Scan any well-stocked newsstand, and you’ll no doubt find a bounty of women’s magazines touting tips for achieving bouncy hair, kissable lips and a cellulite-free derriere.
What you won’t see are headlines hyping haute insulin pumps, artful colostomy pouches or flirty tracheostomy covers. Meanwhile, there are countless women dealing with the daily challenge of feeling beautiful while tethered to a device that’s necessary to stay alive, but often unlovely to look at.
In decades past, people with external medical appliances were sentenced to life of voluminous “clown clothes” (as one ileostomy wearer puts it) and counseled to hide their conditions as best they could. But in this golden age of Internet community, designers and patients are taking matters into their own hands to create clothing and accessories that help women feel gorgeous in their own skin — and spark conversation about a previously taboo topic.
The secret surgery
In 1990, Leah Humphries went to sleep as a carefree young woman and woke up with a hole punched in her gut and a pouch strapped to it. The 22-year-old art student had been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease 20 months earlier and checked into the hospital for colon surgery she hoped would bring some relief. The disease ended up being more severe than anyone had anticipated, and the surgeons re-routed her small intestine out through an angry red opening — a permanent “stoma” — on her abdomen. While the ileostomy may have saved her body, it crushed her soul.
For a year, Humphries spiraled into sadness. She’d always been a free-spirited, active, pretty girl, yet she suddenly found herself keeping company with other ostomy patients many decades her senior. They were content to while away afternoons shooting the breeze, tented in loose, flowing clothes calculated to conceal the existence of a pouch full of their waste and never talking about the more private aspects of their condition.
It was called the “secret surgery” for a reason. Many ostomates at the time were unwilling to discuss the social issues surrounding the mechanics of their device (which have improved radically since then), and the prevailing image was, as Humphries said, “Grandpa had the bag, and you kept him in the corner, and he smelled.”
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