Even if progress has been made in combatting societal prejudice, there are still some who judge people harshly for how they look. Ilka Brühl can certainly attest to that, as the condition she was born with made her a target for bullies. Since 2014, however, she’s grown to accept herself – and inspire others into the bargain too.
A resident of Braunschweig, Germany, Brühl was diagnosed with ectodermal dysplasia. There are in excess of 180 variances of this particular disorder, and as such symptoms can manifest themselves in differing ways. However, those with ectodermal dysplasia may find themselves with anomalous fingernails, brittle hair, irregular teeth or an inability to sweat, for example.
And in Brühl’s case, she possessed enlarged airways and a facial cleft, for which she has undergone no fewer than ten operations. As a result of her appearance, though, her confidence took a major hit. The young Brühl also struggled to make friends and suffered from frequent bullying, and these circumstances would feed into her lack of self-worth.
Indeed, Brühl has written on her official website, “For a long time, I felt so ugly and had a very low self-esteem.” She added, “Looking back, I can say that I still had a really great childhood and had very few negative experiences. But in the past, unfortunately, I often withdrew myself for fear of rejection.”
“If it came to problems that certainly had nothing to do with my appearance, I still referred to it,” Brühl continued. “So I made life a lot harder than it was. For how should other people approach me if I isolate myself like that?” However, things started to change for the young woman when she reached her 20s.
After a difficult first few months at school, Brühl finally opened herself up to her classmates. Then, as her confidence began to grow, she started considering options that she simply wouldn’t have even contemplated previously. And that change of attitude eventually paid off in November 2014, when Brühl jumped at the chance to work with photographer Ines Rehberger.
“At the time, I had just bought my camera, and Ines was one of my great role models,” Brühl later wrote on her website. “When she moved to Braunschweig and posted a call to Facebook [asking] if anyone would like to shoot, I contacted [her]. Just like that – I would never have done that before.”
However, on the day of their meeting, Brühl was suddenly overcome with worry about how Rehberger would react to her appearance. “On the way to her, I was on the verge of turning around several times because of such a terrible fear [I] had [of] her laughing at me when she saw me in real life,” the Braunschweig native recalled.
Thankfully, though, Rehberger was accepting, and Brühl found herself enjoying working with the snapper. “It was only a few degrees above zero and we were out in the pouring rain, not feeling the cold at all,” Brühl said on her website of the photo shoot. “There was such adrenaline in my veins, such enthusiasm… I did not know that [feeling] at all.”
Then, several days after that, Rehberger posted the results of their shoot on social media – and this gave Brühl cause for concern once again. However, their work generated a very positive response, which in turn led Brühl down a path that changed her life. You see, she subsequently created an Instagram account through which she could share pictures of herself taken by other photographers.
And Brühl’s Instagram page has since found an incredibly large audience; her account now boasts in excess of 22,000 followers. Her Facebook page, too, has over 3,000 followers and counting. Despite that surge in popularity, though, Brühl hasn’t forgotten the importance of her photographers in getting her this far.
“I am incredibly grateful for this cooperation because [the photographers] helped me a lot,” Brühl has written on her website. “Before that, I had many self-doubts, especially because of my appearance. The development is not finished yet, but I’m in a good way.”
Now, then, Brühl arguably acts as an inspirational figure to many of her thousands of followers on social media. That status is further backed up by Brühl’s uplifting ideas about self-acceptance as well as her words on self-imposed limitations.
“No one should have to hide from their appearance or interior,” Brühl has explained on her website. “The only way to be ugly is to have a mean character. So never let yourself be persuaded that you can not do something. Only your own limits are your own – you alone.”
And Brühl’s attitude is admirable – not least because of all that she’s had to battle to seemingly find peace with herself. Perhaps with that in mind, she’s now aiming to take her career in another direction, moving away from the modeling and helping people who suffered like she did as a youngster.
“I hardly do any more photo shoots, because I realized that I prefer to help others to more satisfaction,” Brühl has revealed on her website. She added, “Life is too short for self-doubt. I have so many ideas and I cannot wait to implement them.”
“For example, my first picture book will be published in the middle of the year,” Brühl continued. “So even children should learn that you should never pretend.” It seems, then, that the German woman is determined to spread her message of self-acceptance even further in the future.
Despite that selflessness, though, Brühl has also reflected on her own journey since that first photo shoot in 2014. And while she hasn’t forgotten her previous issues with confidence and low self-esteem, she believes that she’s now in a much better place to deal with any lingering feelings of lack of worth.
“Of course I still have moments when I’m unsure [of myself],” Brühl has written. “But who does not? Overall, I have a much healthier relationship with myself now, and I’m much more confident.” And on her website, she also tells her fans, “Never forget: you are wonderful!”
So even if there are still individuals out there who choose to sneer at others for their appearances, Brühl is providing somewhat of an antidote to such narrow-mindedness. And thanks to her presence on social media, her words of encouragement may now be heard by those who need them.