Burns survivor: ‘I hid my scars for 45 years – now I love my body’

After a lifetime of covering up, Sylvia Mac has finally found her confidence

Sylvia Mac burns Love Disfigure

by Kaya Terry |
Updated on

Sylvia Mac was just two years old when she suffered third-degree burns across her back, legs and stomach. She spent her life trying to hide the extensive scars and was so ashamed of her body, she even considered suicide.

But on her first-ever foreign holiday just four years ago, the mum of three decided to embrace her scars – and now she helps others to feel good about the skin they’re in.

Sylvia, 52, from London, says, “Over the years, I’d taught myself to fade into the background and pretend my scars didn’t exist.

“But on holiday, I had an epiphany – I couldn’t go on hating myself. Now, I’m finally living my life, and I feel amazing.”

Sylvia, who is the youngest of five sisters, was just two when she fell into scalding water.

Sylvia Mac
Sylvia's burns were so severe she was left with a hole in her back ©Sylvia Mac

She says, “I was playing hide-and-seek with my siblings. We often had power cuts, so my mum would boil water and keep the large pots in the bathroom – just in case the power went out and we needed hot water for a bath. I hid myself behind the bathroom door, not realising there was a big pot of boiling water behind me. After a few moments, the door was pushed open and I tumbled into the boiling water.

“The pain must have been unbearable, but I think my mind has blocked out the memory.”

Sylvia is hazy about what happened next, but she was taken to the Royal London Hospital, where doctors told her parents she was unlikely to make it through the night.

She says, “My skin had melted away and I was left with a hole in my back. I ended up on life support in an induced coma for three weeks. A priest even came to baptise me and read me the last rites.”

But miraculously, Sylvia slowly managed to pull through.

Sylvia Mac Love Disfigured
Sylvia's journey to accepting her body began on a holiday with her mum ©Sylvia Mac

She says, “I was treated with painful skin grafts to cover the hole in my back, as well as my other burns.

“Being young, there wasn’t much skin they could use, and so they took it from my arms, legs and the tops of my feet.

“It was a long process, and after being discharged after five weeks, my life was ruled by doctor’s appointments – I had to attend one a week.

“My burns had to be kept out of the sun, so I’d wear long-sleeved T-shirts and roll-necks. Even as a child, I felt like my burns were something that I should hide away.”

Then, aged nine, Sylvia started swimming lessons – and revealed her scars in public for the first time.

She says, “When I got into the pool, the other children started pointing and laughing. From then on, I was bullied. Kids would call me a witch and ‘snakeskin’.

“Every day I’d go home and cry, and I learned to cover my body at all times. And as a teenager, I still needed to have skin grafts, but I kept it a secret from my friends.

“I felt ugly and like no one would ever love me. I was deeply depressed – I remember once crossing a road and thinking about stepping out into the traffic, just to end it all.”

Sylvia Mac Love Disfigured
Sylvia launched Love Disfigure to help others ©Sylvia Mac

Then, in July 1987, Sylvia fell in love.

She says, “When I was 19, I met a lovely guy. We started out as friends, and one evening I told him about my scars. I pulled off my long-sleeved shirt and he told me how cool they looked.

“I was astounded by his reaction. He told me I was still beautiful, and my eyes teared up. We quickly realised there was chemistry between us and became a couple. I gave birth to our first daughter in May 1992, followed by our second in February 1997.”

But Sylvia still struggled with depression, and even had night terrors.

She says, “I adored my family, but I began to feel more and more depressed. My scars were painful and felt tighter. I started drinking heavily, and I often wrote suicide notes for my kids.”

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Shortly after their son was born, in June 2004, Sylvia and her partner split up.

She says, “That was a bit of a wake-up call. Suddenly, I was a single mum with three kids and I knew I had to get my act together.

“I continued to struggle with depression and feelings of self-loathing, but I tried to focus on my children.

“Over the years, my mental health improved – but I still hated my scars.”

Then, in September 2016, Sylvia booked her first holiday abroad, to Bulgaria, with her mum Maureen, 78.

Sylvia says, “One morning, we were at the pool, and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man was recording me on his phone because of my scars.

“I’m used to people staring, but I felt sick. I’d spent my life covering up, but even then, I was still getting harassed.

“So, we moved to the beach, and as I paddled in the sea, I looked over at my mum. She had her head in her hands – I knew she carried so much guilt that my accident had been her fault.

“As I looked at her, something just snapped in my mind. I had to try to accept myself – not just for me, but for my family, too.

“So, I took off the sarong covering my back and dropped it to the ground. Then, I put my hands on my hips and strutted around, pretending to model in front of a packed beach. I could see mum’s shocked face laughing. For the first time in my life, I felt free.”

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Once Sylvia returned home, she made a YouTube video revealing her scars to the world. Then, after struggling to find a support group, she decided to create her own, and launched Love Disfigure.

She adds, “At first, it felt very strange to show my scars, and I was still afraid of what people might think. But talking about them online meant that other burns survivors got in touch, and we shared our experiences. It was so empowering to know that I wasn’t alone.”

Closer magazine 28 July 2020
Get more real life stories in this week's Closer - out now ©Closer

Four years on from that fateful holiday, Sylvia finally feels happy.

Sylvia, who is still single, says, “Now, rather than picking clothes based on how much skin they cover up, I pick ones that I love.

“I’m proof that it’s never too late to learn to love your body.

“It’s taken me 45 years to be able to embrace my scars, but I’m so glad I finally got here. Now, I look in the mirror and I’m proud of the person I see.”

Sylvia appears on the Naked Podcast, available on all good podcast streaming platforms, and you can follow her on Instagram.

If you're struggling with your mental health, please visit Where's Your Head At for a list of resources and advice.

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