Rise Above

 A tattooed fairy sits atop of a pile of skulls on Skyla’s lower back. Wings that she designed decorate the rest of her back and shoulders, representing the ability to rise above the destruction she has faced in her life.

A tattooed fairy sits atop of a pile of skulls on Skyla’s lower back. Wings that she designed decorate the rest of her back and shoulders, representing the ability to rise above the destruction she has faced in her life.

“My only rule for this is that you never look down on me. I’m better than your pity. The reason that I don’t normally share my story is that I’m in a better place than I should be. My reality is that I should either be dead or a crack-whore. I’m absolutely one of those girls that is from the wrong side of the tracks,” she pauses, “but I’ve made it to the other side.”

And with that introduction and guideline in place Skyla begins to tell me her story.

“My body, I guess, has been through torment my entire life. I have always been that little girl that nobody wanted. My biological father wants absolutely nothing to do with me. I tried to contact him when I was eight-years-old and again when I graduated from high school. I think that last invitation was just to show him I could make it without him. From what I’ve learned from his other children he doesn’t want anything to do with me because I represent part of his past that he wants to let go of.

“My mom has had a rough life too. She was adopted when she was a baby, but never lived up to the expectations of her adoptive family. Feeling on the outside looking in she contacted her biological family but they were awful to her. She ended up on her own at 16 working as a stripper in Las Vegas with a fake I.D. That is where she met my father and became pregnant with me. She tried going home, but they wouldn’t take her back. It was only one set of her adoptive grandparents that cared for her and ended up caring for me. It is their last name that I call my own.

“My mom married my first step dad and they had my little brother. We lived at a carnival. My mom had a t-shirt made for me that said, “If found please return to *mom’s name.*” I simply wasn’t cared for. There were drugs and dirty needles everywhere. There was hardly ever food. We could get locked in a room for days. I still can’t eat mayonnaise because I remember spoon feeding it to my little brother when we didn’t have anything else to eat and my mother was strung out on heroin.

“On the day my brother and I were taken from my mom, when I was four, there was a huge drug bust at our home. We were sent to go live with different sets of grandparents. I was returned to my mom just before I turned six. She had remarried and I have three sisters from that relationship.

“I left home when I was 17. My brother got into some trouble and I was able to get legal custody of him and take care of him till he had finished high school.”

Skyla goes on to describe her parental role with her siblings and her motherly role with her nieces and nephews. Her motivation in life is all about the well-being of children, especially that of her own daughter. If she feels a child is being abused she becomes a ferocious mama-bear.

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With her background in place Skyla turns the focus of her story to her body image. “The sexual abuse started when I was three-years-old and continued on-and-off until I moved out of my mother’s home. It felt that my body was the only thing of worth that I could offer someone. Because of that I feel much cuter in clothes. When I’m naked there is a feeling of disgust.”

I ask Skyla if she wants to share anything more about the sexual abuse. “The first time it happened I was offered a piece of toast to feed my little brother in exchange… “ her words fade off into a very unsettling pause. “Honey,” she continues, “He was hungry so I traded ‘me’ for toast with honey. And that was my life.”

She goes on to describe other instances where she purchased safety for her siblings at the price of her body. “This is why I say today that I am stronger than what I should be. I am not defined by what happened to me. I am who I choose to be. I could choose to be miserable, but it takes the same amount of energy to choose something better.”

She reiterates, “Again, that is why I don’t tell this story that often. I don’t want people to look at me with pity in their eyes. That is insulting. I have fought too hard for anybody to feel sorry for me. If anything I simply want people’s respect.”

Skyla talks at length about her own daughter, her philosophy of parenting, and even her views of discipline. She shares instances of physical abuse she endured as a little girl. With each story she shows me a different scar – a nail mark on her back, a cigarette burn on her head…

 Skyla shares custody of her daughter with her x-husband. When her daughter is absent Skyla’s stretch marks serve as a physical connection between the two of them.

Skyla shares custody of her daughter with her x-husband. When her daughter is absent Skyla’s stretch marks serve as a physical connection between the two of them.

I ask Skyla how she views her physical body. ‘Tall’ is her first descriptor. ‘Fat’ is the second. She suffers from body dysmorphia so it matters very little what others think of her body as her own thoughts drown out other voices. When she was younger she battled eating disorders trying to control her weight, waiting 20 minutes after a meal to purge her stomach. After gaining weight during pregnancy she lost sixty pounds but it left her with “rocks-in-socks for boobs that were close to being pierced by my belt buckle.” She chose to have a breast reduction, nipple lift and enhancement, but opted not to have a tummy tuck. It isn’t that Skyla likes the stretch marks from her pregnancy, in fact she thinks they are ugly, yet she respects them for being a roadmap of her life. At first she thought of totally covering them with tattoos but now they serve as an important connection between her and her daughter. “There is a mark for everyday I held her until my arms could,” she explains.

Some friends encouraged her to try pin-up modeling. She enjoys dressing up and feels empowered by it. She had invited others girlfriends to participate and enjoys doing their hair and makeup for the events and photo shoots.

Skyla chose to share her story and portraits because she knows that there are others who can relate to her story. “No matter how bad your life is there are other people who have it worse. They may need to see your strength and see that one day it’s going to be okay. That is what I always waited for – the day that I was going to be okay. And now I am safe, my daughter has all she needs and some of what she wants. And that makes me okay. That’s all I ever wanted. I. am. okay.