Turning illness into a fashion statement
Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 18, 2008 at 7:53 p.m.
An arm sling covered with colorful flames. A T-shirt with "Cancer picked the wrong Diva!" splashed across the chest. A medical ID bracelet adorned with Swarovski crystals.
Call this fashionable sickness - turning a disease into a fashion statement.
Years ago people were reluctant to share their illnesses, and often went to great lengths to hide them. But today's patients are openly self-deprecating, with T-shirts proclaiming, "I have ADD" and bald heads painted with a favorite sports team logo. They are making their disabilities cool with hot pink walkers, canes with plastic daisies and cast covers imprinted with graffiti.
Experts aren't sure what to call this new open attitude about illness. But they credit television, the Internet, celebrities, and the need to raise money and awareness for diseases.
"Morning television and Oprah, settings where empathy existed, that really said, 'it's OK for me to have an illness,'" says Rich Hanley, director of graduate programs at Quinnipiac University's school of communications.
And whether it's Lance Armstrong fighting cancer or Brooke Shields and postpartum depression, celebrities show people that it's OK to tell the world what they are going through, says Rhoda Weiss, a national health care consultant in Santa Monica, Calif.
"The hipness is also indicative of a new freedom of expression that came out of the Internet," she says. "Being able to talk about your disease has a freeing-like affect on the victim both on the Net and in front of others."
Combine all of that with the sophisticated marketing of diseases - ribbons, awareness months, walks, and colors - and the illness becomes a pop culture statement, says Hanley.
Owning the illness
People who broadcast their illnesses are not looking for pity and are not in denial about the seriousness of their disease, says breast oncologist Dr. Alejandra Perez, who sees patients wearing everything from sloganed T-shirts to pink wigs to no wig at all.
"For our patients it is very, very important to show the world that even though they have cancer, they are fighters," says Perez, co-director for the Memorial Regional Hospital Breast Cancer Center in Hollywood, Fla.
Her patient Suzie Silverman says that is the message she wants to convey when she wears her 'cancer sucks' tank top. She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2006 that had spread to her liver and bones. She has weekly chemo treatments.
"You are giving affirmation to the fact that it does suck, and it's OK to suck but nonetheless you can look good and feel good," says Silverman, 38, mother of two. "It's my goal for people not to look at me and cry. Look at me and see that I am doing all the things you need to do to have a life."
Feeling good can look good
"Medical fashion accessories" can actually look good, too.
Lorry Gregory wasn't too thrilled with the canes she found when a fall a decade ago triggered a case of arthritis. So the former tennis pro and part-time Naples resident began making and selling her own canes.
Gregory has bedecked canes with butterflies, cows, pigs, footballs and feathers. She has holiday-themed canes, such as red, white and blue with stars and flags for the Fourth of July and red, green and gold with Santa Claus figures for Christmas. She even has a cane with toy money and dice for Las Vegas. People can order custom canes as well, she says.
Stylish bracelets, necklaces and a watch from CreativeMedicalID.com changed Renee Rhoades attitude about having to wear a medical ID bracelet. She was worried about being branded as a sick person.
"I feel like a diva when I wear them," says Rhoades, who lives in Richmond and has diabetes. "I went from feeling self-conscious about being tagged with something for the rest of my life to 'So, what bracelet do I get to wear today?'"
There are dozens of fashionable medical ID bracelets; 14K gold-filled with sterling silver beads, braided leather with sterling silver clasps, sterling silver watches with Bali beads. The actual Medical ID Tag is stainless steel and goes on the inside of the wrist. The tags can be engraved with any medical condition, whether it's diabetes or peanut allergy.
For children, the bracelets are a self-esteem booster, says Denise Gaskill, co-founder of Lauren's Hope, which sells fashionable medical ID bracelets.
"A lot of the other kids will say, 'what a pretty bracelet' instead of 'what's wrong with you?' she says.
Fighting a good fight
Some diseases, such as sexually transmitted ones, still remain deeply personal.
But a positive attitude, whether private or public, can go a long way in dealing with illness, oncologist Perez says.
That's what got Taylor Dettore, 17, through 18 months of chemo at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. She did things like paint her head and draw a smile on her distended belly.
"I wanted to have fun with it, and I wanted to make other children laugh, and say that you can have a good time even if you are going through a bad one," she says.
Silverman says her cancer gear shows her resolve to fight.
"I could crawl into my bed and put the covers over my head and die," she says. "Or I could live. I need to live."
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