Loss of worldly beauty: Virginia Solomons
[00:40:11 total time]
Virginia Solomons 00:02
I am Virginia Solomons. As a child, I was in a fire that has led to me losing who I was because of what society placed on me, what people made me believe, that I was not enough. And I realised that I was actually a limited edition, and people didn't know how to react.
Claire Sandys 00:28
Welcome back to The Silent Why, and we're here with our first loss of the year, loss number 11. I'm Claire.
Chris Sandys 00:34
I'm Chris and we want to introduce you to a virtuous and voluptuous Virginia (her words, not ours), a great lady all the way from the Eastern Cape in South Africa.
And she speaks Afrikaans
"My name is Virginia Solomons..." (in Afrikaans)
And she speaks Xhosa
"My name is Virginia Solomons..." (in Xhosa)
But we had a lovely chat with her in English.
Virginia was badly burned in a fire when she was two years old, leaving her face, arms and legs scarred for life.
Some people's scars are hidden, and mine is there for everybody to see, and I didn't like that.
I came across Virginia in a group for people wanting to start podcasts, where I'd started my journey. And her message of life beyond scars was so inspiring, I just had to approach her to see if she'd chat to us, and fortunately, she said, Yes!
Identifying a specific loss was tricky, because like so many other people we speak to Virginia felt she'd lost a whole sense of self.
The loss for me was I wasn't beautiful. Everybody around me was beautiful, but I wasn't. And it was difficult to deal with that.
Virginia is a strong voice and advocate for finding strength through your losses. And she's become happy and confident in her scarred skin, it's a message that just naturally flows out of her.
My scars have contributed to the person that I am, and I am happy with me. Maybe without the scars, I would have been different. And I love who I am. I love the person that I am, scars and all.
And it's this that she shares wherever she goes, including at the local burns unit in the hospital, speaking to parents with children who have scars, and challenging this worldview of beauty. We know you're gonna love her. Starting at the very beginning, growing up in a rather large family.
I'm the youngest of eight children. We are seven girls, and just one young man, a handsome young man, I may add as well. Yes, my dad passed away when I was about 11 years old. And my mum passed away about three months ago in August. So there's the eight of us left with all our families and our, our offspring, our children. Yeah, we are quite a, quite a big family, yes. And I grew up in Cape Town,
And was a happy childhood?
At home, it was a happy childhood, outside of home it wasn't. It wasn't really. But my home was my sanctuary, my family was my sanctuary. My home was my happy place. Yes. Outside of the home, I was always mocked and ridiculed because of my scars. And people would always stare at me, or make fun of me, or call me names, all sorts of names. But I knew that when I get home I will be loved and really just pampered and strengthened for the next day. So yeah, my home has always been my sanctuary.
So why don't you tell us a little bit about your scars, and how you got those, and when that was.
Okay, so I was a year and 10 months old when I got burned in a fire. So as much as I said that my home was my happy place, my family was my happy place. I discovered an older age about 7-8 years old, that the fire was actually started by my siblings. And at that point in time, I love them so much that I felt, but they are my family, so there is no way that I can actually hate them for what they did, because I really love them. And I knew that they love me. And I didn't realise at that tender age that God was instilling the gift of forgiveness in me. And if it had to take all of this so that I can have that gift, I am grateful for the gift of forgiveness, because I know what unforgiveness can do to people. So I love my family, despite of what happened we love each other we, yeah, they've always had all the love in the world for me. So, yeah, growing up as a child, going to school was quite difficult. Children making fun of me because I didn't look like them. And adults as well making fun of me because I didn't look like the other kids and teachers telling me that I wouldn't amount to anything. So it was it was quite difficult because I looked different people associated my looks with my abilities, and that was so wrong, especially for a child who's very impressionable that I thought what they were saying is probably the truth. But because of the family that I have, they were the ones inspiring me and they were the ones that always knew that I would succeed no matter what. And it's their love that that really pushed me to to achieve what I've achieved in life.
And why don't you just describe for us the extent of your scars and what they affected on you.
The scars, my face is burned as I sustained third degree burns to my face, my neck, my arms and parts of my legs. And then also from all the skin grafts my upper thighs, have all the skin grafts that they did. So I didn't like wearing short things, short pants or very short skirts or dresses, and at some stage that that all changed. Yeah, that all changed. So it's my face, it's my arms part of my hands and in my legs. Yeah.
