Thursday 30 March 2017

Metamorphosis: Marketing Medical Compression as Fashionable and Transforming the Narrative around Disability and Illness.

[Image: Nine photos 3x3 showing me wearing a variety of colourful compression stockings in a variety locations. The photos are all from the last year and reflect my changing hair colour from green to purple to pink. I am seated, in my wheelchair and standing with my walking stick.]

Note: The Juzo, Mediven, and Sue websites I've linked are not in English. Each page should give you a translation option, otherwise there is a translation icon that should pop up in the right side of the URL bar.


Recently, the promotional video for the new season trend colours, was released by the German arm of compressionwear company, Juzo.

I sat watching with a huge grin on my face. Not only were the colours fabulous (Happy Red is a personal favourite), but the promotional video and the behind the scenes short film both framed medical grade compression in an energised, stylish, more inclusive and fashionable manner, not unlike what you would see for any fashion brand. A rarity in a market that sees clinical practicality as it's primary driving force.

This is not the first time I have been struck by Juzo's attempt to merge fashion into the medical grade compression world. In 2015 they released a similar video for their Urban Jungle range (below is the behind the scenes video for the range).

(The 2015 campaign sent me in search of their products. And the bright Kings Cross Yellow in particular became a favourite that I frequently wear.)

Both videos have moved medical grade compression stockings from the clinical, sterile, medical domain to a fun, stylish and normalised aspect of life. There is also a move away from a product primarily aimed at an elderly market (mind you 43 or 73 I want a bit of wow in my compression stockings) or a practical work component (eg nurses often wear compression stockings as they are on their feet all day).

Juzo are not the only company to actively seek to reposition their compression stockings away from a purely medical product to a fashionable product. Mediven showcased their Elegance range at Berlin Fashion Week 2016 (read more here). I love their write up and the photos showing how integrating medical grade compression and stylish fashion can be effortless and looks fantastic.

Both the Juzo and Mediven campaigns are exciting. They mark a distinct move in the market: where fashion has become an important part of design. This is a move that those of us who purchase these products have been seeking for a long time. It also represents a realisation that real people are wearing their products and that fashion matters to those wearers. This is a distinct move from a traditional medical products market that has historically designed for, and targeted, large organisations who's purchasing guidelines are based on practicality and fiscal responsibility.

The disability and illness communities have their own purchasing powers and no longer rely exclusively on organisations to provide them with products such as these. The proliferation of online shopping means that we are no longer beholden to the dictates of the medical system where we are told what is on offer and what we will receive. In a sense the middle man is removed from the equation and some companies are recognising that they need to market to the individual user. Though cost continues to be a limiting factor for many on low incomes and for those of us living in the Southern Hemisphere where postage and a poor $AU can create an added level of financial burden. Options to decrease costs and source sales are available but it can be time consuming.

They also change the narrative around a product that is often associated with a negative representation of increasing age or illness. A necessary evil that many must purchase, but hate due to the illness they represent, and a previous lack of attention to their aesthetic value that firmly places them into a hospital or medical model.

In reality, compression stockings increase functionality. As a long term user for me they represent an increase in endurance and a reduction in pain and swelling. They help to reduce my symptoms and in so allow me to do more. They add to my overall level of functioning and in turn aid me in getting the most out of life. And with these new ranges they can also be integrated into my personal style. A win on many levels.

