going on a beach holiday any time soon.
But because I want to show the world the scars that criss-cross my stomach, and banish for ever the little voice inside me that has told me over and over again that my body is ugly.
And, do you know what? In these pictures, I see a woman with strong, toned arms and legs, no waist to speak off — my two children thickened that out — and a broad smile. Meanwhile, my stomach looks the flattest it ever has, despite the scars that paint a pattern across my abdomen.
Ah yes, the scars. Nine in total (two hidden by the band of my bikini bottoms), the legacy of a lifetime of operations. Of pain but also of survival.
Finally, in middle age, I am strong enough to show them to the world.
I was a few years younger than most women are when they learn to hate their body (because, let’s face it, at some point most of us do).
The moment is vivid in my memory. I was just seven and changing after swimming, in a room full of girls pushing their damp legs into itchy tights, wet hair painting dark patches on their white vests.
I was struggling to pull mine over my head when my friend (or so I thought) turned to me and stated simply: ‘What a pity you have scars, Kitty — no one will ever love you.’
Her voice piped clearly above the giggling hubbub. The girls around us laughed in agreement.
We all know children can be cruel, but this was almost impressive in its skilful wounding.
I pulled on my top and retorted something back — I can’t remember what. I was determined that no one would see the tears stinging my eyes.
But the damage was done. What I suspected had been confirmed by my peers. I was ugly. And the belief that I was so different, that my body was so damaged, that I was inherently unlovable, would take years to fade.
And, of course, after that I took every precaution to ensure that no one would see my scars.
I became skilled at changing under towels and only wore tops which had no chance of riding up and showing my stomach.
In photos of my teenage and 20-something self I’m almost always hiding my middle with a hand or arm, even when fully dressed.
The story of how I come to be wearing a bikini in a photo studio, surrounded by people, for the Mail is one of humiliation transformed into pride.
I have never known a body which hasn’t made me suffer.
I was born in 1980 with a condition called Hirschsprung’s disease, a disorder of the abdomen that occurs when part or all of the large intestine has no nerves and therefore cannot function.
They operated when I was just three days old, removing the segment of my bowel that didn’t work and creating a colostomy (an opening of the large intestine which leads to a bag worn on the outside of the body) that was reversed nine months later.
I was supposed to be cured but, sadly, I wasn’t.
The bikini is a scarlet halterneck made from the softest material. Its simple yet stylish design makes you think of chic women sunning themselves on the Riviera (pictured)
Major surgery was needed again when I was 12, 16, 17, 19 and, finally, 22 — each time leaving a legacy, another scar on my body.
I was also born with a talipes (club foot), which to this day gives me a minor limp, and a slight malformation at the top of my spine that means I have limited movement in my neck.
At 16, while most of my friends’ biggest worries were bad skin or boy trouble, I had surgery to create an ileostomy (similar to a colostomy) and spent many weeks in hospital.
Living with it was grim. This stoma was reversed after a year, but I was still not ‘fixed’.
My university years were blighted by doctors’ appointments and procedures. I always felt different — thanks to my life experiences, I learned more about pain and loss at a young age than almost anyone I knew.
And I continued to dread any reaction from friends (of any gender) to my scars and bumpy tummy.
Thankfully, in my 20s, my health levelled out and I managed to hold down a full-time job at this newspaper and fall in love with a handsome young army officer.
Ed didn’t seem to notice my scars and found it strange (then and now) that they would bother me. He loved me, and my scars were irrelevant.
We married 11 years ago and have been blessed, thanks to IVF (internal scarring blocked my fallopian tubes, making natural conception impossible) with two healthy children: Chloe, aged eight, and Max, who is almost five.
Both pregnancies resulted in traumatic emergency Caesarean sections — and two new scars.
Of course, my babies are worth every single stitch, and I knew, deep down, I should only celebrate the body which created two miraculous lives.
But while I always felt grateful for my good fortune, I still found it hard not to rage at my body’s physical failings and appearance.
The narrative I learnt in childhood was deeply engrained, and my scars were a constant reminder of the years lost to illness.
If I’m honest, I’d resigned myself to feeling this way for the rest of my life, while absolutely determined that my lack of confidence in my appearance would never influence my daughter (or son).
When I was 35 and Max was just a baby, I was feeling low and unfit — my second birth proved harder, mentally and physically, to bounce back from.
I had no energy and none of my old clothes fitted. A friend persuaded me to join her at a fitness class in a village hall.
I was nervous — I hadn’t taken part in any structured exercise since school — but I soon got into it.
My mood improved and skinny jeans fitted again. However, honestly, I got bored and my attendance fizzled out.
I tried a few different gyms but something just didn’t click.
But then, two years ago, a new place, TONIQ, opened in my hometown of Bath and changed everything.
