My name is Liesl (LEE-sel), and I am a 23 year old in central Illinois living with a chronic illness. When I was 17, I got sick with what we all thought was the flu, but after multiple tests and failing medications during a 37-night hospital stay, my illness turned out to be ulcerative colitis. Six weeks after my diagnosis, I decided to have my large intestine completely removed. After nearly 7 years and 16 surgeries later, I finally got a permanent ileostomy, meaning that the end of my small intestine is poked through to the outside of my body, and I have to wear a bag to collect stool.
Can anyone name something remotely sexy about this? Probably not. I literally wear a bag of poop on my stomach. As I am typing this, I am pooping, and I don’t have any control over that.
Like most women, I struggle with my self-image on a daily basis and adding an ileostomy bag wasn’t going to help AT ALL. I was constantly aware of this bag of stool on my stomach. For me, the biggest issue I had was dating. There was no way any man would find me attractive with this.
I absolutely dreaded getting an ileostomy. In fact, I had undergone approximately 10 surgeries to avoid having a permanent bag. I kept having to drop semesters of school for surgery. On top of this, I once had a temporary ileostomy before, and I knew that I felt better with it. So what stopped me? My own self doubt: How on earth would I date again? What man would find this attractive? That was my thought process for so long and it kept me from going to school and just living my life.
The bags themselves aren’t sexy, but they definitely aren’t ugly. They match my skin tone, so they don’t stand out too much. So I decided I was going to “fake it ‘till I made it.” I wasn’t totally confident with showing off my bag, but I tried my hardest to make myself get used to it. I started wearing high-rise jeans or shorts and crop tops that would show a little bit of my ileostomy. I slowly made it more visible (in appropriate situations, of course).
But when my boyfriend and I broke up, I started to worry more. He had already loved me without my ileostomy and he still loved me when got it. But now? How do I explain this to the next man I date? How are they going to react to my bag? I want someone to love me for me - not love me despite having a bag.
And then the unexpected happened: The men that I talked to about my bag only used words like “total badass” and “brave” and “strong”…even “beach body!” I was 100% wrong. What makes my ileostomy sexy is ME. It wasn’t an easy process, but I slowly regained confidence in myself and in my body. I explain my story in a way that tells people that I’m not a victim - I’m a survivor. I wasn’t dealt the best hand, but I’m making do with what I have. Radiating that mentality changed their perception of me entirely.
For clarity’s sake, I’m not going to pretend that any of this is easy - because it’s not. It takes time for your mind to adjust and accept what has happened to you and your body; whether you can manage to even “fake” the confidence for a little while, it will become reality. And this reality is so much better than the fear and insecurity I used to feel.