Out the front of our local where we tend to always go for date night. You can see the stockings better in this one. They are @sigvaris (although @Jobst) do a similar pair). It can be hard to style #compressionstockings in Summer or it you're going out but it is possible. I wear them with shorts and dresses all the time. I don't pretend to have any fashion styling prowess, I simply wear what works for me, but if you are confident and forget they are a medical product it is possible. Especially with all the fashion options avaliable these days (check out my blog for links and reviews). * * I also take inspiration from fashion bloggers I love like @ladymelbourne who made me really think about personal style and confidence to take a chance and embrace what I really love. Or wheelchair and diasbled fashionistas like @itslololove and @cur8able (the idea of lengthening limbs when sitting by simple tricks like pushing up sleeves on a jacket are gold). And I broke out my high heels again in part thanks to @angelarockwood_official. There are so many amazing disabled and chronically ill fashionistas to take inspiration from. And it is possible to tweak current looks to be disabled friendly with a little thinking outside the box. * * I really wish we could see a more visible disabled presence on runways here in Australia. I wish we could see disabled fashion presented like you would any other (@IZadaptive did a great campaign this year but are sadly closing). The importance of that visible presence can't be underestimated for disabled and able-bodied alike. * * Fashion is for everyone and should be accessible for everyone. Across a whole host of styles for people who like fashion as a medium of self expression (gosh I love @viktoriamodesta avant-garde looks) or simply want to frock up on occasion. We aren't a niche. We are consumers with cash who want to wear fashionable clothes. #dysautonomia #chronicillness #disability #fashion #frockingup #fashionblogger #ootd #wiwt #everydaystyle #40plusstyle #wheelchair #wheelchairstyle #wheelchairfashion #disabledfashion #disabledstyle #streetstyle #ruraldisability #ruralstyle #ruralfashion #Australia #gippsland #upanddressed
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Fashion can increase usage rates.

Like many Dysautonomia patients I wear medical grade compression stockings every day. Prior to any pharmacological intervention they form an important component of first line treatment, alongside increased salt intake, increased fluids and a graded exercise program. We know that peripheral vascular flow is frequently impaired, as seen with visible blood pooling and swelling in lower limbs, and that this is part of a systemic process that contributes to many of the symptoms patients experience.*  However, the implementation and continuation of this management technique is often low.

Compression stockings are notoriously difficult to don and remove even with the various techniques and devices offered. They are also hot, a significant problem when you have a disorder in which thermoregulatory control is often impaired.

But by far the biggest complaint regarding medical grade compression stockings is related to how they look. 

Despite doctors frequently prescribing compression stockings to treat issues such as poor venous return or oedema there continues to be a lack of knowledge about fashionable options. Patients may be given a pair of  white TED stockings during a hospital stay, or head to their local chemist and find information about black, white, beige and perhaps navy. But any discussion of fashion tends to be confined to lamenting it's lack in the compressionwear market.

I have been writing about my search for fashionable compression stockings since 2012. At that time I was stuck in the compression purgatory that many patients face. I was given a scribbled prescription from my cardiologist with little to no information. I was to seek out a pair of 20-30mmHg waist high compression stockings. There was no information on brands or where I could source them beyond a vague "ask at the chemist." At my chemist I was met with confusion. Why would a then 33-year-old woman be asking about compression stockings? Were they for my grandmother?  I was shown a catalogue of limited styles and ended up with two pairs of very uncomfortable waist high, very practical, black compression stockings. It was a step up from the beige I had been offered originally but depressing all the same. Then in 2012 I found my first pair of coloured compression stockings and a new world opened up.

Since that time I have shared every fashionable option I have found with readers here on the blog, in support groups and on Instagram. It is like a new world opened up. Whilst always a practical medical item at their core, it became apparent that they could be matched to personal style. No longer were they something to be worn with spite and loathing. Instead there was a transformation and a normalisation of a medical product. A way to take back some control of my life from the relentless medical need. And I like many others wore their stockings with increased regularity and in turn increased functioning. (I feel a little like I should we lived happily ever after at this point!)

Where is the Disability Representation?

The Juzo video features a range of models, including a variety of body types, ages and sexes (although, unlike their 2015 campaign, only white models are used in 2017). I applaud their move towards diversity, something rarely found in the compression stocking advertising, however disability again is missing from the mix. This seems a surprising omission in what is at it's core a medical product. A quick scan of social media platforms such as Instagram, reveal a large population of disabled fashion lovers. The incredible work of Alleles prosthetic covers, the beautiful bespoke pieces created by The Alternative Limb Project, the increase in accessible fashion brands such as Bezgraniz Couture or Sue flourish thanks to a huge fashion loving disabled market seeking more fashionable options.

