Updated: Jul 24, 2020
Morena skin, unshaved armpits, prominent stretch marks—what society sees as flaws, Alexandra Abenojar is proud to celebrate. On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, The Filipina Feminists had a talk with this strong and awesome woman about her lupus diagnosis and long journey to self-love.
Alex has the kind of smile that will make a stranger feel instantly comfortable around her. That’s exactly what E felt when she first met the fellow Iskolar ng Bayan for this interview. You would think that you’ve known her for years if you get the chance to sit down and chat with her. Her energy is magnetic; stories poured out of her not in dribbles but in buckets.
J, meanwhile, has known Alex for years. They met in college when they both took table tenni as one of their P.E. classes. While J and E were learning about the laws of supply and demand at the School of Economics, she was studying BS Clothing Technology at the College of Home Economics.
Her interest in design started in high school when her mom bought her a box of watercolor pencils. She used to design dresses for fun before entering college, so she decided to pursue it as a degree.
“Oh, ang fun nito,” she said while reminiscing, referring to her old hobby. “So I thought I wanted to be a designer… I always wanted to take advertising sana or anything related to, like, arts and creative stuff.”
However, she slowly lost her love for design while in school. “Because things were required, I didn’t enjoy designing na.” She added, “Having to work with clients who change the design… Ikaw lang ung taga-drawing pala.” (“You’re just the person who draws.”)
Even though she’s not on the design track anymore, there is one thing that she took with her after graduation. That is her love for rock climbing. “I got into rock climbing because of P.E.,” she told us. Up to this day, she is still an avid rock climber, visiting provinces with friends just to find a good spot for the sport.
While talking about her passions, Alex quickly changed gears and began telling us about her lupus diagnosis. That’s the thing about Alex—she’s a generous storyteller. She’ll tell you everything you want to know before you even ask. Others may tiptoe around their “flaws” or illnesses, but she’s not afraid to dive in headfirst, even if the subject matter was the most challenging time of her life.
She was hospitalized for a few months after she experienced symptoms including bloating, butterfly rashes, and mouth sores. She went through several tests, including urinalysis, blood extractions, and biopsy. The results revealed that she had a high creatinine level as well as unstable cholesterol and potassium levels in her blood.
Because her kidneys were not functioning as they should be, her body couldn’t process water properly either. This led to more bloating, specifically around her hips and thighs. From 120 pounds, the water weight added 30 more pounds to her body. The sudden change in her weight caused her skin to stretch like a rubber band about to snap.
In fact, while she was in the hospital, water started to leak out of her stretched skin. She had to cover her hips and thighs with diapers to absorb the moisture, which she had to replace every two hours because they filled up with water. It became extremely difficult for her to move due to the tears and holes in her skin. On top of this, Alex experienced muscle atrophy, which added another layer of difficulty. Even standing up and going to the bathroom proved to be a challenge for her.
“There was a point na ‘pag didilat ako, pagod ako. So pipikit na lang ako. Or kahit magsasalita, hindi ko kaya,” she said. (There was a point when I felt tired when I open my eyes, so I would just close them again. I couldn’t even talk,” she said.)
While confined in the hospital, Alex got her strength from her family, her friends and, most importantly, her faith. She talked in length about the message that she received from God.
“'[Your] worth is not based on what you can achieve. Your worth is not based on how much help you can give other people or how much impact you can make on society. Your worth is based on you as a daughter. You’re valuable. You’re important kasi mahal kita. And you don’t need to do anything for me para mahalin kita. You’re complete the moment na iniluwal ka ng nanay mo… You don’t need to add anything to yourself to be worthy…’ Sobrang revelation sakin na I was a child and not a slave.”
(“…‘You’re important because I love you. And you don’t need to do anything for me to love you. You’re complete the moment your mother gave birth to you… You don’t need to add anything to yourself to be worthy…’ It was such a revelation to me that I was a child and not a slave.”)
Before her diagnosis, Alex used to commit to too many responsibilities at the same time, leading to high levels of stress that she wasn’t able to manage. Right before and after graduating, she was an active volunteer at church. She also attempted to start a business before getting sick. Consequently, she was having personal problems, particularly butting heads with her dad about differing opinions.
Stress became one of Alex’s main triggers. Whenever she was too stressed, her symptoms would flair. However, because of the revelation she received during her confinement at the hospital, she has learned to change her mindset.
“During that time, I learned to rest. I learned to take care of my body. I learned to not neglect spending time alone. Also, I learned to recharge and receive help from other people.” She also said, “I realized after the hospital, I let go of everything and everything was still… I mean, the world doesn’t stop when you stop… It doesn’t make me less of a person.”
This is a good reminder from Alex to everyone who puts too much pressure on themselves. It’s okay to take a break, take care of yourself, and ask for help when you need it.
Aside from her diagnosis and recovery, we also asked Alex about how she learned to embrace her stretch marks.
“In the Bible, si Paul had a thorn in his flesh. And si Jacob, after wrestling with God, na-injure ‘yung hip nya, and he was limping forever. But the limp reminded him of God. And then the thorn in Paul’s flesh reminded him to depend on God… So I think this is the thorn in my flesh that reminds me na, ‘Hey, you’re not Superwoman. You’re not unlimited. And you need God.’ It keeps me coming back. It keeps me humble. Reminds me to rest.
“And when I look at it (her stretch marks), I can visualize myself lying down on the bed, staring at my legs full of water… It’s just a reminder that I have to rest, that God is faithful, that stress is not worth it.”
When asked about the challenges of having to live with her stretch marks, she said that rock climbing has become more difficult because some parts of her skin are too thin. Therefore, normal scrapes may lead to wounds and cause bleeding.
Aunties would also say that that her legs are “sayang” (a waste) because of the stretch marks. They would try to convince her to put different creams on her legs so the stretch marks would fade away. But she refuses to do so because they are, to Alex, a reminder of the journey she had to go through to be who she is today. The stronger, more resilient, and more faithful version of herself.
Her advice for people who might be struggling with body issues? Look at your “flaws” as stories. “Attach something to it that gives it value.” She explained, “If you got stretch marks because, once upon a time, you were a child and you loved food, that’s a cool story! Oh, you love food and you got stretch marks, but you learned to eat healthy. So isn’t that a good story?
“For me, my stretch marks have value. So I like them! And it’s a good story to tell.”
We spoke to Alex for over an hour. After showing us pictures from her hospitalization, she took us to her old workplace, a rock climbing center in Greenfield District in Mandaluyong. She introduced us to her friends, taught us a little about her favorite sport, and even invited us to try it with her some other time. We said our goodbyes shortly after, but her stories continue to inspire us today.
Try as we might, this article can’t perfectly capture Alex’s spirit. You have to meet her to truly understand how well-spoken and convivial she is. More than the lively conversation, she taught us to change the way we look at ourselves and our imperfections. She reminded us that we are our own storytellers. We can always change the narrative and turn our “flaws” into challenges surpassed, lessons learned, and experiences gained. Not because we want other people to accept us. But because we want to love ourselves and our bodies more.
We want to thank Alex once again for allowing us to interview her for the first issue of tffs. Magazine! Follow her on Instagram.
This post is sponsored by Simula PH.