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Ilka Brühl was born looking different—now she’s showing that beauty comes in all forms with her successful modeling career

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Discrimination based on physical appearance is an unfortunate reality faced by many individuals, children and adults alike. A sad example of this is the life story of Ilka Brühl, a German woman born with ectodermal dysplasia. This rare genetic disorder altered her facial structure, leading to her being a target of derogatory remarks in school.

Despite these hardships, she always stood out academically and found strength in her own experiences, wishing to use her story to assist others in similar situations.

Today, at the age of 30, Ilka has transformed her adversities into opportunities, becoming a successful model and author. Through her social media platforms and podcast, she motivates people to embrace their unique beauty and promote acceptance of individual differences. Her journey, a testament to her resilience and tenacity, is an inspiring narrative that redefines the concept of beauty.

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Consider for a moment your own life at the age of 16. It was likely a time of transition filled with a variety of experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, as hormones surged and emotions fluctuated. You might have encountered challenges, both physical and psychological. Yet, ideally, it was an overall positive phase in your life, as it was in mine.

Now, picture being 16 and constantly being referred to as a “Freak,” “Alien,” or “Pig Nose.” Imagine being ostracized at school, with children mocking and avoiding you. While most of us have been fortunate enough to escape such harsh treatment, for Ilka Brüh this was a relentless, daily ordeal.

Ilka Brühl was born with a rare genetic disorder known as ectodermal dysplasia, which resulted in a cleft nose and lips, altering her facial structure. She lived with this condition for many years before opting for surgery as a solution.

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However, after the procedure, she had a profound realization – her appearance wasn’t defined by what some might call a deformity. Beauty, she learned, couldn’t be sculpted surgically, leading her to accept her face as it was. Nowadays, Ilka is a beacon of hope and a source of inspiration for millions globally, using her experiences to aid others.

When Ilka was born in January 1992, her parents believed they had a healthy child, and in essence, they did. However, it was soon discovered that the newborn was struggling with breathing due to blockages in her nasal airways.

Ilka Brühl’s unique condition necessitated emergency surgery soon after her birth, specifically to correct her cleft palate. Post-surgery, it became evident that little Ilka was distinctly different from others.

Navigating school can be tough for many children around the globe, a fact that Ilka discovered in harsher terms than most. Her schoolmates failed to recognize that, despite her unusual facial features, she was just like them. Reports indicate that she endured insensitive questions and laughter about her appearance.

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Reflecting on this in an interview with the German newspaper Kurier, Ilka said, “At first I thought: How else am I supposed to look like? That’s how I am! But then I consciously looked in the mirror and realized that my nose is different. Then you start questioning yourself.” Despite her inherent beauty, Ilka fell victim to relentless bullying, enduring cruel names such as “Freak,” “Alien,” and “Pig Nose,” and being ostracized from play.

Ilka shared her childhood struggles, stating, “As a child, I often had eye infections because my tear duct was not developed, and headaches because my paranasal sinuses were very susceptible to moisture.” Despite the symptoms, she learned to adapt and live with them.

She acknowledged her parents’ support in shaping her self-perception, saying, “My parents always gave me the feeling that I was right the way I was. As a child, I could confidently counter stupid sayings or looks.” However, during adolescence, doubts crept in as she wondered why there weren’t more people like her visible in the world.

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In an attempt to cope with her discomfort with her appearance, Ilka would intentionally distort her face in photos, hoping her parents wouldn’t display her pictures at home.

Ilka confessed her tactic, stating, “That was my avoidance strategy. If I look at photos so stupidly that my mom doesn’t hang it up, then I don’t have to see it either.” As a teenager, her self-doubt intensified. The unrealistic beauty standards perpetuated by commercials and media further exacerbated her feelings of exclusion and lack of representation. Consequently, Ilka felt so ashamed of her appearance that she equated it to the embarrassment of nudity.

However, amidst the torment and teasing at school, Ilka remained unyielding. Despite her emotional struggle, she shone academically, consistently achieving high grades and emerging as one of the top students in her year.

Reflecting on her past, Ilka recalled, “It was like a kind of double life,” highlighting the dichotomy between her personal struggles and academic success. Her lack of self-confidence and self-esteem made it difficult for her to form friendships.

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Ilka went through ten surgeries during her journey towards self-acceptance. Despite the challenges, she began to realize her worth and gradually transformed into a confident woman, hoping to inspire others with her story.

