Aug. 6, 2014 at 2:38 PM ET
Blake Beckford had to have his colon removed — and he doesn’t care that you know about it. In fact, he wants you to know about it.
The 33-year-old British body builder and model is at the forefront of a campaign to crush stigmas associated with inflammatory bowel disease. Beckford recently posed shirtless for a Men’s Fitness feature in the U.K., displaying his ileostomy bag as prominently as his abs and pecs.
“I have had the most incredible feedback from people all over the world recently and I know by posting my image, it’s helping thousands feel more body confident,” Beckford told TODAY.com. “For people like me who have an ostomy or IBD, it isn’t through choice. It could happen to anyone, and why should we be ashamed? Why should we hide it away and not talk about it? Why can’t we be in the public eye?”
Beckford’s dramatic reveal of a medical device — an ostomy bag collects intestinal wastes — has placed him among the fledgling ranks of models and pageant contestants who are sick of hiding their health issues.
Last month, Sierra Sandison — Miss Idaho 2014 and a diabetic — walked across a pageant stage with her insulin pump conspicuously attached to her bikini bottom. Her example inspired fellow diabetes patients around the world to use the hashtag #showmeyourpump to share photos of their own.
Just a couple of weeks before that, former model Bethany Townsend became an online sensation after opening up about her battle with Crohn’s disease and sharing photos of herself in a black bikini with her colostomy bags exposed.
“Finally after three and a half years, I decided that my colostomy bags shouldn't control my life,” Townsend wrote on Facebook. “So when I went to Mexico with my husband in December last year I finally showed I wasn’t ashamed. Still hoping for a cure.”
In like manner, Beckford has launched a #FightWithBlake social-media campaign to help raise awareness and money for research of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis — and people are responding to it.
Advanced cases of Crohn’s disease and colitis require some patients to get a stoma, a surgically created opening that allows feces to leave the body and be collected in a pouch.
“I am determined to show people and society that having a stoma doesn’t change who you are and it doesn’t mean you’re not normal,” Beckford wrote on his website.
Diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2003 at age 21, Beckford feared he’d have to abandon his dream of working in the fitness industry. He experienced debilitating flare-ups for years — including an especially harrowing one last year in which he lost so much blood and became so exhausted that his skin turned gray. In October 2013, he opted to undergo surgery to have his colon removed and get an ileostomy bag.
He still remembers how much he initially resisted the surgery — he thought it was a procedure for old people — and how hard it was for him to adjust after he had it done.
“I got home and looked in the mirror and struggled to accept myself,” Beckford told TODAY.com. “I really worked myself up and I know many people do — ‘What will people think? What if people stare at me?’ Then I thought, ‘I’m embracing this. This is me. This bag gave me my life back. I am proud of me.’”
His recovery from surgery was arduous, but he gradually turned his attention to exercise. He said he started slowly, doing yoga and Pilates at home. Then he began taking walks around his neighborhood, and before long, the walks became jogs. By the end of January 2014, he felt up to going to the gym again.
Five months after kick-starting his exercise regimen, Beckford posed for his shirtless photo shoot. He said he hopes to inspire others with similar conditions to maintain healthy, well-balanced diets and live active lifestyles.
“Find something you like doing, even if it’s walking around the block,” he said. “You will be amazed how quickly you feel better! ...
“We have all had long, hard battles with a debilitating and often embarrassing condition, and we should be proud of ourselves for what we have gone through. I did and I will never look back!”