Let me introduce you to Priscilla, my fake leg
Priscilla enjoys music festivals and parties, is a hot topic of conversation and the focus of a Ted Med Talk by its designer, Sophie de Oliveira Barata
This month marked my 10th anniversary of being an amputee, and this is also the year I got a bejewelled prosthetic leg. When I was 17, I had my right foot amputated for medical and aesthetic reasons. I was born with a spinal condition that meant I had one leg shorter than the other, so the surgery allowed me to have two feet on the ground. Between the terrible combination of surgery and teenage hormones, the amputation didn’t ground me immediately. It took many identity crises to accept that I was part- cyborg.
My new leg, designed by Sophie de Oliveira Barata from the Alternative Limb Project (ALP) in London, is a monumental change in my life and my way of thinking. Encrusted with gold leaves, silver rope, decadent lace, a pocket watch – just in case – and tattoos, including one of my grandparents on their wedding day and the shark I claim chomped off my leg, this isn’t your average day-to-day leg. I call her Priscilla, after the Queen of the Desert, and she enjoys music festivals and parties. Last month she was the focus of De Olivieira Barata’s Ted Med Talk in San Francisco.
I came across the ALP last year when I was mindlessly scrolling through the murky depths of the internet. On the website there are prosthetic legs that are fully functioning stereo speakers, Swiss army arms and realistic hands and feet that have every freckle, vein and unwanted hair. At first, I didn’t make the connection that I could have one of these limbs because it was so flamboyant, but then it hit me: no one has ever thought that my prosthetic leg was real so why the hell should I pretend otherwise?
The amazing team at the IDS prosthetic and orthotic clinic in Cappagh Hospital make my regular legs (I get a new prescription every year). My consultant, Donna Fisher, has known me all my life and she helped ease me into the process.
Extraordinary limbsMy acceptance of owning a prosthetic leg came in the middle of my 20s, so last year, very late one night – when all the best decisions are made – I emailed ALP inquiring about the cost and process of acquiring an alternative limb. I won’t share the total expense but it didn’t cost me an arm and a leg. Just a foot.
Over the course of four months, we emailed ideas back and forth, and I sent my leg designer images of things I liked: Philip Treacy hats, gothic houses, Alice in Wonderland illustrations, Beyoncé rocking Versace, sunken ships. Then plans were sketched. When I first met the designer in April, she laid out a selection of materials she thought I would like. It was as if she had cracked my skull open and spilled it out on to a table. She has a wonderful sense of people, which is perfect for working with people who have lost a part of themselves both physically and mentally.
De Olivieira Barata’s job may be unusual, but it gives amputees a new lease of life. “I love my job sculpting realistic-looking limbs, as no two jobs are ever the same,” says De Olivieira Barata. “However, once in a while I get to make a very extraordinary limb, which goes deeper into the client’s identity and their perception of themselves.”
Coming up with ideas for an alternative limb is an emotional process, but De Olivieira Barata’s creative energy pushes the process forward. It’s liberating.
“It’s important to me to offer both realistic and alternative limbs, as no two people are the same, and they should feel able to express themselves through their limb in whatever way they wish – within the legal framework.”
My regular leg is called Smithy thanks to a joke from Mary Poppins: “I know a man with a wooden leg called Smith”; “What was the name of his other leg?” Smithy was initially made to be concealed by the very baggy trousers I used to wear. He became skinnier as time went by, mostly to slink into skinny jeans. Unless you have tried to scrape a pair of drainpipe jeans onto a prosthetic leg, you do not know hardship. I have accumulated about eight legs over the years, and they are stored in my parents’ house. Apparently they make great flower pots.
Priscilla and LouiseI brought Priscilla on a road trip across the US last month, and she was invited to an event in Austin, Texas, by Richard MacKinnon, the co-creator of BorgFest. BorgFest celebrates human augmentation, enhancement, body modification and wearable technology. The use of the word cyborg is a little bit daunting, but when you consider that a prosthesis can open up a whole new world of possibilities, it feels less like a disability and becomes more empowering.
My new leg mixes together all of the bright and shiny things that I love with a grungy twist. My wardrobe is an explosion of plaid and sequins, so this glitzy leg with the grimy tattoos captures me perfectly. Even though I have a few actual tattoos on my own skin, the possibility of having beautiful ink on the silicone skin of my new leg means I can commemorate important people and memories without upsetting my mother.
With my regular fake leg, people can see it but are afraid to ask about it. In contrast, Priscilla is a positive talking point rather than one of tragedy or bad luck. People see it and want to know everything about it.
Ten years after my amputation, I have finally reclaimed what I lost.