I stood in front of the three-way mirror and twirled around in my homecoming dress. It was hot pink, sparkly, and perfectly me. I could envision how I'd wear my hair — I'd saved a YouTube clip demonstrating how to create the style I wanted — and what kind of makeup I would apply. I could see how the glittery silver shoes I planned to buy would make the whole outfit pop. In my mind's eye, I watched myself walk through the gym wearing my Homecoming Court sash. It would feel amazing.
The one thing I never thought about? My scars — the scars that cover my hands, arms, legs, and back. The scars that remind me that I am a survivor, and that nothing, not even a fire that burned 45 percent of my body, can break me or my spirit. I don't even notice my scars anymore; they're a part of me and I'm proud of them. And they say something important to the people who do notice them: This girl is tough, and she is beautiful.
On November 10, 2014, I almost lost my life from a gas explosion and fire. I followed my usual routine: I went home after a normal day at school to take care of our two dogs. But when I opened the door to let them out of the room in which we kept them during the day, I immediately smelled a strange odor — one I had never smelled before. I grabbed a lighter, deciding to try to mask the smell with a scented candle. As soon as I clicked the button on the lighter, a scorching flash of flames blasted my face and blew me to the ground. I hit my head and was knocked unconscious.
I woke up some time later, totally disoriented. One of the dogs, Digger, was barking at me, and I got up and stumbled outside. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I knew I was hot. Super hot. Finally a realization hit me like a second violent blast: I was on fire. I managed to walk the 30 feet to the steps of my neighbors’ back porch and scream for help. My neighbors doused me with water and called 911 as my house went up in flames.
When I left Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati 38 days later, I wasn't sure about how I looked or felt, who I was or who I was going to be. My face wasn’t badly burned, so if I’m wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, I look normal to most people, basically the same as I did before the fire. But as the weather changes, as I happily break out my shorts and short-sleeved shirts, people begin to notice that something is different. Some people stare, but I don’t take it personally. I know they’re just curious and want to understand why I look this way, and I’m comfortable talking about it when people ask.
But I wish they could see what’s inside of me — what I’ve learned and how much I’ve changed. I don’t think of myself as a typical teenager anymore. I still worry about the usual things, like high school and going to college, but I feel older, more mature in some ways. I might not walk into a room and take command of the conversation (that’s just not my personality), but I’m more confident now. I know who I am in an unshakable way, and I know I’m capable of achieving anything I set my mind to.
My scars not only helped me understand my inner strength, they also enabled me to put aside my preconceived notions about what "beauty" means. In high school especially, there’s so much emphasis placed on how you look and what you wear. I used to see models in magazines and marvel at how beautiful and picture-perfect they were, and think, Wow, I want to look like them. I never thought twice about what those models were actually like, or considered them people with unique stories just like everyone else.
When I see those models today, I think about their stories, how they got to where they are. I wonder if they’re strong, if they want to do something good for or inspiring to others. I might still care about my own appearance — I still want to look nice, and I still love shopping, makeup, and getting dressed up — but I’ve learned that I’m so much more than how I look. We all are, and no one is perfect. Some "flaws" are more noticeable than others, but we should be proud of our bodies despite any blemishes. In fact, sometimes the things we consider "flaws" are the things others love most about us.
In a way, my scars are what changed me from victim to survivor. They didn't alter the big, bright smile I've always had, the one that led my dad to call me "Smiley Kilee." I’m so grateful I still have that smile, and even more grateful that behind that smile is joy and genuine happiness to be alive each day, as well as the knowledge that I’m ultimately becoming the person I’m meant to be. All of it has helped me find a broader purpose. I'll start college at Xavier University this fall, and even though I haven’t chosen a major yet, I know my life will be about helping people in some way and being the best person I can be. To me, that’s beautiful.
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