A significant turning point occurred in 2014 when she was en route to her first photoshoot. She confessed, as quoted by Insider, “On the way to [the photographer], I was on the verge of turning around several times because I was so terrified that she would laugh at me when she saw me in real life.”

Ilka shared her revelations from being in front of the camera, stating, “Every defect and every mistake is a part of you, and that’s okay too. You just have to make the most of it.” At the age of 20, she underwent a nose correction surgery primarily for medical reasons. Prior to the operation, Ilka had hoped it would enable her to finally embrace herself.

However, the aftermath of the surgery brought an unexpected realization. She shared with BILD, “As soon as the wounds had healed, I noticed the next blemish. At that moment I realized: Beauty cannot be created on the operating table.” She further clarified her understanding of beauty saying, “For me, [beauty] is all about appearance. If you accept yourself, then you can shine from within and that’s nicer than the most perfect person who doesn’t like themselves.”

Rather than pursuing additional surgeries, Ilka found alternative ways to address her self-perception issues. She realized the key wasn’t about conforming to societal norms of appearance, but rather about embracing her unique identity. She said, “I approached people more openly and learned to like myself. And noticed: The others don’t withdraw from me at all, I withdraw from them!”

 

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A post shared by Ilka Brühl (@ilkabruehl)

Ilka acknowledged her distinctive appearance but reframed it as a positive attribute. Embracing her differences, the German woman sought to empower others to accept themselves as they are. She decided to share insights from her life and personal struggles.

To achieve this, Ilka launched a podcast addressing her self-doubt and offering advice on self-love. She also penned her book, Differently Beautiful – How I Learned to Love Myself, further establishing herself as a beacon of self-acceptance and positivity.

In 2018, Ilka, along with some friends, initiated Project Grenzenlos, translated as Project Limitless. The campaign aimed to celebrate the beauty of those living with physical differences or deformities, a mission closely aligned with Ilka’s own perception of beauty.

On Instagram, Ilka shared her philosophy, stating, “I think EVERYBODY is beautiful in his own way. I often read comments like ‘You are not pretty just because you’re different,’ [and] that’s totally right! I am pretty because EVERYBODY is pretty. Never mind if you are a classic beauty, tall, small, stout, thin, black, white.”

Ilka continues to share her journey and insights through her blog and Instagram. Recently, she has ventured into creating a children’s book, even sharing her own childhood pictures on several occasions. Through her various endeavors, Ilka remains a fervent advocate for self-love and acceptance.

Ilka made the decision to share a baby photo of herself, stating, “I decided to show a baby photo of me. Because you see my ‘defect’ there better.” She acknowledged the curiosity of her followers about her appearance, and felt it was important to address it openly. Despite initial hesitation, she decided that her baby photo should be regarded as normal as any other baby’s.

In a Facebook post, she further expressed her mission, stating, “Everyone who knows me can confirm that it is really important for me and that I want to help others. Want to help the ones with some defects, as well as the parents of babies who are afraid if their child will be accepted in the world.”

Since the launch of Project Grenzenlos in 2018, Ilka’s modeling career has flourished, providing her with more opportunities to promote her message of beauty in diversity and self-acceptance.

Ilka’s story of self-acceptance and perseverance has made her an influential role model to many. Through her social media platforms, particularly Instagram where she has amassed over 19,000 followers, she allows people across the globe to join her on her inspiring journey.

 

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A post shared by Ilka Brühl (@ilkabruehl)

Ilka’s triumphs extend beyond self-acceptance and her role as a positive influence. She also found personal happiness, having married the love of her life, Philip, last year. The joy in their relationship is evident in their shared photos. One such memorable post included Ilka in her wedding dress.

She reflected on her wedding day with heartfelt joy, writing, “The wedding itself was indescribably beautiful for me. When I woke up the next day, I couldn’t believe how great everything went.”

Everyone is unique in their own way and no one is perfect. Despite differences or disabilities, it’s essential that we treat each other with kindness and respect.

Ilka Brühl is a beacon of hope and inspiration, showing us that our differences are what make us uniquely beautiful. Her story not only deserves to be recognized, but also shared, as it can serve as a source of empowerment for many. Feel free to share this inspirational tale with your friends and family to honor Ilka’s journey.