You mentioned Virginia about learning or being able to practice that gift of forgiveness. Do you remember then a time before that when you actually felt unforgiveness or any hardship or any ill feeling then, do you remember what that was like?
Not towards my family, though. I harboured a lot of resentment towards people that used to make fun of me and call me all sorts of names. And yeah, there I've harboured a lot of a lot of resentment, and I would be angry and I would cry. There were times when I would ask, why do I have to look like this? And other people don't look like me. So there was a lot of that and an anger as well. But I just thank God that my anger was channelled, my anger and my frustration was channelled into my schoolwork. I excelled at school. So it wasn't, my anger and my frustrations didn't lead to any destructive or harmful behaviour. And I thank God for that.
What do you think the losses were that you were actually dealing with when you are coming to terms with not looking quite like everybody else when you're at school?
Um, the loss for me was I wasn't beautiful. Everybody around me was beautiful, but I wasn't and it was difficult to deal with that. And there were, as a teenager, there were boys that I that I loved, but they wouldn't even have the time of day to look into my direction. And I also felt that as a teenager, everybody around me had a boyfriend and I didn't. And it was a bit sad for me. Um, I had a, I had quite a lot of male friends though. But none of them were a special friend. And as a teenager, that, for me was also some sort of loss. Even though in retrospect, it was a blessing. Yeah, so the loss of not not looking beautiful, and having to hear it every day and having people staring at me, and then knowing what they were looking at. So that that for me, was a, yeah, some people's scars are hidden, and mine is there for everybody to see. And I didn't like that.
That was actually what I was thinking about asking next was, what do you think the difference is, because a lot of people are carrying losses that are hidden. What do you think the difference is, in coming to terms with a loss that's visible, that everyone can see straight away compared to one that's maybe hidden inside?
The difference, I personally feel that because I have to deal with it on a daily basis, it has, it has helped me grow through that loss, somebody's scars or loss that is invisible, they can put it away for years, and not have not have to deal with it, because nothing reminds them of it until an event or something happens. And that could take that could take forever. They could die without having resolved all those issues. And for me, the blessing is it literally stays me in the face. And I eventually had to deal with it. It cannot be hidden. And that for me is is the blessing in all of this, that scars that are not hidden that you have to deal with every day, you start moving, start moving forward in terms of your healing. And because you're face to face with it on a daily basis, the healing process, it becomes easier because you deal with it every day.
That's really interesting view. I've not thought of that before. But yeah, to know that when there's something that's obvious, physically, then you have no choice but to deal with it, because everybody can see it. It's out in the open, it's out in the public, you can't just keep it in the dark. He can't hide it away. I've not thought of that before. Do you remember roughly was there an age or a stage of your growing up where you started dealing with it as opposed to just sort of fighting it?
The u-turn came, I'm actually write about this in in my book, which is about to be published. The u-turn my life came when I was 17 years old. I applied for a scholarship to study social work, and I was interviewed by a social worker. And amongst all the questions that she asked, the one question that remained with me for the rest of my life was she asked me if I was a confident person? And at that time in my life, I wasn't at all my confidence was at an all time low. And she told me that if I'm not confident, I wouldn't be able to do the work of a social worker because you have to stand in front of people. You have to address people, you have to interact with people. And because I wanted the scholarship because I knew that my mum wouldn't be able to pay for university fees for me, I told a lie. I said to her I'm very confident, which I wasn't. And as I left her office, the penny dropped. And I realised that I told a lie, and I could hear my mum's voice saying that if you tell lies, God's gonna show up that lie. And I had to actually live the lie of confidence. And that is where the change in my life came. I used to, when I would get onto a bus, I would lift my head just high enough to see whether the first two seats are available and if they weren't, I wouldn't lift my head higher. I would turn around and just stand with my back to the people, even if they were seats further down in the bus that was available. But that day, when I got onto the bus, I remember it was a Friday afternoon, people were coming out of work, and I got onto the bus, and I walked and I sat in the very last seat in the bus. And as I sat down, I realised that there were people who didn't even notice me. And I realised that all these years I've been carrying this baggage with me worrying about what people are going to say about me. And yet it was never my baggage to carry. And a lot of us go through life carrying baggage that was never meant for us to be carried. And that was the day when I realised that if you have a problem with the way I look, it's your problem, not mine. And that is where the u-turn came in my life
That seems quite young to have such a strong realisation in life. I think a lot of people, maybe like you said it's the the physical versus the hidden, we can go for a long time without realising that what people think about us is not actually what really matters.
