Plenty of people struggle with self-doubt when faced with wearing a bathing suit. But for these four women — who have collectively endured a horrific boating accident, life-threatening Crohn’s disease, a double mastectomy and dramatic weight loss — sporting a bikini is a symbol of all that they’ve conquered.
Here, they proudly rock two-pieces and tell The Post how they triumphed over adversity and got their confidence back.
She overcame a destructive disease
Claire Bonti was terrified the first time a doctor suggested that she should have her inflamed colon removed and replaced with a discreet pouch that she’d have to wear 24/7.
“No thank you!” the now-29-year-old remembers telling the specialist. “An ostomy bag will be social suicide.” Besides, she thought: “I’ll never wear a bikini again.”
But then, Bonti — who had suffered from debilitating Crohn’s disease since the age of 13 — became gravely ill. In February 2015, the Upper East Sider weighed just 100 pounds and was rushing to the bathroom more than 30 times a day. She decided to go through with the surgery.
Much to her surprise, the 5-foot-tall event planner and fundraiser found herself rocking a two-piece bathing suit just five months later, on July 4th. She says she was inspired to give it a shot after seeing a glamorous photo on Instagram of a bikini-clad woman with an American-flag-patterned ostomy bag front and center.
Bonti says her best friends also encouraged her. After that Independence Day pool party, Bonti says she checked in with one of them, asking: “Did anyone say anything?”
“No,” her pal responded. “One person thought you had a bandage over a new tattoo or something.”
Since then, Bonti says, she has “internalized the mentality that if anyone has a problem with it, it’s theirs, not mine.”
Now, with a steady boyfriend, Justin, and a senior job at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, Bonti is a true ostomy bag advocate.
“It has given me back my freedom,” she says of the device. “Wearing a bikini was cathartic for me.”
She had an incredible weight-loss journey
After shedding more than 60 pounds, Tracey Hodo longed to finally wear the two-piece bathing suit of her dreams.
But there was one big problem; she had hanging skin on her stomach and breasts where her excess fat had once settled.
“It was a painful reminder of how much weight I’d gained before losing it,” admits the 51-year-old hair stylist.
The mother of two from Bridgewater, NJ, had worked hard to drop the pounds through a strict diet. She says she had gained the weight due to issues with “portion control.” It took eight months — and eliminating sugar and white flour — but by November 2016, the 5-foot-tall Hodo was able to shrink down to 125 pounds after hitting an all-time high of 189.
She also started lifting weights to build muscle. “It was my fantasy to look good in a bikini,” she says.
But in her mind, the remaining loose skin stood in her way. So, in August 2017 she paid $16,000 for a so-called “Mommy Makeover” by New Jersey- and Manhattan-based plastic surgeon John Paul Tutela, which involved removing a pound of skin as part of a tummy tuck, abdominal surgery to repair post-pregnancy muscle separation, a breast lift and augmentation.
“The surgeon knew exactly how to get rid of the skin and give me breasts that are appropriate for a woman of my age and my size,” says Hodo of her 32DDD implants.
She first wore that much-anticipated bikini last summer, just before her 50th birthday.
“If felt wonderful,” she recalls of wearing a chic all-black swimsuit on vacation with husband, John, to Cancun, Mexico. “I actually felt complete.”
She survived a terrible accident
In October 2017, Kristina DeJesus, 32, was boating on Lake Travis in Austin, Texas, when tragedy struck: She was pulled through the boat’s propeller in a horrifying accident.
She used her experience as an intensive-care nurse to help save her own life. “I told my rescuers what to do, such as elevate my leg, give me fluids and apply pressure to my wounds — and call my husband,” says DeJesus, who lives in Cranford, NJ.
Yet eventually, she lost her right, and dominant, arm to a full amputation, and had to have her right thigh and breast reconstructed. She finished her 10th, and hopefully final surgery, earlier this month.
She says that at first, letting people see that she was missing a limb was an enormous challenge. Once, she wore a tank top to the gym but then spent two hours convincing herself to go inside. “I couldn’t pretend to have an arm,” she says.
But DeJesus says she pushed herself to don a bathing suit because she loves the beach. She wore her first bikini just two months after the accident, on a trip to Miami. She says she felt self-conscious but tried to see her scars as badges of her survival. “I was stronger than the propeller,” she says.
Now, she says, “I [have] accepted my scars.”
And the experience has given her a new sense of purpose as an advocate. In September, she’ll be walking in the Runway of Dreams gala and fashion show, which features disability-friendly designs, during Fashion Week.
“I was really into fashion and still am,” she says, adding that she hopes more companies start making stylish adaptive clothing. “I can still be sexy and feminine.”
She bravely beat back cancer
After Erika Stallings, a 34-year-old entertainment attorney from Harlem, tested positive for the BRCA mutation — the breast cancer gene — she resolved to undergo a preventive double mastectomy.
Before her December 2014 operation, she says, “I never thought of my boobs that much.” At a yearly beach share with friends in Montauk, Long Island, she would throw on a bikini without hesitation.
But after the surgery, things were different. She spent a January 2015 holiday in St. John sitting on the sand. “I kept a T-shirt on the whole time,” says Stallings, whose mother survived breast cancer. She says she had to adjust to her new body in more ways than one: “The implants have a lot of weight,” she says. “I almost fell out of bed when I first got them.”
Then summer rolled around, and with it, her annual trip to Montauk. Even though she had treated herself to new, flattering swimsuits, she says she still felt anxious: “Is someone going to see the scars? Will people ask me about [them]?”
But she threw on a two-piece and faced her fears. Swimming and playing bocce on the beach made her feel like her old self: “In a bikini, I felt like I was turning a corner.”
Stallings has since co-founded the Young Leadership Council of the Basser Center for BRCA, which raises money for research and provides BRCA-related education. Despite worrying about dating after the surgery, she is now in a long-term relationship.
She says she’s made peace with her new body. “There is a beauty and a strength in overcoming something like this,” says Stallings. “This is not a scar, this is a testament that I took charge of my health and changed my destiny.”
Photographer: Brian Zak; Stylist: Emma Pritchard; Hair: Ebone Alloway; Makeup: T. Cooper using ECRU New York
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