Radiating confidence, three stunning young women pose in their underwear after bonding on social media led to them daring to bare their stoma bags.
All suffering with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) since their mid-teens, Sarah Anderson, 25, of Aberdeen, Scotland, Beth Gallagher, 24, of Sheffield, South Yorkshire, and Lydia Andrew, 23, of Nottingham, in the East Midlands, have all had part of their digestive system removed and bags fitted to collect their intestinal waste.
But, boosted by their common bond, they are all now ‘out and proud,’ feeling happy to reveal their stomas in the gym and on the beach.
Sarah, a masters student, who had a stoma bag – which sits at the bottom of the abdomen – fitted at 23, said: “Meeting Beth and Lydia lifted me up and they helped to reassure me about all my insecurities.
“I still find it difficult showing my bag off in person. I went to the beach for the first time last year and I knew some people were looking.
“But now I feel far more prepared to get out in public and head down to a beach or a gym with my bag on show – because I feel now that if someone tries to be negative about my body they are taking on all of us.”
The first murmurs of the illness that went on to ravage her insides came when Sarah was 15 and started passing blood every time she went to empty her bowels.
Diagnosed with ulcerative colitis – a long-term autoimmune condition where the colon and the rectum become inflamed – three months later, she was treated for seven years with steroids, to help reduce the inflammation as well as infusions to suppress the immune system.
Sadly, though, her condition worsened over the years, making it difficult to lead a normal life.
“There were days when I couldn’t even leave the house as I was constantly having to go to the toilet,” she recalled.
“I remember once, when I was working at Tesco, not being able to make it to the toilet in time which, in such a public place, was totally mortifying.”
Despite the debilitating symptoms that included pain so bad that she twice passed out from it, which turned her into a virtual recluse, for years Sarah fought her doctors’ advice to have a stoma bag fitted.
Finally, in 2016, aged 23, she succumbed when she realised that having her life restricted by her constant trips to the bathroom was even worse.
Additionally, having ulcerative colitis increases the risk of having bowel cancer in later life, according to Crohn’s & Colitis UK, a charity to support people with IBD.
Going under the knife that May at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, Sarah had a four-hour long ileostomy to remove part of the large intestine, leaving her with a stoma – an opening in the abdomen which allows waste to be diverted out of the body and collected in a pouch.
Like Beth and Lydia, having the stoma bag fitted left her feeling isolated and alone, as she did not know anyone who identified with her situation.
She said: “It is very isolating to be a young woman with bowel disease as it’s the sort of thing you normally associate with older people.
“Especially being single it can be pretty tough as you really don’t want to have to go around explaining to every man you sleep with why you have a bag attached to you.”
She added: “I know it’s selfish, as I could be dead without it due to the risk of developing cancer, but I really miss my old body.”
Suffering with anxiety and depression as a result of her surgery, Sarah’s mood lifted when she started bonding with women in a similar situation online.
Taking to Instagram one day in a week after her operation, she vented her dislike of her new physique to her 100 followers, saying: “It’s one week post op for me and it’s been the hardest week of my entire life.”
She continued: “I got my colon removed to reduce my cancer risk and to live without pain but mentally living with an ileostomy isn’t as easy as I thought.
“Emptying my bag is a dreaded thought and I need help and support to constantly do anything.
“I know things will get better but this disease and what people suffer needs more awareness.”
She concluded: “I’m not ashamed of living with this and I never will be.”
The post, which received 89 likes, was spotted by Lydia, a design assistant at an art studio, who had just had similar surgery because of ulcerative colitis.
“Lydia contacted me out of the blue and said that she was going through a similar situation,” said Sarah.
Sarah continued: “She said that she respected my brutal honesty, the fact that I told it like it is and didn’t shy away from the reality of how it is to be a young woman living with a stoma. After that, we were pretty much in contact all the time.”
Exchanging their daily concerns about their situation using the messaging service WhatsApp, Sarah explained how she felt her condition had held her back for years while her friends were getting on in life.
She also confided her sadness over a relationship with a man, which she had started a few months after her surgery, but which fell apart due to her anxiousness about the bag.
The support she received from Lydia and the identification they shared was invaluable.
Then, when teaching assistant Beth joined their WhatsApp group conversation at the end of 2017, after Lydia made contact with her over Instagram, they became firm friends.
“I’m from a small town,” said Sarah, who describes herself as the “wise owl” of the trio. “This meant I didn’t know anyone like me, who was going through the same thing.”
She continued: “You can try talking to your best friends about it, and they will try to be as supportive as they can.
“Really, though, only someone who has had the same thing happen to them can know the true reality of life with a stoma bag.”
But, living in different parts of the UK meant it took a while for the three women to meet in person.
Eventually, after two and a half years of almost daily conversation, they gathered at Beth’s flat over a weekend in January 2019.
“Before we met up I was a bit nervous – because girls can get bitchy and two’s company, three’s a crowd,” said Sarah.
“But it was amazing. It felt like we all had so much to say to one another and we spent hours just sat indoors chatting about everything, from our health to relationships, and everything we’d been through over the years.”
They also fulfilled a plan they had discussed to take a series of photos of themselves posing together in their underwear.
Both Sarah and Beth had previously snapped themselves showing their stoma bags, which they had posted on social media, but they wanted the pictures of the three of them to symbolise their solidarity.
Setting Sarah’s camera on a self-timer, they took several shots of themselves defiantly looking into the lens, all wearing black Calvin Klein underwear – which was Lydia’s idea as she wanted them to appear “as a team” – later posting the pictures on Instagram.
“I’m really not the sort of girl who posts pictures of herself just wearing her knickers,” said Sarah.
“But it felt like we were sending out a strong message, and more than that helping ourselves see that we can still be happy in our own skin despite the bags.
“I was expecting at least some kind of rude comment or negative backlash. But actually the feedback was so positive, especially from other women, which felt very empowering.”
Now firm friends, the trio plan to meet more regularly.
Sarah continued: “I don’t want people to look at those pictures we took and just think we’re just some girls who take their clothes off for the camera.
“The photos show how close we are as friends and, while we may all be quite different people in terms of our personalities, we have become pals for life. I would honestly call these girls my sisters.”
Bethany, who has a fiancé, Michael Saul, 23, an administrator, feels exactly the same.
She said: “Before having the stoma operation, I was totally petrified. Even though by that stage I had lost five stone and was going to the toilet 40 times a day, it was terrifying to think, especially as a young woman, that you’d have a bag.
“When people think of stomas, they don’t think of young women. All of the leaflets I was given by the hospital talked about old people and it felt like I was this strange exception.”
Beth continued: “But meeting the girls really changed my life. When we met, we all had so much to say to each other and couldn’t stop talking. The diahorrea was verbal for once!
“I felt more comfortable with them than I even do with Michael, because I wasn’t worrying about my bag filling up and them being grossed out by it.”
Lydia, who also has a boyfriend, Jefferson Bunney, 23, an estimator, said: “When I had my stoma operation I was in my second year of university and though my friends were really supportive, no one really understands what you are going through.”
“But with Beth and Sarah, I trust their judgement 100 per cent,” she added.
“We aren’t just three girls with stomas who have posted underwear pictures – we are people with a very deep and strong friendship, developed by having all had a pretty rough time. Having them as pals means I don’t feel like I’m coping with this on my own any more.
“Meeting Beth and Sarah has reaffirmed that we are all attractive women and that having a stoma bag hasn’t changed that one bit.”