Sophie Pidgeon, 10, has scoliosis, a spinal disorder that requires her to wear a body brace 18 hours a day until she is 16. And though she starts every school year explaining the brace to her classmates, her mom, Meghan, said the adjustment has been rough.
"Her life has become encompassed by her trying to hide this brace," she said. "If it is noticed, she takes another step back in her self-confidence."
So Pidgeon considered it progress — or, at least, a welcome break from routine — for Sophie to saunter down the catwalk at Nordstrom in Natick recently wearing spring fashions — a blue dress, orange blouse, T-shirt, and jean jacket — at a runway show for girls with body braces.
"It was nice for her to get advice, fashionwise, to break her out of her shell and realize she has more options," said Meghan, who drove nearly four hours from their home in Charlotte, Vt., for Sophie to attend the show. "She enjoyed the modeling and was really happy with the things she picked out."
The clothes reflected a range of styles. Twelve-year-old Alaina Rodriguez wore a mint polka dot shirt, black leggings, and black knee-high boots, while Caroline Sonier, 14, rocked a floral minidress and faux leather jacket. But all 50 girls shared a common desire to express their personalities without revealing the brace beneath their clothes.
"When a kid is given a brace, it can really throw off their comfort zone," said Chelsey Anderson, who works at the National Orthotics and Prosthetics Company at Boston Children's Hospital, which organized the event.
"We can't put our patients in a room together because of HIPAA," she continued, referring to medical privacy regulations. "This gives them an opportunity to see each other and mingle, and it opens their eyes to how to wear the brace in public situations."
Dr. Daniel Hedequist, a spine surgeon at Children's Hospital, said bracing is considered the most effective way to halt curve progression for young female patients with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. The time to brace usually comes "when a curve is greater than 25 degrees and there is still lot of time to grow," he said.
"Bracing is different from the orthodontist who makes adjustments and you end up with perfectly straight teeth," said Hedequist. "While some curves do become smaller with bracing, ultimately, we're trying to get their curves to stay below a certain threshold. If not, the scoliosis may continue to get worse, even after the patient is done growing."
The braces, which often run from an armpit to over the pelvis, make small movements such as bending down or sitting on the floor awkward and uncomfortable. But Sonier, a fashion-forward eighth-grader from Newton who started wearing a brace in January, said her number one complaint is the resulting unwearable wardrobe.
"Most of my clothes do not fit," she said. "I am a smaller person who didn't used to think about what my body shape looked like to other people. Adding an extra inch of flat plastic to my body changes my perspective. I feel boxy and that's not great."
At the store that day, Sonier found solutions. With the help of a stylist, she found a pair of shorts and even a pair of jeans, an especially tricky fashion choice for brace wearers.
"Everything is still my style," she said. "I don't like to go out in a sweatshirt or sweatpants."
Hedequist said, "The brace is not supposed to kill your wardrobe, your athletic career, your social life." But he acknowledged that the diagnosis usually comes at start of puberty — "a significant time in [their] life, probably middle school, when they worry about being ostracized."
Arian Mulhern has been so concerned she hasn't told friends about her scoliosis — or that she had to start wearing a brace in January to prevent the 21-degree curve of her spine from getting worse.
"I'm comfortable here because everyone has a brace," said the grinning 12-year-old from Kingston, who took to the runway in a faux leather jacket, jeans, and cheetah print scarf.
Her mom, Barbara Caparell, was equally elated. "She's beaming today, and she wasn't beaming in January," she said. "I am so impressed."
Before the fashion show began, 17-year-old Olivia Barbieri introduced herself as the teen president of the Massachusetts chapter of Curvy Girls, an international scoliosis support group, inviting the girls in the audience to come to a meeting. Meghan Pidgeon said daughter Sophie recently participated in Curvy Girls' leadership training in hopes of starting her own Vermont chapter. Though the elder Pidgeon has scoliosis and wore a brace from age 14 to 16, she expects life for Sophie with a brace will get harder before it gets easier.
"I know the confidence is even harder as they get older. It's a lot easier if your friends can help you put your brace on after gym class or sporting event," she said. "I really understand what she is going through, but she doesn't understand that I understand, that she has an ally in it."
Though she has only had her brace for six weeks, Alaina Rodriguez, has already been to several Curvy Girl meetings. Her mom, Mindy LeBlanc of Fitchburg, said both the group and the fashion show have given Alaina something she can't.
"She feels awkward on a good day," said LeBlanc. "This makes her feel so much more comfortable in her skin."
Jill Radsken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.