It took me nearly 10 years to accept the 21-inch scoliosis scar running down my back and another five years to love it. Now, it's just as much a part of me as my personality or the way that I laugh.
But being told at 13 you have to wear a back brace is devastating. It feels like the world is against you, because the last thing you want to be at that age is different. It didn’t help I wore braces on my teeth and thick glasses on my face — a trifecta of circumstances that made me a prime target for bullies. For more than three years, I wore baggy clothes to cover up the bulky and uncomfortable contraption that was a near permanent fixture on my body.
The only time I could take it off was to shower or perhaps play sports for a couple of hours. And that was far from the worst part. Despite wearing the back brace for 22 hours of the day, seven days a week for nearly three years, I still needed surgery on my back. Doctors used hooks and screws to anchor two 17-inch rods along my spine and fuse them with cadaver bone to my vertebrae. Over the course of the next five years, I would undergo three intense surgeries that many doctors compared to being just as significant as heart surgery. Over and over again, doctors had to go in and operate on my back. One wrong move and I would risk becoming paralyzed.
For me, my scar signifies the pain I endured, the complexity of my surgeries, the weeks I spent in the hospital and the months I spent in physical therapy learning how to walk again. The scar was hard to look at, especially at that time, because it was thick, raw and pink from all the incisions. I wanted to hide all the time and, in my own way, I did.
I wouldn't dare wear spaghetti-strap tops during the summer. If I wore a tank top at all, I made sure it had a high back that would cover up that hateful scar. I would sit in the back of the classroom so I wouldn't risk a peer staring at me from behind. Even at restaurants with my family, I would rush to claim the booth seat or a chair along the wall so I wouldn't worry about it creeping out accidentally. I distinctly remember prom dress shopping and searching for a style that would cover my back. I also made sure to wear my hair down that day.
In fact, I've always had long hair as a sort of back-covering security blanket; even the thought of wearing my hair in a ponytail would give me anxiety. If I wore a swimsuit, I thought everyone was staring at my "hunchback" and felt like a monster because the curve was so severe.
I don’t remember when I started to not care about my scar. It helped when friends would tell me they didn’t even notice it. A turning point was when I came to the realization that every obstacle I endured and, likewise, every obstacle I overcame was because of my back. It was a gift. If I hadn’t had my back surgeries, I would have never understood the strength it takes to endure setbacks. It forced me to focus on who I am, my character and my actions — not what I look like. My faith carried me through each tough moment. When I lost the chance to play college soccer because of my back surgeries, I learned to never give up and focused on other passions and hobbies. My scoliosis helped shape me into the woman I am today.
Now, I wear my hair up and off my back with pride. My scar is like my battle wound; proof that I have overcome something bigger than myself. People like to assume that I've never struggled with anything because I go on camera and get to wear fun clothes and get my makeup done at work, but the scar is a reminder that, just like all of us, I've been through trials and tribulations my own — and I can overcome them.
I am proud of my imperfect back and my scoliosis scar; so much so, that the gown I'm wearing to my wedding this summer features a wide-open back. I’m thrilled to walk down the aisle towards my fiance, who also loves my scar, feeling beautiful and completely loved for every inch of who I am.
Follow Brandi Milloy, TODAY Tastemaker and host of “Eat the Trend” on POPSUGAR.com, on Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat @BrandiMilloy.