Ostomy bags aren't something you see or hear about much, if ever. But earlier this summer, not one, but two models exposed their bags to the world. Their hope is to raise awareness of how a little-known surgery is helping people facing all kinds of medical conditions live normal, productive lives.
A newly formed group of women is spreading that same message in Baltimore. They call themselves the Osto Beauties. Each has an ostomy for different reasons, but have come together to support one another and inspire others who are also living with ostomies.
At first glance, they look like four girlfriends, just catching up on life. And they are. But these four ladies also share a secret. Just by looking at them, you could never tell.
"I have a colostomy and a urostomy," said Jearlean Taylor.
"I ended up having a permanent colostomy," said Shontee McMillan.
"What I have is called an ileostomy," said Danielle Dodson.
"I ended up with my permanent colostomy," said Trina Issac.
They're all forms of ostomy surgery, where an opening is created from the inside of the body to the outside to allow waste to leave the body. The waste is collected inside ostomy bags.
Jearlean Taylor has had her two ostomies the longest, from the age of three. They were the result of multiple surgeries and treatments for a rare form of cancer.
"I was ashamed," Taylor said. "Even though you can't physically see them, but I know they're there, and I'm like, 'Can people see them? Can they notice them through my clothes?' I was ashamed. I hid it for a long, long time."
As an adult, Taylor learned to accept her condition through a mentor who encouraged her to start writing her feelings in a journal. The journal eventually became the basis for her self-published autobiography, "Pretty Girl Blues."
"I discovered by telling my story, you inspire the next person," she said. "It's like each one, reach one."
That's exactly what Taylor did. She eventually connected with each of the three other ladies who now form the Osto Beauties. Their goal is to take the taboo out of ostomies and the estimated 700,000 Americans living with them. When they get together, no topic is off limits.
"We talk about all kinds of things," McMillan said. "Life in general. But I can talk to them about things that I've eaten, or you know, dealing with relationships."
"We joke around about having a lot of first dates, because you don't even know how you're going to deal with telling somebody new," Dodson said.
Facing ulcerative colitis at the age of 27, Dodson had her ostomy surgery 24 years ago. It would take her nearly two decades to meet a young, vibrant woman like herself with an ostomy.
"I did go to support groups, but they were older people," she said. "I was like, 'I can't do this.'"
"This was 1990. I didn't know anyone that had an ostomy," she added. "I had no idea how I was going to disguise this thing."
On the flip side, Shontee McMillan has only had her ostomy for a little under two years. It was required after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. She had the most difficult time of all accepting it.
"For many people who have ostomies, the first thing they will tell you is that it saved my life," she said. "I felt like it was a curse. Ultimately, it did save my life. I just had to change my perspective."
McMillan said meeting Taylor helped pull her out of a very dark period in her life.
"I needed to see someone who looked like me, who dressed like me, so I can see it is okay," she said.
Completing the quartet is Trina Issac. The stage four colorectal cancer survivor and mom of one is still undergoing treatment. She had her ostomy surgery in November, and while recovering in the hospital, she connected with Taylor.
"I was clearly in no position to help myself understand this," Issac said. "I needed someone else to walk me through it and Jearlean, she was that shining light for me."
Now, their collective goal as the Osto Beauties is to be a shining light for others. The women visit hospitals, attend community events and reach out to people online with the message that having an ostomy is an adjustment, but it shouldn't stop you from living life. For Taylor, that meant pursuing a lifelong dream to be a fashion model. At 46, she continues to model.
"With two ostomy bags and people are like, 'How do you do it?' But when you have a passion for something and you come to the realization that your sickness doesn't stop you from doing what you want to do, you just know that people are inspired by that," she said.
Issac calls it living life on purpose.
"I know that I'm walking in my purpose and that's why I'm here with the Osto Beauties to let other people know that you can live with cancer," she said. "Sometimes you have to make the decision to live and I think that for me, that's what I did. I decided that I was going
To learn more about the Osto Beauties and their mission, visit their website here .