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Bethany Townsend talks about stunning bikini photo with colostomy bags, Crohn’s

"I won’t let the Crohn’s control me anymore.”
Bethany Townsend via Crohn’s and Colitis UK Facebook

Bethany Townsend is a 23-year-old model who has to wear colostomy bags due to Crohn’s disease. “When I first had the bags fitted I was devastated,” says Bethany Townsend about the moment when she woke up in the hospital after a life-saving operation but wearing colostomy bags. As reported by Australia’s News.com on July 3, Bethany, who is a model and makeup artist from Worcester in the UK, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at the age of three.

Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory disease of the digestive tract that affects a person’s ability to digest food, to absorb nutrients, and to eliminate waste. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, diarrhea, sometimes bloody diarrhea, and weight loss. While some sufferers can try to manage the illness with a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, a meticulous diet, and medication, others – like Bethany – are left with no choice but to wear colostomy bags. There is no cure for Crohn's disease.

“Growing up I’d had various surgeries to try and combat the Crohn’s,” says Bethany about her battle with the disease. “I’d go in and have sections of my intestine cut out, but I’d only be in remission for a couple of weeks before it came back again.”

In 2010, Bethany almost died after her bowel ruptured. During her life-saving operation, the damaged part of her intestine was removed, and the healthy part was brought out as a stoma. Like for most people, Bethany had many misunderstandings about living a life with colostomy bags. No, people do not walk around with feces in their colostomy bags. According to the Johns Hopkins Colostomy Medicine website, a colostomy can be performed in one of four parts of the colon (ascending, transverse, descending, or sigmoid). Depending on the location of the colostomy, the pouches or bags are worn in different places. Just like a regular person’s colon, the pouches or bags are emptied as needed, but “no more than once a day.“

Bethany Townsend remembers well the day that might have been her last. “Four years ago I woke up in the morning and couldn’t move because I was in so much agony. I had to break a glass on the floor to alert my mum who called on ambulance. When the paramedics came they lifted up my top to see that my surgery scar had split open. I was rushed to intensive care where they doctors told me family I would need more surgery as my intestines had become infected and inflamed again. I had no idea when I woke up that I would have the bags.”

“When I first woke up and my mum told me about them I was just relieved as I’d thought I was going to die. When I came out of hospital and everything finally sunk in, I remember going upstairs into my bedroom and just bursting into tears. I’d known a colostomy bag might have been an option but it was always something that I had wanted to avoid."

Living with Crohn’s disease and colostomy bags on a daily basis became part of Bethany’s life over the course of time. But how would a man react to them? When Townsend met her husband Ian, she says that she showed him the bags right away. “But he didn’t bat an eye lid — I actually felt like I was overreacting,” she said. “He taught me that there was more to me than the bags and would always encourage me to show off my figure.”

When Bethany and 33-year-old Ian went to Mexico last Christmas, she learned that her husband was right. “I wasn’t sure but in Mexico I finally realised he was right, and decided to wear my bikini.”

“At first I was nervous and worried that people would stare but it was fine. The staff at the hotel asked me about the bags on the last day of the holiday, but rather than being offended I was glad because it meant I could talk to them about Crohn’s and tell them what it is.”

Encouraged by her husband and supporting observers, Bethany returned to her passion – modeling. The first photo of her wearing a bikini and colostomy bags appeared in public after the 23-year-old shared it with the Crohn’s and Colitis UK Facebook group. The photo has now been viewed by more than nine million people. “I feel confident enough now to put myself out there and pursue modelling again,” she says. “I’m looking forward to chasing my goals, and I know now that nothing can hold me back. I won’t let the Crohn’s control me anymore.”

As evident by the comments on the Facebook page, Bethany Townsend’s bikini photo with colostomy bags is raising awareness for Crohn’s disease -- and it is inspiring many others to share their colostomy stories. “I've had a colostomy bag on/off since the age of 17 I'm soon to be 25! I was conscious about taking my top off but then I saw people on beaches and places all shapes and sizes with there bellies on show so I thought why not! People will stare but then it's something not usually seen so they're only curious like any other person! I now holiday and even here in uk go around with my top off! Can't be having a white belly! More awareness needed!”

“I've got crohns and an ileostomy, hasn't stop me! Climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last year and walked 29miles for charity this year. Love my ileostomy, and I can now change a bag at 18,000 feet in sub zero temps in the dark with a head torch on lol!”