I've always worn nothing but black. I wing my eyeliner and own almost every shade of Kat Von D liquid lipstick. I wear thigh high boots. I have a nose ring, tattoos, and colored hair extensions. You could say I'm used to getting stared at, but not for these reasons alone — I was born missing my left arm.
My left arm stops right below the elbow to a rounded stump that I like to call my “little arm.” Some people with this disability choose to wear an artificial limb, for all kinds of reasons. Amputees can wear prosthetics for mobility, for assistance, and for cosmetic purposes. Growing up, I rejected old-school prosthetics and learned to function without them. Then, a month ago, a bionic arm became my new favorite accessory. When I saw the BeBionic arm, I knew I wanted one. It was so different from the other prosthetics I’ve had throughout my life.
I was given my first prosthesis when I was an infant, and another around 5. From the beginning, I was way more interested in trying on my mom’s makeup and clothes than I was in learning how to use the clunky device. My parents hired an occupational therapist named Eliza to come to the house to help me learn how to perform tasks wearing one.
“I’ll give you a Three Musketeers Bar if you put on your arm.” Eliza leaned over me, her long blonde hair held back by huge glasses.
The prosthesis, an old-fashioned myoelectric version, felt like it was always getting in the way. And worse, it hurt. Eliza tried different ways to put it on without it irritating my skin. She tried powder, cream— even a stocking— but my stump would always end up raw and itching. After Eliza left, I always took it off immediately. Everything I needed to do, such as get dressed, feed myself, play with my toys, I did quicker without the heavy object hanging off me. It was 1998 and prosthetics were still cumbersome and clunky. I had to concentrate really hard just to get it to open and close. And I liked my “little arm” just fine.
By the time I entered sixth grade, my parents gave up. It was around this same time I got into fashion. On the first day of school, my teacher gave the class an assignment to write create ABC scrapbook about something we were passionate about. I decided to do it on designers. A for Armani, B for BCBG, C for Chanel, and so on. Suddenly my Rave Girl t-shirt didn’t cut it anymore—I wanted the hard stuff. My middle class, hard-working immediate family saw my love for designers as frivolous. We mainly shopped at the Salvation Army or department stores on Long Island, but my mom was kind enough to take me to New York City’s Chinatown to look at the fake bags. I fell in love.
As I got older, I became more aware that I’d likely never afford designer clothes any time soon, let alone fit in them — I didn’t look anything like the thin, able-bodied models.
So began my alternative fashion phase. In ninth grade, I cut all my hair off into a tight pixie cut with pink highlights. My red lipstick changed to black. My favorite shirt was a black spaghetti strap top that read “Fashion Victim.” I got my first thong. It was blue and yellow and had a pattern of ice cream cones on it. I’d hike it out of my pants when I sat in the cafeteria, just like I observed Manny from Degrassi do. Standing out was becoming a rush for me; stylizing my alienation was the way I dealt with feeling different. People stared anyway, so I kept them staring. People talked anyway, so I kept them talking.
By 14 years old, I’d gotten heavily involved in the punk music scene on Long Island. My new go-to outfit was skinny jeans and an Envy on The Coast t shirt. I felt brave, tough, untouchable. How I dressed and presented myself at a punk show made me feel as brazen as I’d felt at 5 years old when I was removed from a day care program for whacking another child in the head with my prosthesis after he called me “robot arm.”
I went all through almost all elementary, middle school and half of high school without a prosthesis. Then, at 17 years, my parents wanted me to try again. Our insurance was changing, and so they wanted me to check out the newest developments in the world of prosthetics before we potentially lost coverage.
The newest version was painted to look very much like a real arm. But unlike the older one, it didn’t open and close. There was even less functionality, all for the look of a real hand. In addition to realism, these models could be personalized. That day in my prosthetist’s office, I studied its veins and fingernails. It looked real, eerily real.
“You can have any type of fingernails you want,” one of the prosthetic representatives said. “Do you want sparkles? Do you want black nails?”
I was getting slightly roped in.
The representatives for the company that painted the cosmetic prostheses were the type I regarded as cool kids—they had tattoos, thick black platform shoes, oversized glasses— the kind of kids I’d want to fit in among. Their shtick was they were artists before they were prosthetists. A marketing ploy. It worked.
I wasn’t crazy about what they were offering—and my parents wouldn’t let me get a version with a tattoo—but it was then that I began to see prosthetics as an extension of my style and started to think I could have fun with it.
Months later, when we picked up my new arm, I slid it on and felt that same familiar itch and discomfort. The socket, made of silicone, made an embarrassing farting noise as I shoved my stump inside. It had sparkly skin and long black nails like I requested. But the fact that it didn’t function bugged me. And, though more stylish, it wasn’t truly my style.
I never wore the cosmetic prosthesis. It sat on top of my closet like some perverse prop. Meanwhile, I discovered the world of fake hair and began visiting a local beauty store and getting my hand on whatever synthetic extensions I could find. I had a new hair color every week. I taught myself how to do a cat eye and I relished trying every kind of Wet ‘n’ Wild lipstick from the drug store. Reinventing myself seemed endless; changing my look was like an art project I wanted to work on forever.
My style has improved from the days of Hot Topic and fake designer bags, but not without a guidette phase in between filled with self-tanner and fluffy boots (dark times.) Lately, I love minimal all-black looks with thigh high boots and a simple black choker. Since learning how to perfect a high ponytail with one hand, that has been my go-to hairstyle: simple and chic.
I never thought a prosthesis would reinter my wardrobe, until I saw the BeBionic hand. I first saw it on my fellow amputee friend and actress, Angel Giuffria. Her bionic arm was all white. She looked like a sexy Stormtrooper, and she could even solve a Rubix Cube with her prosthetic. I was instantly captivated. It was gorgeous — sleek, shiny, robotic — just my style. I loved the mechanical fingers and shiny forearm. I loved that it made futuristic noises as it opened and closed.
After that, I made an appointment with my prosthetist. He was surprised to see me after so many years of not wearing a prosthetic but was excited to work with the newest technology available. Technically speaking, the BeBionic arm is still considered myoelectric, but it’s far more advanced than any prosthetic I’ve had in the past. What makes this one different, aside from its robotic look, is the precision of its grip. The hand has multiple grip patterns-- it can do everything from hold a credit card to give the middle finger. The movement of the hand is much more precise, intuitive and versatile than the prosthetics that came before it, operating through feedback from my muscle movements as well as chip technology. (Sidenote: I’m so thankful for being covered under my parents’ health care — the prosthetic was very costly and without insurance, I would have never had this opportunity.)
My prosthetist showed me how the hand functions. It does so much more than just look pretty and open and close — every one of the fingers can move! Gone is the clunky plastic prosthetic. I filed the paperwork and got fitted. When I was able to select the color for my own bionic arm, I chose black carbon-fiber fingers and a jet-black forearm. It looked like wearable art, the ultimate accessory for my "polished but tough" look. My new prosthetic doesn't look "normal;” in fact, it doesn't seek to replicate humanness at all. I don't want it to. I've always stood out.
I may change my mind someday — just like I have about fluffy boots, safety pins as earrings, and cheetah print — but for today, my bionic arm feels sexy, daring, empowering and exciting. It feels like me.