When it comes to the world of beauty, we're often bombarded with airbrushed, distorted and unrealistic images of what's supposed to be classified as "perfection."
But one beauty pageant winner reveals why that's not always true — and she's got the scars to prove it.
Victoria Graham, a student from Maryland, who was recently crowned as Miss Frostburg, may look just like any other contestant on stage, but when she unzips her gown at the end of the show, a reminder that she faces Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a rare genetic condition that affects her connective tissues, is out for full display.
I hurt. I've been poked and prodded; cut open only to be stitched back together. I've had my bones held together in various ways, ways in which my own body has failed to do. I take medication, wear braces, and undergo tests and images. I smile, I try my best, but at the end of the day I simply hurt. Too much, I hurt, too much.
"It's not easy to stand on stage in a bikini in pageants," she told the BBC. "I have a 25-inch scar that runs down my spine. And people can see it, like, really see it."
The 22-year-old has undergone 10 brain and spinal surgeries to date just to be able to stand up straight.
And while she may not be your everyday pageant star, Graham's made it clear that she's not in it for the vanity — she's in it to raise awareness about her ailment.
"I stand on stage to say, ‘Hey, I have an invisible illness,’ to show others that they aren’t alone in their struggles," she told Babble. "It’s overcome-able, I’m not aiming to be an inspiration; my goal is to show people if I can do this, you can do it."
The young beauty queen is also the founder of The Zebra Network, an organization that aims to raise awareness and educate others on EDS.
"As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others." -Audrey Hepburn #MissFrostburg #AllyKatPhotography #OurFrostburg #MissMaryland #MissAmerica #EarnYourCrown #LiveYourPlatform #Pageant #PageantGirl #PageantLife #crown #AudreyHepburn #butyoudontlooksick #makinginvisibleillnessesvisible #invisibleillness #chronicillness #raredisease #spoonie #spooniestrength #warrior #survivor #beattheodds #changetheworld
But while Graham is in her prime, she's very aware that one day the disease may leave her immobile, which makes the work she does that much more important to do now.
"I want to communicate and educate about invisible illnesses, like EDS, as it doesn't feel like doctors care until you're dying or rarely even know about my condition," she told the Daily Mail on Tuesday.
"I know there's a good chance I'll end up needing a wheelchair because of my condition which is why it's all the more important for me to help others before I can't do it anymore."