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19th September 2014

How the Selfie Generation is breaking the ostomy taboo

Model Bethany Townsend posted selfies wearing nothing but a bikini and a colostomy bag. The world watched, and the world’s ostomy community took action.

It’s hard to imagine a more image-conscious industry than the world of fashion. But one very brave model has posted a series of selfies that are changing attitudes to a medical condition most people would prefer not to talk about.

If you passed Bethany Townsend in the street or saw her picture on the cover of Cosmo, you’d probably think she looked like a typical fashion model.

I want to be back in Mexico god I need a holiday

A post shared by B (@bethyd_) on

But what you wouldn’t know is that Bethany has a colostomy bag attached to her abdomen to collect waste from her misfiring digestive system. Without it, she would die.

Her intestine was badly damaged as a result of Crohn’s disease and, while colostomy surgery may have saved her life, it left her with a small opening in her abdomen.

This might have blunted the ambition of some aspiring models but Bethany wasn’t going to let this hold her back. She started posting selfies on Instagram while wearing a bikini with her colostomy bag front and centre. The photos went viral. Fast.

Then something incredible happened. Other brave woman also started posting bikini selfies showing their colostomies. Soon men were getting in on the act and before you could scream grassroots-disease-awareness-campaign, a taboo had been smashed.

Good to talk

The meme did wonders for Crohn’s awareness and for the technology that keeps people alive after their digestive systems let them down. Crohn’s is a disease that affects the digestive system, causing severe inflammation and affecting a person’s ability to absorb nutrients, digest food and remove waste. It can strike people in their teens or early 20s, often affecting women more severely than men.

Talking about ostomies can be uncomfortable but the more people put themselves out there, the more normal it becomes. Blogger and vlogger Thaila Skye, for example, knew it was up to ostomates like her to break down barriers and get an open conversation started. “The lack of openness and support in previous years means that nowadays, people want to talk about their experiences in the hope that they can help others who are going through what they went through.”

For an image-obsessed generation used to sharing on social media, an ostomy can be deeply distressing. But the Selfie Generation is helping to veil.

Take Stephanie Hughes. She says ‘bathing suit season’ can be either scary or depressing but offers girls with ostomies her ideas on how to hit the beach without feeling self-conscious.

Young people with ostomies are also becoming more upfront about sharing practical advice on how to change a colostomy bag or keep an ostomy dry in the shower.

People are even becoming more open about discussing relationships and sex for people with an ostomy.

For some, this is an exceptionally difficult aspect of living with an ostomy – a fact that prompted the launch of OstoDate, a ‘dating and friendship site’.

Of course, it’s not just young people who are affected. Ostomy surgery has been around for a long time – longer than Intsagram, longer than YouTube – and has benefited millions of people.Some have had colon or rectal cancer; some have suffered trauma to the gastrointestinal tract (like a gunshot or stab wound); and others have digestive problems caused by ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s.

While you’ll find fewer older people displaying their ostomies on Pinterest or Facebook, the tech-savvy share-it-all generation are changing how everyone views ostomies. For good.

Ostomy or no ostomy…you can #getyourbellyout too and make a donation to the worldwide campaign for IBD awareness. Get the details on Facebook.

Bonus video: This is a very nicely done educational video explaining how the digestive system works – and what happens when it doesn’t.

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Header image: #Getyourbellyout

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