While riding in an elevator one day in 2016, Debra Swersky caught her reflection in its mirrored wall. As she glanced at her legs, she noticed her right thigh appeared bigger than her left. Come to think of it, the right leg of her Bermuda shorts felt a bit tighter, too.
Were the shorts manufactured wrong? Debra heard of vanity sizing, but were they doing that by the leg now?
Upon closer inspection she realized no, it wasn’t the shorts: her leg was swollen above her knee.
When she got home, she asked her husband — a doctor — if her right thigh was bigger than her left. He took out a tape measure and measured around each leg. “Yes,” he confirmed, while gently pressing the area above her knee.
She had experienced this before: when she was in her early twenties, her leg would swell unexpectedly.
“It would be like a blowfish swimming around in my calf that would randomly puff up,” Debra remembers. But eventually, the swelling would be gone as quickly and as randomly as it came.
It had continued like that for a while, and Debra would wonder when the swelling would return. She started taking meticulous notes to catch patterns or potential triggers, tracking everything from the foods she ate and the hours she slept, measurements of her calves, and any exercise done that day.
Debra presented her months-worth of notes to different doctors and underwent numerous tests, yet no one could figure out what was causing her swelling.
Eventually it just — went away. Debra resolved to forget about it: “No one knows what this is, and it’s not something that’s going to kill me,” she told herself back then.
Now, eight years later, the blowfish was back. And not only was it not going away, but it was getting bigger.
Searching for Answers
Over the next several months, Debra underwent a battery of tests, including an MRI, a CT scan, and vascular study after vascular study.
“I felt like I saw a hundred doctors,” she says, one of whom was an orthopedist who suggested it could be lymphedema, except she “didn’t fit the criteria.” He told her that because she wasn’t overweight or inactive and hadn’t had any trauma or surgery to her leg, they could “rule that out.”
During all this back-and-forth searching for a diagnosis, Debra began wearing an off-the-shelf compression garment to control her swelling. When her swelling didn’t improve, however, she became frustrated and took it off.
“I threw the garment away and said I’m just going to forget about this like I did when I was twenty-two, and it will eventually go away,” Debra recalls.
But it didn’t go away. Without the compression, her swelling worsened, extending from the top of her knee all the way down to her toes. Her leg felt heavy, like a cement block, and Debra was terrified it would continue to take over the rest of her body.
At her husband’s urging, she went to see a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor, who officially — finally — diagnosed her with lymphedema.
Debra fought them on it at first, again hearing the orthopedist’s words in her head repeating over and over like a mantra: “You’re not overweight. You’re not inactive. You haven’t had surgery or trauma. So, it’s not lymphedema.”
But the doctor assured her that what she had was lymphedema, and suggested she just try a course of complete decongestive therapy to see if it works. Begrudgingly, she agreed.
And then, as she started going through the treatment, Debra (begrudgingly) saw that it was working. Still in denial about her diagnosis, she couldn’t believe it: “It shouldn’t be working because I don’t have lymphedema,” she told herself.
But Debra came to accept her diagnosis. “It’s lymphedema,” she remembers feeling. “Here we are. We’re treating it.”
After her diagnosis and first course of treatment in 2017, Debra understood that she would have to wear a compression garment to manage her swelling. But, like most lymphedema patients, she hated the way the beige and bulky garment looked. Deciding what to wear each day became an increasingly upsetting ordeal as she felt there wasn’t anything in her closet that would effectively hide her garment or accommodate her swelling.
“Nothing that I had hid me from the questions, stares, and conversations about my leg,” Debra explained. “My mental health suffered in that first round of bandaging and compression garments because I felt like I could no longer be me.”
The company LympheDIVAs offers bright, fun patterns on garments for upper extremity garments, Debra noted, but what about options for lower extremity?
“Why don’t you do that?” Debra’s husband asked. “Why don’t you create your own pattern compression?”
Debra, who holds a degree in business, knew she wasn’t prepared to enter the already well-established compression garment market, nor was she willing to. “I’m not going to compete with them,” she told him. “But I will cover it up.”
Debra ordered a pair of patterned leggings and cut off one of the legs mid-thigh. Then, she went to the mall to find some clothes to pair with it. With the pieces of her outfit gathered, she slipped into a dressing room and pulled the one-legged leggings over her compression, with her garment covered by the legging and her unaffected leg exposed, and threw a tunic overtop.