What are some of the reactions that you've had? Because I'm guessing from your actions there on the bus, you were obviously trying to avoid the reactions of other people, which meant you must have had some bad reactions, obviously, from school and in public in general, what are some of the sort of the worst, but also the best reactions that you've had to your scars?
I've had reactions of people calling me a mummy, you look like a mummy. People calling me names. You obviously know, Kentucky Fried Chicken, those are some of the names that people would call me. Teachers telling me that; Where do you think you ever gonna end up in life? Life is not made for people like you. Yeah, like very, very bad names I was called. There was a young boy in our class when one teacher once asked us if we would marry for money or for love, and he went around in the class and asking everybody and when the teacher got to me, this boy just shouted from where he was sitting across the classroom that nobody would ever marry her looking like that. So yeah, those were some of the ones that are still vivid. But then I've had people told me that because of your personality, we don't even see your scars. The things you do, we, we see you the human being we don't see anything else. I remember appearing on a TV programme, and the one lady said to me, her mum was also watching, and her mum said to her, 'but you said she's got scars and I can't see them, I was like so into what she was saying, that I didn't really see her scars.' And I'm also at a stage where I tend to forget. I forget my scars and hear and there people would stare and I only realised later on that 'Oh, yes, they were looking at the scars.'
Do you still have situations in life now that you find hard?
When it comes to my scars, not at all, hey, I don't. I will enter, people have commented on I will enter a room and just like command, almost like command respect. And it is something that I couldn't do, in my younger years. I used to be very scared of going into even a new classroom. Meeting new new students, I was I used to be very scared, now I would walk into a room. I do a lot of things, where I don't need friends to go with me, I will go and I'll make friends where I am and that was never the case when I was young, I would always want somebody to be with me. I do talks on all sorts of platforms, and my scars don't bother me, in the least, not even what people say about my scars bothers me.
We've mentioned losses and things that have been lost, which is the purpose of our podcasts and our mission. And often when you have a loss, there needs to be a period of grief in order to come to terms with that and be able to move through it and move forward. What has the grieving period look like for you what his what his grief, or your relationship been like with grief?
Chris, for me, I would get home and I would cry because of what people are calling me and what they are saying. So that for me used to be my grieving. And then I would have my family supporting me and telling me that they don't know you the way we do. So until they they know who you are, they won't, they won't see anything beyond your scars, so give them time to get to know you. Um, so my grieving for me was was was was crying a lot. And the other grieving hat started was also when I had my boys. My oldest one used to fight a lot at school, and I would be called in. And for the longest time, he would just say 'no, they they making me angry'. And one day, eventually we spoke and I said this fighting has to stop, what what is this fighting all about? And he said, 'Ma, they are making fun of you, and I can't stand it'. And I had to explain to him that you know your mum better than they do. So it's your role to educate them, and not to fight with them because they're not going to stop they enjoy seeing you hurt. So you need to educate them around my scars, even if you have to tell them what happened. And for them to not get into a situation where they get engulfed by fire or playing with matches or anything. So your role is to educate them so that they can get to know who your mum is the mum that you know. And I had I have never ever after that been called for a fight at school. The youngest one as well, he is not a fighter, he is very soft spoken, he doesn't like fighting, but he would be sad. And he he spoke to me about it, and he said the kids at school are making fun of me. And I had the same discussion with him. And one of the mothers at school overheard him speaking to one of the boys that were poking fun at me, where he said to one of the boys that 'you know what happened to my mum is not for sissies. My mom has endured so much in life, and she survived all of that. I don't think you would be able to survive what she has gone through.' And eventually it stopped. It stopped. So there was a lot of grieving and having to work through certain processes to sort of minimise or even eliminate the hurt that I was feeling also through my sons, because I had to work with it so that they could get to a point where I was.
How much do you think you see in your parenting of what your mum was like when you were younger? Do you find yourself saying similar things to your boys that your mum said to you, or to your siblings when you were growing up?
