By Kanisha Anthony
As told to Jennifer Clopton
It was Thanksgiving night when my home caught on fire. I was 4 years old. My whole family was asleep, and I was alone in a room on the side of the house that first erupted in flames.
I was rescued by the first police officers on the scene. One officer heroically leaned through my window to find me while another held him by his feet. He couldn’t see through the haze of thick smoke and flames, but by some sort of miracle, found my toe, grabbed my leg, and pulled me out.
I wasn’t breathing. He started CPR on me, and after seven minutes of trying, saved my life. Two of my brothers weren’t so lucky. Rescue crews didn’t reach them in time. Their bodies were found intertwined, the six-year-old holding and hugging the one-year-old.
I’m thankful I don’t remember any of this. But the horror of that night is forever imprinted on me – sixty percent of my body was burned in the fire. I lost my left ear, three fingers on my left hand and one on my right. My hair burned off my scalp and I’ve only been able to grow back a little on the sides. Much of the left side of my face was also burned.
I went through a lot of surgeries – 22 on my head alone – but today I am physically well. My emotional scars took much longer to heal.
It didn’t help that the real world was especially cruel. Someone once approached my father and while I was right there said, “Please keep your daughter away from my children. I don’t want them to catch a disease.” In first grade, students would rip the wig off my head and play tag with it at recess. I grew up wearing pants and long sleeves no matter the weather and doing anything I could to hide my scars.
Then, when I was 9, I went to a children’s camp for burn survivors. Everyone there looked like me. Nobody stared. It was the first time I had felt that kind of acceptance and relief. I also met Calvin there. He was a burn survivor too with injuries to his legs. We became best friends at the age of 9, starting dating when we were 17, and today he is my husband.
People at school had always told me I wasn’t pretty enough to get married, and doctors didn’t think my skin could stretch enough for me to have children, but I went on to do both things. Calvin and I now have 3 children, and my long and painful journey to self-love was inspired by and for them.
The turning point for me came one day in my mid-20s. I was looking in the mirror and feeling disgusted with what I saw, when I heard my then 3 year old son’s sweet little voice pipe up. “Mom,” he said, “You are the most beautiful person in the world.”
His comment took my breath away and shook me awake. I knew in that moment that if my child saw beauty in me, I needed to see it in myself to be the kind of role model and mom I wanted to be. If I lived my life without loving myself, what kind of example would that set for my children?
To test out my confidence, I went to the mall wearing a short, spaghetti strap dress – something I had never done before because it made my scars so visible. I was uncomfortable at first and very focused on other people’s reactions to me. But after a little bit, I felt a shift inside and I began to feel brave, confident, and proud to be showing my true self. It felt good not to hide anymore. I realized that day that there is power in realizing you don’t have to be a prisoner to other people’s thoughts. Your view of yourself is what matters the most.
Despite that breakthrough, my thoughts didn’t shift overnight. Affirmations helped, though, and have become a big part of my life. You have to speak kind and positive messages out loud to counteract the silent, negative messages that swirl through your mind.
So I would regularly look in the mirror and say – “You are beautiful” and “You are here for a reason.” I didn’t necessarily always feel these things at first. That’s okay. You keep speaking them intentionally and out loud anyway because you can’t hear a negative and positive thought at the same time. Words that are spoken can drown out the silent voices in your head.
I’ve now come to see my scars as a beautiful part of me because they tell my story. At this point, even if I had the power to take them away, I wouldn’t. They have empowered me to have an impact and help others see their own beauty. My scars are here for a reason. They are part of what makes me beautiful.
I’ve also worked hard to help my children see their own strength and beauty by pointing it out to them regularly. I was late to self-love, and I want more for my daughter and sons. I want them to know it’s not about what they are wearing or how anyone else views them. It’s about what they see and value in themselves.
My mission now is to spread the power and importance of self-love. I want to be a role model not just to my own children and other burn survivors, but to anyone who is allowing other people’s thoughts to determine their self-worth or who they see in the mirror.
I know for certain that life is too precious to live like that.
Kanisha Anthony published her first book Scarless: A Women’s Journey to Finding Her Strength and Identity in 2018. She has a large following on social media, including Instagram. She is a board member of the Midwest Children’s Burn Camp in St. Louis – the camp she attended as a child – and is the founder of The Encouragement Company, which sells homemade gifts to spread kindness and support.