I think every woman with a spinal cord injury experiences self-doubt, either about her femininity or sexuality (usually both) after her injury. But Ellen Stohl took a more proactive approach in making sure she kept her self esteem in check after breaking her neck at age 19. Instead of getting a makeover or buying pretty clothes, she decided to write a letter to Hugh Hefner; a straight up plea asking him to do something the magazine has never been done before.
From catapulting herself to national fame with nearly everyone in the disability community knowing who she is now thanks to Playboy to becoming an acclaimed professor at California State University at Northridge, here’s how a woman injured in college has taken back her life.
Why she’s fearless
Before her injury, Ellen was your typical bright-eyed freshman at Cal State Fullerton. It was 1982 and anything on disability was the last thing on her mind (as it is with most of us who experience a spinal cord injury). And it was a car accident during her first winter break in college that changed everything, making her an incomplete C8-T1 quadriplegic (she broke several bones in her neck). She went back to school in a relatively short amount of time, but knew right away she was going to be treated differently for the rest of her life. She wasn’t happy.
After wrestling with her inner voice the first couple of years after her injury and two suicide attempts, she realized she wasn’t ready to stop playing the game of life; queue in her letter to Hugh Hefner. The way society looked at her as a sexual being was one of the things that bugged her the most. “Why not see if Hugh will let a woman with a spinal cord injury pose?” she thought. And the response was more than positive. Not only would they do a full 8 page spread on her (with her both in and out of her chair), they went on to make a video too.
Thar was over 25 years ago, the June 1987 issue to be exact (see a photo), and not surprisingly Ellen’s appearance in Playboy stirred a lot of public opinion. I remember seeing her on Donahue as an able-bodied kid, standing up for what she did on the show, despite conservative women in the audience questioning her motives. She was also on Howard stern, Geraldo (taking you back now), Larry King Live and Good Morning America. Not one woman with a spinal cord injury has been featured in the magazine since.
Ellen however had higher goals other than posing for Playboy. She graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a BA in Communications, an MS Educational Psychology and Counseling, a K-8 multi-subject clear credential and went on to teach kindergarten for 14 years. After teaching kindergarten, Ellen snagged a job as a professor at Cal State Northridge (a job she holds till this day) and tours and lectures worldwide on sexuality and body image related to physical disability.
And in 1997, Ellen entered domestic bliss when she married her husband, and few years after that (at the age of 39), she gave birth to her little girl Zoe (the one and only child she plans on having because of the autonomic dysreflexia she experienced; a great article about her pregnancy can be found in New Mobility (read).
Educating others, whether it’s as a life coach, teacher, advocate for the disabled, or yes even through scintillating photographs, is what Ellen Stohl lives for, and the world and all of us thank her for it.
What do you think of a woman with a spinal cord injury posing in Playboy? Do you think it can change perceptions? Does it need to happen again?
Watch the videos!