ONE of the most important things I’ve learnt is that loving yourself is 100 per cent unnegotiable and necessary if you ever want to be truly happy. If you were to ask my teenage self to name anything about herself that she unconditionally loved, her list would consist of absolutely nothing. The idea that the entirety of your worth comes solely from your physical appearance was so ingrained into me, that it stuck and unfortunately followed me everywhere for a long time.
For years, my relationship with my body wasn’t only unhealthy but it hindered me completely from seeing everything in my life that I should have been thankful for. For most of my life, I wasn’t happy. “I used to wake up everyday and ask myself what made me happy,” Rozella Marie Majhrin reveals with a wistful smile, adding softly: “For a long time, nothing did.” She’s familiar with my struggle.
Sitting across me at my favourite coffee haunt in Bangsar, we settle down over steaming cups of coffee to talk about acceptance and body image. She smiles at me again, and muses: “Beauty is a concept too powerful to be constrained into a frame made up by narrow minds. Just because you don’t look like someone who you think is beautiful doesn’t mean you aren’t beautiful.”
It’s a subject close to Rozella’s heart. “I’ve always struggled with my flaw,” she confesses. Her flaw, she points out bluntly, is the port wine stain on her face — a kind of vascular birthmark linked to the skin’s blood vessels.
About three out of every 1,000 children are born with this pink-to-reddish mark. Most of the time it’s harmless, but children with a port wine stain around the eye have an increased risk of glaucoma. Rozella has glaucoma. The birthmark around her left eye damaged her optic nerve and she’s technically blind in one eye.
It’s a lot to get used to, she admits. It took her a good many years to be comfortable in her own skin. Her journey has been fraught with bouts of depression and struggle with self worth that stemmed from her childhood.
“I realised I was different when I started going to school,” she recalls, adding: “Looking around, no one looked like me. When you don’t see yourself in others, you begin to think something’s wrong with you.”
Much has been made over the years about how mainstream media presents unrealistic beauty standards in the form of photoshopped celebrities or stick-thin fashion models. Now that influencers fill up our feeds, it's easy to imagine that social media too is all bad when it comes to body image.
But Rozella was set to change all that. “I’ve struggled with hating myself for much of my life, and I learnt in time to make peace with my body,” she shares bluntly, adding that she wanted to create a platform to open a nation-wide conversation about body image, misconceptions about beauty and acceptance.
“You don’t see a lot of representation of people who are different. Being born with a birthmark on my face, I struggled with my insecurities for so long,” says Rozella.“So I thought why don’t I use this thing, which I thought was my biggest curse, for something bigger than itself.”
In 2015, she set up a social awareness project on Facebook called True Complexion which highlights individuals living with body image issues, medical conditions and disabilities who don’t fit within the traditional forms of beauty.
“We don’t realise that there’s so much more to “diversity” and being inclusive, and I’m trying to bridge that gap with True Complexion,” she says simply. The platform comprises a kaleidoscope of stories and images of people from all backgrounds, sharing their vulnerabilities and spreading awareness about what true beauty really is.
Through Facebook, Rozella has started a "self-acceptance revolution” to "encourage people to value the things that make them different, even the things that they might hate about themselves.”
As she puts it succinctly, those things are "what make you unrepeatable.” The 36-year-old Sabahan’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed; Rozella was selected to take part in the inaugural Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific (APAC) Programme last year.
“What’s wrong with her face? Why is it so red?” The words stung. Rozella was five, and it was her first brush with unkind remarks coming from children who didn’t realise she could understand their dialect. “My father is half-Chinese, so we speak Hakka at home,” she recalls wryly. Overhearing these remarks, she realised that something was different about her.
Her school years were tough. She constantly fended off some cruel jibes from other children. “I'd get comments from kids all the time,” she recalls. “They'd call me names like ‘strawberry’ or ‘Two-Faced’ (a disfigured villain from the Batman franchise) because Batman was popular at that time, muka merah (red-face).”
They may have seemed like innocent joshing around, but the schoolyard taunts impacted her deeply. “The only reason I didn't like my skin was because I was told that it wasn't what's right,' she says. “Or I was told it wasn't normal.” She retreated into a shell, not wanting to speak out or complain.
It wasn’t easy for her parents either, she admits. They had to deal with both family, friends and even strangers from the streets offering unsolicited advice or comments. “When I was 11, I overheard someone suggesting laser treatment for my ‘condition’ at a dinner party we attended,” she recounts.
Her parents, especially her mother, wanted to do something because they knew that she was hurting. “They could tell I was struggling although I never voiced it out,” she says. They sought out a variety of treatments, including supplements and whitening injections but nothing worked. “Whitening injections?” I repeat, aghast. She nods. “I was only 11, but they didn’t work.”
