Words by Colette Carr, 2A Publishing Ltd ©
Feature from Dec/Jan 2017 issue of PosAbility Magazine
“I just thought, ‘I’ve spent so much time and energy trying to inspire people and change people’s feelings and perceptions about it,’ so to still see that was upsetting,” fitness model, body builder and stoma bag user Blake Beckford admitted.
Recently Blake stirred up a social media storm when he posted an open letter in response to a Daily Mail article on a new medical advancement that would “spare patients the misery of being fitted with a stoma bag” to his ever-growing following of over 8000 people.
Angered by the language used in the article, his emotive response garnered thousands of shares quickly as Facebook users read his powerful words about how his stoma saved his life after an ulcerative colitis diagnosis.
But the father of two isn’t new to bucking the trend. After his quality of life dramatically improved he quickly became a successful fitness model and body-builder – all while proudly showing off his stoma bag that he “has to put up with”.
“I responded to the Daily Mail’s piece because I’ve spent the last four or five years trying to make a positive impact and show living with a stoma in a positive light, so to see editors and others still using terminology that suggests it’s a miserable existence irritated me,” Blake shared.
“A lot of the language used can be really damaging but what I’m trying to do is empower people who are maybe facing surgery because of their illness, whether that’s bladder or bowel cancer, Crohn’s or colitis. The last thing people need is negative or derogatory terminology being used.
“We need empowering and positive language.”
Having suffered extreme pains for a lengthy period, he was eventually diagnosed and looked to begin his road to recovery that wasn’t short of road bumps.
“Initially it was manageable through other means like medications, but the nature of the condition meant it had remission and flare up periods.
“I battled it for over a good ten years to a point where my quality of life was quite poor – I wasn’t able to leave the house without thinking about my journey or where the next toilet was and that itself was very debilitating along with things like the pain and feeling tired and lethargic all the time.
“I was living a very difficult life with ulcerative colitis but when I had my surgery, suddenly I was able to really focus on things I really wanted to do before but just couldn’t,” he added.
And the new lease of life wasn’t wasted on Blake, who decided to challenge himself to reach new levels not just for himself, but to motivate others in a similar situation.
He said: “That’s when I decided to get into fitness before taking it to the next level with the modelling and the competitive side of things. It was a really positive experience for me but also for other people to see the difference in what you can do when you’re not battling that illness.
“I was told by my surgeon that now I’d had this operation I wouldn’t be able to do any strenuous physical activity or exercise for the risk of hernias or pain. So I was left thinking ‘oh great’, but then I kept thinking there surely must be a way of doing things.
“I developed my own techniques and workout regimes to try and achieve exactly what I wanted to achieve.
“It’s very important to have that quality of life and being able to have things like a bag helps that happen.”
Recognising that there was a gap in the fitness modelling market to be filled that could help redefine and change the image of Crohn’s and colitis, Blake joined forces with photographer Matt Marsh.
With a photoshoot under their belt and even with the knowledge that topless photos of Blake with his bag in full sight could be divisive, the dynamic duo began sharing the photos far and wide eagerly awaiting a response if any, before being inundated with interested parties who had seen the potential power behind the striking images.
“When I started working with the photographer I was originally with, he did say that this would probably be quite controversial, because we didn’t know how it would go,” he admitted.
“We didn’t know if the industry would maybe say, “wow we like this,” or not, so we were really just waiting to see which way it went, but the reception we got was amazing.
“We did the photoshoots and then we had them sent to couple of different magazines and within a matter of hours we were getting a great response.
“They were saying things like, “we want to see this guy”, “when is he competing?” and asking loads of questions about what I was doing and about the competitions.
“The judges were almost amazed that they had someone on stage doing something like that because they hadn’t seen it before,” said Blake.
Soon his success followed him into the body-building world where he took to the stage displaying his stoma bag proudly alongside his competitors. But while recognising the role of diversity, he continued to practice what he preached in showing that living with a bag doesn’t have to change what opportunities are available.
He said: “I think diversity is a good thing, but regardless of circumstances, if you’re a good worthy competitor it shouldn’t matter.
“It shouldn’t have any effect on whether you succeed or not – if you are better than another competitor, the bag is irrelevant and shouldn’t have a bearing on how you look or what you are trying to achieve. “You could do everything the same as someone else or even better so why should something like a bag stop you from succeeding?”
Appearing on This Morning and in publications as esteemed as Men’s Health, helped him continue to grow his profile and spread his message – something he could never have foreseen all those years ago when he was in a darker place.
“When I was in that place of so much pain, if someone had said to me that I’d have done everything I have, I don’t know if I’d have believed them,” he laughed.
“About 18 months ago I was diagnosed with a neurological condition which affects my brain and spine which unfortunately is progressive and has stopped me from physically being able to do what I used to do with the fitness modelling and bodybuilding, being told you have a limiting condition is never easy, three brain surgeries later, I am still determined more than ever to help others like myself.
It doesn’t stop me from my original aim to empower other people, because I have that knowledge to help others achieve,” Blake said.
But while his neurological condition may have put his modelling and body-building career on the backburner, the determined pioneer has found another way to help redefine the condition and support others in similar situations – but you’ll have to watch this space.
“At the moment I’m working on a bit of a top-secret project, but it will be a hub where people can get information, be inspired and it will target people facing or who have just had surgery or those who may have had it and are having difficulty.
“So we’re not far away, but it definitely could be something really positive to help people,” he smiled.