how this tss survivor and amputee model is redefining beauty
In 2012, Californian model Lauren Wasser lost half of her right leg after contracting Toxic Shock Syndrome. Today, she’s using her experience to inspire other women and take on the tampon industry.
Photography Jennifer Rovero
"I always felt perfect," says Lauren Wasser of her body growing up. Wasser's mum had been a model for over 20 years - "in the 90s, with Stephanie Seymour and Cindy Crawford and all those girls" - and Lauren effortlessly followed suit. As a child she travelled with her mum to shoots in Paris, Milan, London and New York. Her first editorial was photographed by Patrick Demarchelier; she's two months old, crying and oblivious at the edge of the frame. When Lauren began to pursue modelling professionally, it seemed like less of a decision and more of an inevitability. Even her dad had been a model.
Then in 2012, Lauren's body changed overnight. On October 3, she went to bed at her home in Los Angeles feeling like she might be coming down with flu. She was on her period and wearing a tampon, but she didn't think that this had anything to do with her symptoms - because why would you? After feeding her dog and calling her mom, Lauren remembers nothing else until waking up in a hospital bed days later with no idea where she was or what was happening. It was a feeling of total alienation, she says.
As doctors soon figured out after Lauren's admission, Lauren had contracted Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) - a bacterial disease - allegedly from her tampon. By the time she made it to the hospital she was ten minutes from death, Lauren told VICE, and she was put into a medically induced coma. In the following hours and days, her infection turned into gangrene. Her right leg was amputated below the knee and while she fought to keep her left foot, she lost her toes and her heel is still severely damaged. With no warning, and in the most unexpected way, her body and her future now seemed like they were no longer hers.
Lauren's girlfriend, Jennifer Rovero, is a photographer and she recently started taking the first images of Lauren, now 27, that show her leg - she's pictured sitting in the bath and standing outside her home in shorts. Jennifer calls it "phototherapy," and for Lauren, it's a new way of coming to terms with what has happened to her body. But it's also part of her campaign to raise awareness of TSS, a disease that is discussed - if at all, and certainly not by tampon manufacturers - as only the vaguest kind of mythical threat. Three years after emerging from her coma, Lauren has decided to use her platform to take on the tampon industry (she's suing the company who made the tampon she used), but also to inspire other amputees to be comfortable in their bodies.
Lauren spoke to i-D over the phone from California, about breaking down taboos and empowering women.
Did you have a good relationship with your body growing up? How did modelling affect that?
Modelling was always kind of just there. Both my parents were models. I would go to the agencies and they'd encourage me to start modelling. But I was also an athlete and I worked really hard on my body. I was always playing basketball, riding my bike, staying fit.
How did your relationship to your body change in 2012?
When I woke up from the coma, I was 200 pounds. They pumped me full of 80 pounds of fluids to get rid of all the toxins from my body. So I woke up and I already felt completely different. I didn't even recognise myself. I couldn't see my legs, my vagina, nothing. Before that, I weighed maybe 120 pounds. Waking up and all of a sudden being 200 pounds, it was shocking. And I also lost my hair - in the middle of everyone trying to save my life, it became so matted they had to shave my head. I lost my whole identity so fast. I still don't think I can even comprehend how intense the whole situation has been. And it's ongoing. I'm constantly in pain and it's a battle.
Have you been able to start playing sports again?
I've reached a point where I have to just deal with the pain. But I'm a tough girl. I don't want people to pity me. I've actually tried to make sure that I don't walk with a limp. I tried to hide [my leg] for so long and no one could really tell unless I showed them. I started riding my bike and I was coaching a basketball team. Even though I can't be playing, I'm still trying to be a part of it.
But now you're not trying to hide your body any more?
No. When I took those pictures with Jen, she said, "You need to show it, you need to be proud of it." And I was so ashamed. I think I needed to grow with it, let my brain wrap around it: that this is my new life and it's not going to change. I was wearing sweats and hoodies in 100-degree weather when we first started dating. And finally I realised, "If I'm going to share my story with the world, I have to be ok with myself and be proud of who I've become." So seeing Jen's pictures was a real moment. I look at them and I'm now able to say, "I'm still beautiful, I can still model."
How have other people reacted now that you're being more open?
The amount of support and love I'm getting is amazing. It makes me feel I'm ok with who I am. On Facebook, I'm hearing from young girls, older women, women who've lost their daughters, and they're saying thank you for starting this discussion and informing people. This is not just about me. It's about the women who have been forgotten who didn't have the voice that I have.
Periods are still a pretty taboo subject - is that part of the problem with the lack of awareness surrounding TSS?
I think tampon companies have been able to make women feel bad about even being a woman, making us feel gross and embarrassed about discussing it. It's this door that needs to be opened. And I'm proud and happy that we've done that.
What's your plan for continuing that discussion?
I want to keep working to raise awareness. I'm going to Washington with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney in the fall. Her bill [to study the health effects of menstrual hygiene products] has been rejected nine times by Congress but hopefully with all this buzz, we can make a change and it won't be overlooked again. This has gone on far too long and we as women have rights.
What made you want to finally start speaking out this year?
I've been through so much pain, and I've had to grow. This isn't about being a model and having had TSS, it's about being an amputee and accepting my new life. I don't have the luxury of just waking up in the morning and hopping into the shower, or running on the beach. And becoming an amputee and knowing that other people deal with this all the time, I want to help make them feel that it's ok. We had a young girl contact us who hadn't shown her leg to anyone and just hearing my story inspired her to share that with us. This is about being able to influence and inspire other people.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Jennifer Rovero