Disability representation for a product like medical compression should be part of any advertising campaign. And while the overall feel of this new wave of campaigns is very positive the neglect of a key group in the market is disappointing. I am cognisant that some of the models in these campaigns may have an invisible disability, I know prior to my need for mobility aides I looked very healthy despite my underlying medical issues, but the importance of visibly disabled models in campaigns such as these cannot be underestimated. Visibility changes how society feels about disability. Visibility changes how we feel about ourselves. I both love these campaigns and fully embrace the change in narrative surrounding a product with what could only be described as a PR problem, but I am disappointed that a disabled model is not part of the mix.

Advertising is often framed in terms of aspiration, in the case of the Juzo and Mediven videos a fun, stylish and energised life. Surely we as one of the largest user groups of these products, we should be included in this aspirational narrative. I know that many disabled fashionistas are living fun, stylish and energised lives, our inclusion seems obvious. While at a grass roots level we are gaining momentum in changing how we are viewed by choosing how we are representing ourselves, it would be nice for brands to come on board and follow our lead.

Where to from here?

Companies such as Juzo and Mediven are slowly changing the narrative around compression stockings. However, awareness and availability of fashionable compression stockings desperately needs to increase.

Even with fashionable products available in the market, their lack of visibility and availability, means that the more traditional and basic options continue to dominate and tend to be the only styles offered to new patients. We are stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy where by patients don't request fashionable items because they don't know they exist and the gate keepers of these products don't stock them. And the gate keepers say that they don't stock them because no one is requesting them.

Whilst, medical professionals continue to prescribe compression stockings for a range of issues they are rarely aware of fashionable options and they have no idea that they can be integrated into our personal styles.

It is clear that a wider advertising campaign needs to occur. At present, information about fashionable options are shared patient to patient, on blogs such as this or other forms of social media such as Instagram, or on forums. This informal advertising whilst fabulous, is still haphazard and reliant on luck and at least one patient who spends her nights working her way through Google looking for new fashionable options and tries her hand at styling them. I'd love to see compression brands on more runways and in mainstream fashion advertising. Or taking tips from sporting compression companies such as Skins or 2XU who have moved from elite sporting environment to become household names and found in gyms and sporting fields all around the world.

And I would love to see disabled models featured in their campaigns. 

Like many in my position I spend enough time in the medical system and I have no desire to wear a piece of cold, clinical hospital every day.

What I do want is something that meets my practical needs but can also be incorporated into my personal style. I am happy to flaunt my bright yellow, or red, or green, or blue, or patterned legs all year round. To wear them with shorts or dresses. To get on with this business of living knowing that I can be both practical and fabulous.

Reframing a traditional medical product in the new wave of campaigns helps to change how we think about those that wear them. It helps to change how we feel about ourselves. So much of my life and the lives of those around me are dominated by medical needs. Reframing how we think about and relate to items like compression stockings helps to remove stigma and improves how users feel about themselves. Incorporating fashion into practical medical products is a simple way to change these attitudes. And a definite selling point.

Fashion, medical practicality and disability can coexist. Time for more companies to come on board.


*There is also evidence of abdominal blood pooling, in particular in Neurocardiogenic Syncope (NCS), and abdominal binders/compression are now often recommended alongside waist high compression stockings.

Some more resources here on the blog:

Compression Stockings: From Beige to Brilliant 

Fashionable Compression Stockings 2016 Update: Options and Tips.

Rejuvahealth Review.

Allegro, Microfibre 20-30mmHg Black Thigh High Compression Stocking Review

LympheDiva Gauntlet Review.

Fashion blogging is not for the faint of heart

Goldfrapp's Happiness seems an appropriate musical accompaniment as fashionable compression stockings makes me very happy.

Wednesday 15 March 2017

Yes, Disabled People Wear Lingerie.

[Image: black and white photo of a walkingstick in a window with a bra handing from the handle. And because it didn't occur to me to dust, there is a scattering of dead black insects and some cobwebs on the white windowsill.]