She pauses momentarily before adding: “'I suppose my parents thought that if the injections made my birthmark less obvious then my life would be a lot easier.” Seeking treatment may have been her parent’s attempts to stop her from hurting, but it reinforced the fact that the birthmark she was born with made her feel less than normal. The more people paid attention to her birthmark, the more she shut down.
“I retreated further and found solace in expressing myself through music,” she says. Because she couldn’t verbalise her struggle, she wrote them out instead. Rozella didn’t play an instrument, but she wrote lyrics after lyrics that expressed her pain. “The tunes were in my head,” she recalls, chuckling. “I wrote out my pain out in songs!”
COPING WITH PAIN
She soon threw herself into her studies, and won a Sabah state scholarship to pursue mass communications at a local university in Peninsular Malaysia. “People talk fondly of their university days of partying, making friends and discovering themselves,” muses Rozella wistfully, adding: “I was a loner with no confidence. So I kept to myself and studied instead.”
Armed with a degree, Rozella worked in Kuala Lumpur for a couple of years before returning to Sabah to write for a travel magazine. Yet the pain lingered, the undealt issues festered, and for a while she managed to keep her inner pain from imploding.
“Numbing was a coping mechanism for me,” she confesses. Believing that her worth was tied to her physical attractiveness, Rozella started abusing her body with emotional eating, alcohol and meaningless relationships that left her feeling even less of a person.
“I became self destructive,” she recalls soberly. Her wake up call came one night on her 27th birthday — she’d consumed so much alcohol that she had to be rushed to the clinic for alcohol poisoning. “There’s a moment in our lives when you open the door and you see what’s behind that door, and you can never unsee it again,” she says. That’s when she realised she had a wound. It was open and it wouldn’t stop bleeding, no matter how fast she ran.
Taking a three-month sabbatical, she flew to KL to stay with her older sister for a while. “I tried to change everything — from my eating habits to practising Qi Gong, a Chinese meditative exercise. I even went for therapy,” she recalls. She tried every form of therapy, but none could give her a clear answer as to why she was so depressed.
“I was so unhappy, and wondered what would actually make me happy,” she confides. One day, she came across her nephew’s toy piano on the floor. No one was at home so she sat down and tentatively played a few keys, not knowing what she was doing. “A song just came out of that experience,” she says. recalling: “I wrote a song called Blackbird — about a little bird that was too afraid to leave the nest and fly.”
That cathartic moment sparked her interest and love for music again. She started writing once more. “I’d stopped writing for a long time, and suddenly, I picked up the pen again and found myself feeling happy,” she says. If this was what’s going to make her happy, Rozella decided she was going to commit to it and start making music.
MUSIC OF HER HEART
It took Rozella a year before she started singing in earnest. “I went for vocal classes, took music lessons before I went for my first open mic event,” she recalls. It was a terrifying experience. She sang, but held a book in front of her like a security blanket. “I was scared shitless!”
“I started my music career at the age of 27, a relatively late age to be starting a new career,” she recalls, chuckling. The singer also reveals the anxiety that fueled her performances. “When I get really, really anxious before a show, I just try harder when I’m performing. I was going to do this for me,” she asserts.
As she started pushing herself further, she found herself changing. “I started to allow people into my inner sanctum,” she says. The confidence and joy she found through music helped open her to the possibilities of building relationships and friendships with people instead of retreating into isolation.
“I kept my story so long to myself,” she admits, and she decided that she wanted to put her story out there for people to read. She hoped that sharing her experience would help erase the stigmas associated with body image and mental health. When someone’s brave enough to share their struggles, she says, it can potentially help someone else who may be hurting in a similar way.
“I was ready to open myself for the first time,” explains Rozella. Speaking to a photographer friend, they decided to start a project that would bring her story out to people who are struggling, while curating a list of stories from people who were struggling with similar self-esteem issues.
“I told myself that there are others out there going through problems far worse than what I was facing and that they should be celebrated for their courage, determination and strength,” explains Rozella, adding that while music helped get her out of her shell, setting up True Complexion helped her heal. Listening to people’s stories brought a new perspective. “I count my blessings these days,” she says softly.
She confesses to not realising the impact her audacity would have. “I didn’t understand what I was doing when I started all of this. Sometimes I still have no idea,” says Rozella. “All we can hope for is to try and talk about our experiences and share them with other people. Hopefully, in some way, someone gets it and that changes someone.”
From being ashamed of her birthmark, Rozella has certainly come a long way. The new face of IT Cosmetics, Rozella's face with and without make up, is displayed at every Sephora store both in Singapore and Malaysia.
Concludes Rozella with a smile: “For the longest time, my birthmark was my biggest flaw. Now? It’s my superpower!”
For more amazing stories like Rozella’s, go to www.facebook.com/truecomplexion