Before the world spun to a stop, Lauren Wasser had begun training for the New York City Marathon, running six, eight, or 10 miles at a time around the reservoir near her house or on her treadmill. These days, she's still training in isolation — no matter if the race will happen or not. The advocate and model's work and hobbies have been tabled as the world comes to grips with a new reality — one where interacting with a photo crew or thousands of fellow marathoners is no longer an option. But, in the face of challenge, Wasser knows what to do — she's survived dark periods of isolation before. In 2012, Wasser was diagnosed with toxic shock syndrome, a complication from a bacterial infection caused by a tampon. An emergency surgery led to the amputation of Wasser's right leg and the loss of much of her left foot.
The slow, painful recovery left Wasser feeling depressed and isolated. "I feel like in my 20s, I was just getting through the day, getting through the moment, getting through the second and trying to just stay alive while the world was moving." Now, that same feeling of disruption and standstill is back, but for Wasser, finding a sense of purpose and a point of focus has taught her a resiliency the rest of us are just now tuning into. "Something I had to learn through my own experience was patience and sitting still and being alone with your thoughts," she explains. "Reminding yourself of your resilience. You've been through other sh*t so you're going to get through this, keeping positive and thinking about what's ahead of us, not going backwards."
That ability to focus on the future, even when the timeline for that future feels so murky, is a strength that has continued to spur her forward. The lifelong athlete turned down a Division I basketball scholarship to pursue a modeling career (both of her parents were also models), but until she had her second leg amputated in 2018, returning to exercise was a painful, nearly impossible practice. She explains that for her, the decision to amputate her second leg was easy. "It was only prohibiting my growth and from being able to just run and do things a normal person does. I'm an athlete, so letting go of that was freedom."
My whole job has been to show that you are enough, and you’re beautiful in the skin you’re in and highlighting your scars and the things that you hate most. That’s what separates you just from being the norm.
Still, Wasser's recovery process has taken years, and though she may approach the current crisis with an enviable assuredness and confidence, it hasn't come without its frustrations. "I wasted so much of my time just surviving in my 20s, and finally here I am in my early 30s and this happens," she explains. She's currently holed up in her Los Angeles home with her dogs, Luna, Leroy, and Madison (the dog who actually saved her life when the TSS incident occurred) — a sunny white-walled space that served as the backdrop for our photoshoot. As she adjusts to the reality of working virtually, she's focused on pushing the fashion industry to become a more inclusive space. One that doesn't require molding participants to fit into a defined box of beauty. "People just want to label me and put me in a box," she exclaims. "I don’t have a box ... it’s necessary to be able to celebrate people in the way they are and highlight them for being different."
One of those moments came in September 2019, when Rihanna casted Wasser in her Spring/Summer 2020 Savage x Fenty show alongside models like Gigi and Bella Hadid, Paloma Elsesser, and Slick Woods. "It was so cool to be highlighted in such a way with such amazing company and to be seen as just one of the girls and that’s just what I’ve been working so hard for." Wasser has also modeled for magazines like Office and Paper and worked with brands like Free People and H&M; she was also included in Forbes' 2018 30 Under 30 list in the Art & Style category. Next, Wasser dreams of working with luxury labels like Saint Laurent and Gucci.
But while she adds that the last decade has seen many gains in diversity within the industry, there's still a double standard when it comes to physical disabilities and representation. Wasser mentions how society as a whole doesn't seem to have issues with bodily changes from plastic surgery, for instance — yet "here I am and I've faced something that’s incredibly hard and I've made it back and I'm constantly shoved in a different direction. I want to be celebrated and I want to be shown." Wasser sees it as her mission to show other women that beauty is not exclusive to one look or one body type. "My whole job has been to show that you are enough, and you’re beautiful in the skin you’re in and highlighting your scars and the things that you hate most. That’s what separates you just from being the norm."
This belief was part of what led Wasser to choose to have a pair of gold legs made. "I love ASAP Rocky and I was always admiring his teeth, his gold teeth," she explains of her inspiration. "I was like it would be so sick to rock gold legs, like a jewelry piece, like you’re always shining." These legs serve as a statement that being different is a beautiful thing, and that for Wasser, highlighting what makes her different is more important than ever trying to blend in. "I love it, they’re like trophies to me. I love being unique and I want everyone to feel that way and that’s why I push to be out there as much as I can."
Top image credit: Sacai dress and Nike x Sacai shoes.
Virtually photographed by Brooke Nipar
Hair by Sonia Flores