Last year I rolled into a lingerie store to check out a rather fabulous emerald green bra and undie set that had caught my eye in their display window. I rolled around the tightly packed store grazing racks of g-strings and t-shirt bras until the inevitable happened. On the back of Lucille (my electric wheelchair) are a set of handles that allow another person to push the chair if I run out of batteries or become too incapacitated to manage my joystick. I forget they exist 99% of the time. They are behind me and I am highly unobservant even on my good days. The 1% of times are times like that day when, dazzled by the wall of lace and satin, I had deviated 1° off my safe path and caught a rack of lace teddies on a handle. I promptly pulled the entire rack of teddies to the floor. I stopped mortified as the loud clatter of plastic hangers dwindled into silence. Looked back to find a pile of plastic and lace on the floor and a single sad white teddy hanging haphazardly off one of my handles. I waited for assistance.

And waited.
And waited.

The attendant didn't even look at me and I was faced with a set of tight, black clad shoulders that either belonged to the ghost of a past store attendant, or, she clearly had no intention of turning around. Embarrassed and leaning precariously from my chair, I tried to pick up the pile. When it became clear my attempts were going to end in a possible worsening situation, that of an uncoordinated disabled woman plummeting from her chair to take out an even larger display of lace and satin, I leaned back. I twisted. Grabbed the lone teddy from my handle. Hung it back up on the chrome display pole. And rolled out. When I looked back the attendant was clearly relieved I was gone.

At no point from when I rolled in to when I left did she make eye-contact. She saw me enter, turned her back and continued to speak to the only other woman in the store. I felt like I was back in high school when the cool girls would deliberately ignore my decidedly uncool self. The classic exclusionary tactic employed by teenage girls throughout history: turn your back and continue to talk like the uncool girl never entered the room and doesn't even exist.

It was clear that I was not welcome. 
A disabled woman in a lingerie store? 
No thanks.
Too difficult.
Too ick.
Too "why would a disabled woman even want lingerie?"

I know I'm not alone in this experience and have had multiple conversations with  disabled friends who have felt excluded or discriminated in lingerie stores. People have difficulty with the concept of disability, and in turn interacting with disabled people. But the combination of disability and sexuality makes people profoundly uncomfortable. However that sexuality is expressed, from purchasing lingerie to dating, exploring sexual identities, or participation in different lifestyles, it quickly becomes clear that society doesn't want that connection to exist. (There was a massive blow up on a popular disability site a few years ago when a sex positive story about a disabled adult attending a completely legal sex party in Canada was published. The gentleman in question found it a celebratory, inclusive and empowering event. Responses were clearly split between those who did and didn't have lived experience of disability. Disabled commenters were predominantly happy for him. However, many parents of disabled children, carers, and adults without lived experience of disability were horrified even threatening to report the event and the group to authorities. Similar responses also occur when there is mention of the use of sex workers to aid disabled people in exploring their sexuality.)

Disabled people are seen as asexual by many. Or undesirable. Or as frequently comes up in comment boards when disability and sexuality are discussed, special snowflakes, or forever children who should not be sullied by icky notions like sexuality. Many simply go straight for the "how could a disabled person possibly consent to sex or any expression of sexuality?" That there are different types of disability, that we could consent, or be taught about bodily autonomy, choice or safe sex practices doesn't even enter the public conscience. That sex is a part of the human condition and should be considered a human right for non-disabled and disabled people alike is rarely discussed. We are not supposed to be confident or feel attractive. We are not supposed to own our own experience. We are to inhabit the realms of pity or inspiration and never dare to mention that our wants and needs are strikingly similar to those who are not disabled. And the idea that we might simply want to wear some hot lingerie that makes us feel confident, for ourselves, not anyone else, isn't even in consideration. The woman in the lingerie store let me know that I wasn't welcome. And she definitely didn't see me as a potential customer.

Pfft to you rude woman! I'll spend my dollars elsewhere.

Yesterday, NZ company Lonely Lingerie's new campaign came to light. It stars 57-year-old Mercy Brewer. The photographs show a confident older woman wearing some fabulous sexy lingerie. Stylistically the photographs and the lingerie are no different to what you'd see in a campaign with a younger model. This is not the conservative, stodgy, lingerie we are routinely shown in advertising directed at older women. It is unashamedly sexy. And it is fabulous. It defies so much of the narrative around older women. Women in Mercy's demographic tend to be framed as mothers or grandmothers, and advertising and society tells us there is only one acceptable form of mother/grandmother. I can't help think of Madonna wearing a revealing outfit at the Met Gala last year which was met with cries reminiscent of Maude Flanders "won't somebody please think of the children!" As if motherhood or grandmotherhood, or age, (or disability) automatically wipe away a woman's sexuality and self-expression. As a purple-haired, side-shaved, mini-wearing, 43-year-old, disabled woman and mum of two son's, I call BS on that.