Yes, my mum. Sure. It's funny to talk about in the past tense. But she didn't have a very high education, but she had the wisdom of Solomon really the way she raised me. My mum never felt sorry for me. And she always told people when they would look at me and they would say 'a shame', things like that, and she would ask them 'what is shame about my child? There is nothing shame about her'. And she raised me like all the other kids, if we were naughty, we, I would get a hiding as well. So I wasn't spoiled, and I think it was our family structure was actually God ordained because they had six girls, and then they had the boy, and then they had me. So the boy was the one that was spoiled a lot, and not me. And I'm so thankful for that. Because I would have expected the same kind of treatment on the outside in the outside world, which I wasn't going to get. And that would probably have broken me completely. So my mum was strict, but she always made me realise that I have a place in this world like everybody else. And that is how my siblings also treated me. So yeah, there was no, no shame, no guilt, nothing.
It must be very hard as a parent raising a child, that you know is having trouble in the outside world, whether it's school or being mocked for anything in particular, is there anything that you would want to say to parents that are raising a child that has scars, that would just be the 'that's what helped me the most', or 'that's what I think they need the most'?
I do talks at our local hospital with the burns, in the burns unit. I haven't done that now with COVID, but I would speak to parents, and I would actually tell them that whatever's happened, has happened. There's nothing that you can change. Because sometimes maybe a parent could have been drunk or a parent could have been negligent and left a pen unattended, or a boiling kettle unattended and they feel guilty, and with that guilt, they are raising a child, feeling guilty, pampering that child and not preparing them to fend for themselves or to stand on their own two feet on the outside of the home. The guilt is probably not going to go away, but you need to live and you need to do with what you have in front of you right now. There is nothing that you can change about the past, what you can do is strengthen and equip your child to be able to defend, or to live a life that's gonna be riddled with mocking, with ridicule, and everything, but it's your role as a parent to make sure that that child can stand on his or her own two feet and can fend for themselves and can defend themselves as well. You feeling guilty and pampering and doing everything that will not equip the child to stand up for themselves is not going to help. So my mum really equipped me to really stand on my own two feet, to fend for myself to fight my battles. And where I could I fought my battles was painful at times, but I knew inside of me, I had the strength to withstand whatever people are saying to me. So forget about the guilt, the guilt is not going to change the future, instead, turn that guilt into a skill to equip your child and to empower your child.
That must be a very powerful message for them to receive, especially from someone who's been through it and who is living that life beyond the scars, as I know you like as an expression. What would your what is your advice to the actual person who has the scars and that's going through it? How is that any different?
Um, I know, you know, some people would go would have a life and then something happens and event happens that takes away what they've known all along. And I'm not expecting them to, to probably maybe to understand what I'm saying, but what I'm trying to say without sounding condescending or insensitive is that whatever happened to you was in all probability, not your fault. But your healing is your responsibility and yours alone. Nobody can do the healing for you, and the sooner you start accepting who you have become, the better it is for you to work through that. It is a difficult journey. I'm not downplaying it in any way, it is a very, very difficult journey. But the other side of the journey, the beautiful side of the journey, makes it all worth it, to just get to get through it, as difficult as it may seem.
What do you think was the one main thing that helped you come to that realisation? Was it that one question if someone asking if you were confident?
Definitely that one question. That one question changed my whole life. And I think it's also because I was scared, because I lied in the interview. And I had to make turn that into the truth. And it didn't happen overnight, it was a process, it was a journey. And it was really, you know, when I, it was such, such an, an overwhelming feeling of winning when I realised that I don't care what people say about my scars. They don't know me. And as I said that those who have a problem with my scars, it's their problem, and not mine. There's too many other things that I could fuss about, but my scars is not one of those. I recently had a meeting with the doctor that did the last operation on me. I was 14 at the time. And it was now about 36 years later. And he asked me if I had any further surgery after him. And I said to him, No, I didn't. But he also said something very significant to me when he did the surgery. Because when they took the bandages off at a tender age of 14, and I looked at what they did, I thought that it was the most ugliest wound that I had ever seen. And I asked him, 'why didn't he leave me the way I was before the operation, before the plastic surgery?' And he said to me that 'you are so beautiful, and once this wound has healed, you will be so much more beautiful.' At the age of 13-14, I didn't believe him. And when I sat down in that bus on that day after that interview, that, coupled with what the social worker had asked me, it just it was like a light bulb going on. And that's when I took my life back. And I said 'no more'. So I explained that to him. And I said 'and besides, I use my money on more important things. I can't use my money for plastic surgery.' And he said he asked me 'so what could be more important to you than plastic surgery?' I said to him 'I travel the world with my money. I go, I see, I meet new people I see new places and it was something that I dreaded as a child. I wanted to be in one place all the time.' And he actually laughed and he said you hope all his other patients don't think like I do. So I earn a good salary, if I wanted to change the way I look I could, but I am content with where I am. And when the inside is fine, the outside doesn't matter.
