Photography: Jennifer Rovero
New Yorkers and fashion industry elite were first introduced to Lauren Wasser on the Chromat runway in February 2016. With her sleek blonde hair and deep blue eyes (not to mention her 5’11” figure), the then 27-year-old had been modeling for years, and was a perfect fit on the Fashion Week catwalk – with one striking difference: she walked not in sky-high heels, but with a gold prosthetic leg from an amputation resulting from an almost lethal case of toxic shock in 2012.
Since then, the Los Angeles-based Wasser has been an outspoken opponent of tampon companies and a fierce advocate for body positivity and survivors of TSS. But it wasn’t always so easy. Used to being in front of the camera, Lauren vividly recalled the moment she woke up from surgery, realizing she’d lost her leg, in a video with StyleLikeU.
“Immediately I woke up from the amputation and I felt every single thing that happened for 24 hours,” she said. “[…]I was miserable. I hated everyone. I hated everything. I hated myself.”
That’s when she began – slowly – the process of healing. With the help of her girlfriend, photographer Jennifer Rovero, who took photos of Lauren throughout the process, Wasser began documenting and sharing her experience. Now, she’s collecting stories from other TSS survivors and trying to pass legislation that would give women a better understanding of the products they’re putting in their bodies. And after going in for surgery to remove her other leg last week, Wasser is also trying to get back to doing some of things that made her happy before all of this.
“I want to run marathons,” she said, “and I want to go to the Maldives and jump into the water because I haven’t been able to swim in five years.”
She continued: “But I also want to work again. Model, act and fight the good fight. I want to be happy.”
The model-turned-activist tells her story to BlackBook.
Why has it been so important for you to be so outspoken about your experience with TSS?
I never want another person to go through what I have. The fact that it’s been happening for over 30 years disgusts me, to be honest. When people say ‘rare,’ it makes my blood boil – [TSS] is not as rare as one might think, and even one person alone is enough. I wonder how anyone in the FDA would react if it happened to their daughter, sister, cousin, wife or anyone close to them?
What’s been the result of sharing your story?
Since my girlfriend and I shared my story, a lot of dormant alternative feminine hygiene brands got an open lane to come up. We opened the conversation, and I’m proud of that. Women are also becoming more aware and paying attention to what they’re putting in their bodies. The fight isn’t over yet, though. There’s plenty more women to reach.
Part of being open about that journey has been through photography. Has that been challenging for you, especially as a model?
Photography actually changed my life. My girlfriend, Jennifer Rovero, is a photographer and she used phototherapy – a term she coined – to help me heal. She healed my self-esteem. She worked on me for awhile before I could face myself, or anyone else for that matter. It was really hard because I didn’t like myself, and she taught me how to love myself again. And now when I’m on set, I feel powerful.
Getting back in front of the camera and into the fashion industry after your amputation, how has your experience changed?
I can no longer wear heels due to the type of prosthetic I need. So, I don’t get the call for those types of shoots anymore. However, now that I’ll soon have two golden prosthetics, I can do anything. But it’s also changed for me on a bigger scale, because now I’m fighting for body positivity and awareness.
TSS is something I’d always heard about, but never paid much attention to. Was it something you were concerned with before you actually experienced it?
I was taught about TSS at a young age, but I don’t think I was old enough to understand the real dangers. I also was born in 1988 and I had never seen or heard of anyone who’d suffered TSS, nor did I know that it had been harming women since before I was born. I think most women are ill-informed, so any information that’s passed down isn’t enough or accurate. For instance, most people and even some doctors say it’s rare and not to leave your tampon in too long. That information can get you in trouble.
So, what are your goals when it comes to legislation and educating women about the risks of tampons?
More transparency – we live in a day and age where technology is so advanced and these privately manufactured companies have the ability to make safer products. We also look forward to meeting face to face with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney this year in hopes of joining forces to help her pass the Robin Danielson Feminine Hygiene Act that she’s put forth 10 times and been rejected. Hopefully, together we can make a change.