When Debra stepped outside of the dressing room, people looked at her. But instead of Debra feeling as though people were staring at her swelling, she got the sense that they were admiring her style.
“I felt instantly better, like I had a made a choice in this ridiculous matter of having one leg bigger than the other and having to wear this garment,” Debra says. “I felt like I had made a decision and that I looked good.”
Like Clark Kent trading his glasses for his Superman cape, Debra felt energized by the transformation afforded by this piece of clothing: Not only was it a bold fashion statement, but it gave Debra a way to work through the effects her condition had on her mental health and process the sadness of losing the version of herself that existed prior to the onset of her lymphedema.
“It occurred to me that others might be struggling too,” said Debra. “With some research it became clear that this was an area in fashion that wasn’t being addressed, for people with one-legged conditions and beyond.”
Soon after, she took to her sewing machine and created her first prototype.
Changing the Conversation
The idea of finally having a choice when it came to her leg was empowering, and the colorful legging allowed Debra to feel as though she was able to take on the world. This was going to be her new style, she decided, and she was going to rock it whatever way she could.
“I bought a bunch of leggings and continued to cut the legs off, and I was getting compliments,” Debra says. No longer were people asking about her bandages or her garment, or what she “did to her leg”; instead, strangers commented on her style.
The happy, vibrant patterns helped reframe the conversation around her lymphedema, literally dressing it up as something more positive. Before, Debra used to dread questions about her swelling: it was uncomfortable to have to disclose her medical history to strangers, and once she told them, they often were left not knowing how to respond.
“No one ever felt great learning about lymphedema or that I was going to have my bandages on and off for the next however many years,” she explains. “So, changing that conversation for myself — or covering it up, really — made the conversation that much easier to have because it started from a much happier place.
“They would compliment me on my style or they would compliment the pattern or outfit. If we stayed in the conversation, I could tell them about my lymphedema or I could not. My choice.”
Debra’s one-legged legging was more than just an item of clothing: it was a statement, one she wanted others to have the chance to make, too.
So she filed for her patent in 2017 and, after a temporary pause due to the birth of her son and the coronavirus pandemic, Stemwear officially launched soon after.
“I have this condition, and I’m going to have it for the rest of my life,” she says. “I may as well do something important with it.”
Creating a “Fash-Unexpected” Moment
Debra calls Stemwear “fash-unexpected,” meaning the comfortable one-legged leggings are fashionably unexpected and offer the wearer a new way to express themselves.
“It’s the comfort of wearing leggings without compromising your unique style,” she explains. Rather than look like everyone else wearing plain black leggings and a comfy sweatshirt, you can dress up your Stemwear and do something more unique.
“It’s the idea that you could go from your couch watching Netflix to the farmer’s market for brunch while still wearing the comfort of your leggings, but style it differently.”
Debra sometimes wears her Stemwear over her bandaging; when she does that, she normally sizes up to accommodate the extra volume of the wraps. And although Stemwear itself has no compression, it’s great to wear over compression garments. But Stemwear isn’t just for people with lymphedema: Debra considers Stemwear in the adaptive fashion market and is a great option for amputees or those with limb differences.
Wearing them, she says, is an act of joyful defiance. She can’t hide the fact that she has lymphedema, but Stemwear is a way for her to celebrate and embrace it.
“Everyone says, ‘Oh, look at you. You took this pile of lemons and made lemonade,’” explains Debra. “But I think joyful defiance is looking at the thing that’s upsetting you, and instead of being upset about it, smiling and saying we’re going to go about our days anyway. It’s like being happy about the thing you were given that sucks, as opposed to thinking that it sucks and walking through your day knowing that it sucks.
“And that again comes back to the idea of choice. I made a choice — a style choice. I chose what I wanted to wear today as opposed to it being foisted on me.”
Part of Stemwear’s mission is to normalize the differences in our bodies’ shape, size, and structure in a way that celebrates them. “A friend of mine who does not have lymphedema can get a pair of Stemwear,” Debra says. “They might just want to wear it for the style or to show their support, or they could be covering up scars, varicose veins, or birthmarks on their leg.
