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Last October, I was sitting in my dorm room when intense stabs of pain suddenly lit my stomach like a camera flash. My stomach pounded while I called an ambulance. When the firemen arrived, I could barely get out of bed without collapsing and quickly vomited. After several ER visits and a hospital stay, I was diagnosed with Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome (SMA), an ultra-rare condition that causes semi-permanent, semi-constant stomach obstruction.

My initial reaction was grief. I was always an ambitious college student, having led two clubs while I worked three jobs. With chronic pain, I could no longer run around campus with ease. Even worse, my illness seemed to scare my peers. I felt so alone.

Fashion was another challenge due to my symptoms. After I ate, my stomach bloated to the size of a beach ball, hard and distended, so finding appropriate outfits was difficult. Skirts that were loose before breakfast barely fit after lunch. Shortly after my diagnosis, I stopped wearing the clothing that I loved. I stuck to the same few outfits on rotation and covered my stomach with a gigantic black puffer coat.

After class one day, a professor cornered me and said I looked like I was still “wearing my sick day pajamas.” This comment, while deeply hurtful, made me realize that I was sacrificing my confidence in exchange for hiding my body. 

Since then, I’ve learned how to style outfits that make me feel strong; outfits that don’t shy away from my body’s imperfections and story. Most importantly, I learned how to dress in a way that protects my body from pain while honoring its new needs. Getting dressed in the morning is now an opportunity for me to thrive: I can manifest a good day by donning a striking outfit. 

First, I start with color. What shade makes you feel the most you? Personally, I love shades that shock. At thrift stores, I find vibrant fuschia princess skirts, garishly green slip dresses, and hot yellow blouses. 

Next, I look for texture. I love bubble quilting, ruffles, and glitter. Not only do these different mediums produce a more interesting outfit, but they also accommodate my stomach’s constant expansion and deflation. 

Finally, I add jewelry. On my worst days, I am prone to throwing on a clunky, box-shaped dress and calling it good. Even when I can’t tolerate a fashionable outfit, I can at least wear a pair of cat-shaped earrings or a vintage cameo necklace. For me, accessories allow me to create accessible outfits that still carry a cute flair when I am experiencing my worst symptoms. 

Of course, there are still days when the pain feels overwhelming, and no amount of colorful clothing can completely erase that reality. But by choosing to dress in a way that prioritizes joy, I’ve found a powerful tool for navigating the ups and downs of living with chronic pain. When I can’t feel better physically, being confident in my aesthetic makes me feel better mentally. Even more, fashion helps me assert agency: I am not an ill person, I am a person with an illness. I have dignity, even when my body doesn’t afford it.

When you find yourself facing a challenge, I encourage you to consider the role that clothing can play in shaping your mindset. Whether it’s a cozy sweater, a bold accessory, or a splash of color, let your fashion remind you of your inner strength. Sometimes the smallest changes in our outward lives can have the biggest impact on our inner world.



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