What's your relationship been like with the question 'Why?' over the years, whether that's even now or when you were younger?
I used to ask a lot in terms of Why did this happen to me? Why me and not any of my other siblings? By at this point and time in my life, I even advise people when things when bad things happen, I always tell them that 'things don't happen to us, they happen for us.' So it has been a while since I asked the question why? And if I do ask the question why? I want to know what is the lesson that I need to learn? Because when things happen, surely there must be a lesson to be learned.
And how do you feel now, when you look in the mirror? What do you see now?
I call myself, especially when I need to introduce myself, maybe in large groups, I call myself virtuous and voluptuous Virginia. When I look into the mirror, I see beauty. I know that God in His Word says, I am a masterpiece, I am fearfully and wonderfully made, I'm the apple of his eye. So nothing can faze me. I don't care what people say, I know the truth. I know the Word of God, and what He says about me, and His opinion, is the only opinion that matters.
So with that in mind, if you could time travel, Virginia, and go back to the day before the accident, and go through life without the scars would you choose? Yes, please, I'd rather have life without the scars, or have you been quite content with with all that you've got out of life since?
The life that I've lived, it wasn't all just moonshine and roses, but if I had a choice to live my life over again, it would be the same life. The exact same life. I think my, not I think I know, my scars I've contributed to the person that I am. And I am happy with me. Maybe without the scars, I would have been different. And I love who I am. I love the person that I am, scars and all.
We have a question that we ask every guest, but would be lovely to ask - What's your Herman?
My Herman is when, in any situation, whether you look at yourself, or you look at anybody else, what's right with you, is the starting point, and what's wrong with you, or what the world sees as wrong with you, is beside the point. It's a quote that I learned quite a few years ago and that has stuck with me and that is what I share with people. What is right with you is the starting point, and what is wrong with you is beside the point. And that is my Herman - focus on what is right.
I just love that quote so much. I almost let her end the show with that one, but I had another one that I wanted to use as well.
Thank you, Virginia so much for your time and wisdom sharing your story with us. If you want to find out more about her, you can find links to her Facebook and LinkedIn profiles in the show notes. And keep an eye out for the book she's writing on her journey about life beyond scars, it's going to be called Scars That Propel.
Thank you for choosing to spend your time with us today. Loss number 12 is coming soon. And if you're passionate about animals and our planet, this one might be especially interesting for you. And on Friday, I'll be releasing my usual My Why blog episode.
To keep up to date with all we're doing, visit www.thesilentwhy.com or follow us on social media @thesilentwhypod. You extra kind people can also leave us a rating on your podcast app. If your app doesn't let you do it, head to Apple podcasts or Spotify and star star star star away.
Today we're finishing with some lyrics written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul from the film The Greatest Showman. When I was listening to the soundtrack the other day I quoted the lyrics from the song 'From Now On' in my last Hopelet episode. And I heard 'This Is Me' again. It's one of my favourite tracks, and like many people across the world, I immediately connected with the lyrics and not always feeling like I found my place in the world. Listening to it again, I heard the word scars and immediately knew these were the words we should end Virginia's episode with.
“I am not a stranger to the dark, Hide away, they say, 'Cause we don't want your broken parts. I've learned to be ashamed of all my scars. Run away, they say, No one'll love you as you are. But I won't let them break me down to dust, I know that there's a place for us, For we are glorious. When the sharpest words wanna cut me down, I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown 'em out, I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I'm meant to be, this is me. Look out 'cause here I come, And I'm marching on to the beat I drum, I'm not scared to be seen, I make no apologies, this is me.”