It offered a mixture of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and strength training using dumbbells and heavy weights, which I’d always (wrongly) assumed were only for testosterone-fuelled males.
There was a holistic vibe as well, with yoga classes, qi gong (moving meditations that improve blood flow around the body), stress and breath management, and nutrition (never diet) advice.
I decided to try it.
Fitness experts at TONIQ, led by Arron Collins-Thomas (former personal trainer at Somerset’s Babington House, the media glitterati’s favourite hangout) advised me to ditch the scales and calorie counting — which, although not something I did obsessively, was definitely my go-to method for losing a few pounds — and instead focus on enjoying moving my body as much as possible, and eating intuitively.
Soon, I was hooked (especially on the weights), and 26 months after I first walked through TONIQ’s doors, I’m still going four or five times every week.
The child and teenager who detested gym class, was never chosen for any team and always came last on loathsome sports days has become a woman who looks forward to workouts.
During lockdown the classes went online, and those morning Zoom sessions have kept me sane — and fit — over the course of this long, strange year.
The physical changes have been significant. Even though it was not my primary aim, I’ve lost weight (19 lb, for those who are interested) from my 5 ft frame, and inches of unhealthy fat, which has smoothed my scars and stomach.
But much more important are the gains. I have built muscle and I’m so much stronger. I can deadlift 60 kg (9 st 6 lb), which is 10 per cent more than my own weight.
My body has changed shape and I have definition all over. I’m more flexible, and my bad leg and neck hurt far less than they used to.
The mental changes have been even more profound. My life and attitude are completely different, proving that change is possible for all of us if we have the will — because, of course, consistency is key.
I get a huge sense of achievement every time I lift a heavy weight or complete a set of press-ups.
I can keep up with my active children, racing around with them and carrying them with ease. Clothes fit better, and I love going to bed exhausted from the exertion.
I still enjoy my old vices, but I indulge less often, no longer needing a glass of wine to relax or a bar of chocolate to perk me up.
And I feel good about myself. A protective arm no longer covers my stomach in photos. I feel strong and healthy.
Those happiness-boosting endorphins produced when we exercise have made me a more positive person — even in 2020!
And I’ve needed those endorphins because, unfortunately, my internal health has deteriorated in the past year.
I’ve faced several emergency hospital admissions, unpleasant tests and days of terrible pain.
During lockdown, I was finally diagnosed by a gastroenterologist, who confirmed what I already knew: my colon no longer works effectively.
The options are to remove the whole thing and give me a permanent ileostomy bag, or for me to use medicine to make my body function.
I’ve ruled out the first option because any more surgery would be life-threatening, so option two it is.
Unfortunately, this gives me awful pain — so much so that I need oral morphine, losing at least a couple of afternoons per week in a miserable blur.
But I’ve managed to keep exercising, and my consultant says he’s sure my fitness levels are helping my body cope much better than it would if I didn’t do it.
So, I’m sick but also strong. I’m curled up in agony on the sofa one day, then deadlifting more than my own body weight the next morning.
I’ve been admitted to hospital in an emergency then come third in a fitness competition just a week later.
A plastic medal I received hangs in pride of place on the mirror of my dressing table. I’ve been back in the gym days after a procedure under general anaesthetic.
I can smash out press-ups, run for miles and hit a spin bike until my heart is bursting, and I now love swimming in freezing rivers.
And it’s these achievements that help me get through the bad days.
Even without the additional challenges I face, it’s not bad for a 40-year-old who only discovered exercise at 35.
Don’t think for a minute I believe I’m suddenly drop-dead gorgeous or have the perfect body. It’s far from that, but it’s strong and perfectly imperfect.
I’ll never have a six-pack, but I’ve got a pretty good set of scars and, at last, I reckon they’re just as impressive.
I’m so grateful to have discovered what my body is capable of and — here is the mental and emotional transformation — have finally learnt to love it, rather than rage at it for its failings.
My daughter now tells me she wants to be sporty like me and both my children love my scars, accepting them as an integral part of Mummy.
My husband has always thought they’re beautiful.
So here I stand, facing head-on something that would have been my worst nightmare only a few years ago — wearing a bikini in the most public way possible.
And you know what? It feels truly amazing.
I’ve always been awkward when having my photo taken, but the smile in this photo is 100 per cent genuine. I’m having fun and I feel fabulous.
My only regret? That it took me so long to realise that the only person who really cared about my scars was me.
I just wish that I could tell my younger self to bare her stomach with pride. As the famous song from The Greatest Showman proclaims, ‘This is me’ in all my flawed glory.
I just hope that my story of body confidence, learnt in my fourth decade, might encourage other women, of any age, to realise that it’s never too late.
If this slightly broken, scarred, (nearly) middle-aged mum of two can learn to feel confident in her own skin, then anyone can.
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