The Brave Colostomy Bag Selfies

Crohn’s disease sufferers are showing the world that they’re not embarrassed of their condition, one selfie at a time.

With an estimated 1 million Americans currently affected by Crohn’s disease, the need to raise awareness has never been greater. And, thanks to a host of women posting photos of themselves with their colostomy bags, the condition is shedding its stigma.

The disease—a chronic condition that causes the immune system to attack the digestive systemis especially prevalent among those aged 15-35. Inflammation can occur throughout the digestive tract, causing diarrhea, nausea, ulcers, bleeding, joint pain, malnutrition, weakness, and weight loss, among other symptoms. There is currently neither a cure for the disorder nor any indication of how it is causedthough it’s thought to be genetic, environmental, or both. Many sufferers are subject to procedures including intestine removal and the fitting of a colostomy bag, which can easily be humiliating when it comes to stripping off one’s clothes.

But thanks to a spate of uninhibited vacation snaps spreading like wildfire across social media, that idea is taking a serious kicking. Posting on a Crohn’s and Colitis (a similar condition contained to the colon) charity Facebook page, 23-year-old Bethany Townsend shared a photo of herself sunbathing in Mexico—stoma and all. The image quickly took off, being seen by 10 million people and liked nearly 200,000 times within a matter of days. Alongside the picture, she wrote: “After three and a half years, I decided that my colostomy bags shouldn't control my life. So when I went to Mexico with my husband in December last year I finally showed I wasn't ashamed.”

Bethany was diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 3, and underwent years of subsequent bowel removal, stem cell transplants, and long periods of tube feeding in an attempt to get her condition under control. And confronting “the illness no one ever seems to want to talk about” has had an amazing effect on her fellow sufferers, endowing many with the confidence to add their photos and stories to the initiative.

“I didn’t expect this kind of reaction at all,” she said. “It’s gone ballistic.”

“When I first had the bags fitted I was devastated. The reaction to this photo has really helped me accept them. I’m just so glad that it’s brought about more awareness of Crohn’s disease and it’s made me feel so much more confident,” she said.

Others inspired to share their holiday pictures publicly included Vickie Morris, who said: “I have been uploading holiday pics but held back on one! Why? I don't know because I thought people wouldn't approve! Today I had a response and thought f**k you!...I wear my bag with pride.”

Not only are these ladies helping to spread awareness about a serious condition, but they’re reaffirming that anyone, anywhere has the right to be happy in their own skin. And why the hell not?

Because while Internet activism à la Generation Selfie has become an easy target for naysayers, acts of empowerment like this demonstrate exactly what supposedly molly-coddled Millennials are good at. No, a click of the “like” button won’t save the world, but a hundred thousand might just start changing attitudes towards otherwise scarcely discussed diseases.

This has so much potential to pave the way for those with similar conditions to step out and start eradicating the negativity associated with revealing a disorder. Fear stems from ignorance, but by encouraging healthy discussion of the funky stuff our bodies do in their own time, there’s a whole lot of scope for breeding other proud bag-barers, and educating those who understand little of it.

“Reading all these comments is truly amazing,” Bethany wrote on her post after it took off. “If I can inspire or help other people in my position to feel a little more comfortable in their own skin, then I’m really happy.”