“My mother-in-law bought a pair to cover up the scar from her knee surgery. She was excited to ‘join the club’ and be stylish in a new and different way.”
When Debra gets dressed in the morning, she can’t imagine not wearing Stemwear. “If you said, ‘Why don’t you just wear your garment and not wear Stemwear over it?’ I’d say, ‘Why?’ It’s no fun.
“Everyone’s got their thing,” Debra says. “Have some fun with it.”
Of course, the idea of embracing your differences is sometimes easier said than done, and Debra understands that from experience.
“What you focus on, you get more of,” she says, referencing a quote from Dr. Becky Bailey. “If you fuss and fuss and fuss, and you think about everything you hate about the condition, then you will continue to sit in a puddle of hate for the condition.”
Instead, she recommends saying to yourself, “I do this. This is my morning routine. This is how I walk out the door every day,” to reframe your treatment routine as a good and necessary thing.
Debra acknowledges that she’s never not thinking about her lymphedema, but the way in which she thinks about it has changed from a negative, resentful context into something more proactive and positive.
“I spent a lot of time crying about the condition and really beating myself up over it, trying to figure out what could have caused it,” Debra shares. “At one point they thought it might have been caused by a bug bite from when I went to Africa. Would I have changed going to Africa? No! It was a great experience, I got a lot out of it.
“The quest for closure on the cause can be, at times, more draining than its worth. For example, you can’t be mad at your parents if it’s genetics. You were brought into this life. Go. Live beautifully.”
Patterns with a Purpose
Debra is always thinking about ways to develop the product and its design. One element of the legging that is important to Debra’s vision is the pattern: “I want someone to go to the website and find a pattern that they feel excited about or comfortable in,” she emphasizes. “One that they could really wear and style to their heart’s content.”
Every print is personal, down to its design: Each pattern is a collaboration with and named for an inspirational person Debra has met within the different patient communities wearing Stemwear.
It’s a symbolic reminder that people are more than what you see on their leg, be it swelling or limb difference or just the funky legging pattern: there are stories and lived experiences.
“I thought it would be fun to create personas out of the patterns so that people could get to know a person as opposed to just see a pattern and make a decision,” she continues. “Yeah, I could call this pattern like, ‘01243’ or ‘yellow geometric,’ but that’s boring.”
Debra recently launched a male version of Stemwear’s Signature Silhouette (the one-and-a-half legging featuring one long leg and one short) and is currently exploring garments and sizing for children. Looking toward the future, Debra says additional limb-covering options are in the works.
“There is no compression in the current garment, and that’s decidedly so,” Debra reiterates. However, she’d like to explore options to create a lightly compressed version of the Signature Silhouette that can be worn over regular garments for those times when some extra compression may be needed, such as when working out or flying.
On a personal level, Debra hopes that Stemwear will help normalize the understanding that people have different bodies — a lesson that’s already begun in her own home.
Her son, now three years old, enjoys helping Debra with her lymphedema routine. He sits with her every morning when she bandages and hands her the pieces one by one, and loves to rip and place the tape. “I hope that through all of this, he’s building an understanding of people in a way that other kids might not have,” she says. “I hope that this experience is helping him to build empathy, be more accepting, or ready to understand differences, or ask questions in a way that’s better.”
She remembers when she was running track in high school and her dad would run the track while she was at practice. “I would be embarrassed by what he was wearing and the fact that he’d wave and say ‘Hi,’” she says. “I get that parents, for eternity, will always embarrass their children. I understand that, and I know I’m 100% going to embarrass my son. I just don’t want the embarrassment of my son to be because I’m wearing a one-legged legging.
“I want the one-legged legging to be something that he sees as a positive. I’m committed to making Stemwear a fashion statement so that when he gets to be eleven, twelve, thirteen and I show up at whatever event that he’s participating in, he can say, ‘That’s my mom. She looks awesome.’”
Want to show off your Stems?
Stemwear is available for purchase through their website, wearstemwear.com. Made of a blend of polyester and spandex, Debra says they are super soft and comfortable. At the time of writing, they retail for $115 and are available from an XXS to an XXL in both women’s and men’s sizing, with either the left or the right leg long.
Follow them on Instagram at @wearstemwear for updates on new patterns and designs!