[Image: An older woman leans against a wallpapered wall wearing a black bra. The entire photo is in sepia tones. Text below says "Aging can bring a quiet confidence unknown in youth, what use is beauty without confidence to recognize yourself?" -Mercy Brewer #LonelyLingerie]

I read a piece discussing the Lonely Lingerie campaign that stated that age was the final frontier of lingerie advertising. I would have to disagree and say that disability continues to be the final frontier as we so hard pressed to find any disabled women, or men, in lingerie campaigns. And an older disabled woman? I swear I belong to a group of mythical women dwelling in a land that time and advertisers forgot. I met a woman just like me at a concert recently. She had no idea that other older, less conventional, disabled women in wheelchairs existed. We bonded on shared experience and anger that we are never represented in advertising, or media, or life.

While the lack of disabled women in advertising is clear, it is equally apparent that even the concept of such a thing as diverse women's bodies remains controversial (that mythical land of diverse women is pretty bloody full! And only a few hardy adventurers/advertises seem willing to go searching for those far lands.). There is a particular part of society that is vehemently opposed to diverse women who are comfortable and confident living in a body that much of society and the majority of advertising would prefer be hidden away. Add in any hint of sexuality for those who have a different body type from the dominant advertising norm, and people become even more uncomfortable and frequently vicious.

Today I watched as US company Livi Rae Lingerie's was told that their images of diverse body types, including a disabled woman in a wheelchair were in "poor taste" and should be removed. The images show confident women speaking for and about themselves. These women, like the Lonely Lingerie campaign, defy the standard lingerie images we see that use young, thin, white women/teenagers. When this was revealed, an online campaign developed #NoShameLiviRae, and following the overwhelming publicity and backlash, the decision was reversed. How they were in anyway offensive boggles the mind. Stylistically these photos are definitely more on the conservative side of the ledger, especially when compared to the Lonely Lingerie campaign. And still someone got their knickers in a knot (all puns intended).

Won't somebody think of the children!

[Image: A smiling woman sits in her wheelchair wearing a beige strapless bra and white half petticoat. Caption says: Real Women. "I want to be an example MS or not. People can do what they set their mind to. I always felt the desire to encourage anyone, at any age to never give up and to believe that they are amazing and perfect just the way they are. Even a girl in a wheelchair can be influential" -Stacey Shartley LiviRae Lingerie Ambassador. Livi Rae Lingerie #RealBrasRealWomenRealStories #LiviRaeLingerie]
(Source: Livi Rae Lingerie Facebook Page)

These two campaigns are very different. But in both cases the women are confident. They are from groups who are not regularly seen in lingerie campaigns. They are expressing themselves. And owning their lives and their experience. For themselves and not for anyone else. And that makes many people uncomfortable.

Personally, I love the Lonely Lingerie campaign, and think the company could do great things for disabled representation in the lingerie market.

I want to see a disabled women shown as a confident sexual being.
I want to see what lingerie may look on a body similar to mine.
I want to see her unapologetically owning space and her image.
I want to see her giving a big F U to the naysayers. 

As an older disabled woman, simply seeing an older woman portrayed in this manner made my heart sing. If I were to see an older disabled woman portrayed in this manner I may break out in song and my best jazz hands and spirit fingers.

Diversity in advertising makes financial sense. If companies can't make the move because it is the right thing to do. Then surely attracting a wider market that will increase your profits is attractive.

Diversity in advertising is a powerful tool in changing the way we think about difference in our society.

Diversity in advertising is also powerful for those who are part of those diverse communities. It says I'm here. I'm not alone. I'm part of the community. And I have value just as I am.

I'll never go back to the lingerie store where I was ignored. But I do want to buy lingerie that makes me feel confident.

And I want to buy my lingerie from a company that sees me.


Sing it JT!