Chloe Toscano personalized her prosthetic arm with glitter butterflies

Like most people, I was born with two fully functioning arms. And having two arms made me believe that opening a Tupperware and closing my hoodies would always be easy.

Then I crashed my Vespa and injured my left arm enough to lose motor function in the downward elbow. After six years of living with a hanging appendix that got in the way most of the time, I chose to have it amputated a few inches above the elbow.

A lot of people in my life first understood that it was awful. But it’s been about nine months since I woke up in a hospital – both fuzzy and glad it was all gone.

I immediately put on my Lady Gaga t-shirt that appropriately read “Born This Way,” and realized I had a dynamite opportunity in front of me. I was going to have a prosthesis, and it would be an extension of my most authentic supersonic self.

As an Italian, I speak with my hands even when dreaming. So I wanted full mobility of all my limbs, even if that meant having only one “lucky fin” to communicate the passion of my left hand in conversation. And for those times when I wanted an extra hand to hold something or an elbow to place on the table despite my grandmother’s advice against it, I wanted a really cool prosthetic arm.

I operated on one arm long before it was removed. Opening a Tupperware with one hand at this point feels more natural than involving a second hand. And because there’s no prosthetic arm that beats a real arm, I wanted something that I could wear as an accessory that would also allow me to do the few activities that I can’t otherwise do, like lifting weights, kayaking, holding two ice cream cones, using those self-serve fro-yo machines, or carrying large boxes of pizza — the latter being a priority.

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I didn’t want a supposedly natural-looking limb, so getting it right involved a lot of design research. Googling “Sailor Moon glitter holographic Infinity Gauntlet” got me nowhere, but further research revealed a concept called uncanny valley, which is the idea that people feel more uncomfortable if they stare a human-looking artificial limb than if the limb is more robotic-looking. I came across a 2013 study from the University of Manchester in England that detailed this idea, which I initially thought was biased.

But then I remembered my discomfort when I picked up the hand my prosthetist had brought to match my existing member. It was tinted a slight tint of green and didn’t quite match my skin tone. The outside of the hand had artificial wrinkles on the knuckles, although the palm reveals a flawless surface devoid of lines. I knew it was far from what I wanted.

It was time to seize the opportunity to create the superhero arm I was not born with but could design. I knew I wanted it to look like something Iron Man Tony Stark might have created. In my mind, this aesthetic was a butterfly-clad hybrid between Thanos’ glove and whatever Gaga would be caught wearing — meatless.

I wanted to make sure that every part of my arm would be personalized with intention. It’s powered by the body, which means it’s powered by the movement of my opposite shoulder. But for me it was mostly a question of visual effect, because I don’t feel so much more functional with a prosthetic arm. It’s not that it’s not good, but I’m very effective as it is.

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I had to choose the fabric for the socket (the top part where my residual limb goes), so I spent hours in February drowning in fabric looking for the perfect fabric at Mood Fabrics. Fans of “Project Runway” are likely familiar with this store, tucked away in New York’s Garment District, which has a selection that spans the third floor of its building.

I rocked down each aisle, grabbing a spool of each fabric that spoke to me until I was holding a pile so high I couldn’t see where I was going. A danger to anyone in my path, I thought I’d call it a day, but suddenly I spotted my butterflies – large, laced with purple wings that have taken flight on silky pink fabric.

The end result, which was completed in August, featured a black holographic forearm sprinkled with tiny pink glitter butterflies to match the sleeve. The butterfly fabric was encased in clear resin, molded to fit my sleeve, and lined with custom neon purple silicone that I chose to match the wings.

Then, in a nod to the fairycore grunge aesthetic I was going for, I requested a black silicone glove to cover the original hand.

It was exactly what I was hoping for. After six years of hating my useless arm, I started loving it. When I put on my eye-catching decorated prosthesis, I tell everyone to watch. I want it.

I want my new arm to remind people that while it’s rude to look, it’s okay to notice. It’s normal to see me as I see myself.

Scratching the manual on what a limb is “supposed” to look like doesn’t just negate the stigma that comes from non-amputees. It is stimulating for the wearer.

Zach Harvey, a prosthetist and orthotist based at Hanger Clinic in Englewood, Colorado — who joined the team that built my arm — told me he sees a greater sense of pride and willingness to wear devices in patients who are active in conception treat. Advocating for a unique design for the wearer allows amputees to accept their artificial limbs as their own, he said. I took that to heart.

Going super stylish like I did isn’t necessarily the key to feeling confident for everyone. Some may choose to go with something carnal and less visible, which means just as much. The big step is knowing that it’s more than okay to go with something that you know will turn heads.

There are efforts such as the Alternative Limb Project that combine elements of design, incorporating humans, robots, and art. One of the limb recipients is an amputee player named James Young. Leaving a testimonial on the project site, Young wrote about a line he once read that read, “I want to take my member out and leave it in a room, and people will recognize it and know it belongs to me. It reflects part of my personality. He continued: “All parts of our body can be recognized as our own by our unique DNA, so why not add a personal imprint to our artificial limbs.”

In effect. If ever my prosthetic left arm were severed, I know that any unfortunate soul who stumbled across it wouldn’t need a fingerprint to recognize the limb as mine. I told my doorman the other day that I had come downstairs to pick up the large package I had received once I had “two hands free”. He probably assumed I was never coming back down or trying to tell him I was a lizard. But I came down with two arms – one I was born with and one I created with – that were both mine.

Chloé Valentine Toscano’s writing has appeared on NBC, HuffPost, Them, Allure, Salon, Nylon, Wired and more. More of his work can be found on his site and on instagram.

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