Hannah Witton is a YouTuber who is used to discussing her body on camera. Her best-known videos are the Hormone Diaries, a series about her quest to find the right birth control method. But in February, she posted a video that, even for her, felt personal.
“I now have a stoma, which is basically part of my small intestine sticking out of my body and then a stoma bag on it, and I poo into a bag. So that’s me. That’s my new life,” Witton said, sitting in front of the camera.
Her tone was light in that moment, but the 20-minute video was emotionally and physically difficult to shoot. When she re-watches her video, Witton can see her body language and voice change when she talks about the worst of her illness, the first couple of weeks she spent in the hospital.
“Physically, filming was also challenging,” Witton said in a recent email to The Washington Post. “I had to get my boyfriend to carry my filming equipment downstairs before he left for work. I knew I wouldn’t be able to film in my usual set up because that would involve standing up. And I sat with a pillow behind me to support my back.”
YouTubers, from those with educational channels like Witton’s, to beauty YouTubers, to vloggers, build their audiences in part by sharing their lives on a predictable, frequent schedule. But illness has a way of interjecting in that process. When a life-or-death illness suddenly interrupts their work, they have a choice: Keep it private or incorporate this new part of their lives into their YouTube persona.
The juxtaposition can be stark.
A beauty YouTuber, Courtney Warner (a.k.a. Courtelizz1), interrupted her steady steam of makeup tutorials several months ago to tell her viewers that she had a brain tumor. The tumor was cancerous, and its location affected, among other things, her speech.
Warner still posts beauty videos, but they’re different now. She does wig reviews in addition to makeup tutorials. In some videos, she refrains from editing out the moments when her struggles with speech and memory are visible. And the beauty videos are also interspersed with vlogs that are unambiguously about cancer: “5 things you didn’t know about chemo“; “my weekly speech session!“; “I’m Not Feeling The Best | Vlogs: Chemo Day 5.”
Last week, Simone Giertz, a popular YouTuber known for making comically bad robots, posted a video titled, “I have a brain tumor.”
A few weeks ago, Giertz’s slightly swollen eye, which she thought was just allergies, began to hurt. The pain led her to the doctors, the doctors to a brain scan, and the scan to the diagnosis. The tumor is likely noncancerous, but it is large: the size of a golf ball. Giertz said: “I don’t even like golf, but I do like my brain, a lot.”
“I’m going to have to have pretty extensive brain surgery,” Giertz told her audience. “And I’m probably going to be out for a while.”
Part accountability — I’ll be gone for a while, and here’s why — part testimony, these videos revealing illness pepper a YouTube landscape known for its youthful exuberance. Illness can take a beauty YouTuber’s hair, a vlogger’s energy to film. In Giertz’s case, she explains to her audience, the surgery she needs could leave her partially blind or paralyzed.
When Witton’s ulcerative colitis flared up again, putting her in the hospital for a month, she felt she had a choice about how, and what, to tell her nearly 500,000 subscribers.
“If I came back from a month hiatus saying I had a medical emergency and I don’t want to talk about it publicly then the majority of them would have been really respectful of that,” she emailed to The Post.
“Before the surgery, I had no desire to share anything, I wasn’t even looking at my phone. I managed 2 posts in 2 weeks just to let me people know I was in hospital. But soon as I was on the other side of surgery and wasn’t ill anymore I was all over social media sharing everything and it felt great,” Witton added. “I knew that I wanted to use my platform and my voice to bring visibility to people living with ostomies, especially young people.”
Her saga shows how permeable the boundaries can be between an Internet star and their audience. When Witton shared her sickness with her audience, she hoped to bring visibility to what she’d been through — become a public face, a source of advice, living proof that you can still be you while living with a stoma. But as she became those things, she also found that the Internet could help her.
Enter the Stoma Internet.
The Stoma Internet is filled with online personalities who, like Witton, live with a stoma. As Witton’s video spread, the Stoma Internet found her, and she started plunging into its rabbit holes. There were the YouTube channels, the Instagram accounts, the blogs. “There’s companies that do lingerie, special sports and swimwear, Etsy shops that do handmade covers for your stoma bag.” Witton wrote.
“It’s amazing hearing other people’s stories and experiences. Especially young women who are weeks/months/years down the line from where I am leaving comments about how normal and easy their lives are now and also giving me advice — it’s really encouraging and gives me a lot of hope.”
But what if, unlike Witton, you’d prefer not to share the details of your illness with the world? Not all YouTubers have an audience who might be understanding of absence, respectful of privacy.
Witton acknowledged that this process is different for everyone. But for her, the choice was clear.
“Everyone copes differently with scary medical experiences but talking about what you’ve been through will always help. That can be through communities online or simply with your friends and family.”