Born without the hand that traditionally wears a wedding ring, Sara Hughes never dreamed of a diamond. Where would she wear a ring when she got married, was a question she would frequently get asked. To her, even attempting the convention felt stressful, so she gave herself permission to opt out.
“Obviously, there’s the whole thing of women wanting to feel like princesses on their wedding days,” she said. “For me, it wasn’t a fancy gown. It was having a really cool arm.”
Ms. Hughes, 36, of South East London, has worn a prosthetic forearm and hand since she was a toddler.
“I’ve never been confident going out without wearing my prosthesis,” she said.
Unfortunately, for much of her life, the off-the-shelf models mismatched her pale skin, especially at the socket against her elbow, which caught attention and ricocheted back reactions.
“It’s people making you feel like you are someone to be stared at, or pitied, or somehow less than a person,” Ms. Hughes said, “like people seeing the arm and not seeing me.”
Then, in 2010, she found her perfect arm. Prosthetists had mirrored and color-matched her right hand. As someone who had been bullied because of her missing arm, she felt safer with the camouflage. Her mother commented that she would likely feel comfortable and confident wearing the hyper-realistic arm at her theoretical future wedding.
“I remember at the time thinking, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s right,’” Ms. Hughes said. “I’d always had it that the best that a prosthesis could be was the most realistic, so that other people didn’t notice it was a prosthesis.”
The closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London challenged that idea, as she watched from her flat with her partner, Mark Wheatley, as a performer held aloft by dancers, raised a leg in the air created to look like a cracked-open geode shining with crystals and held together by an iridescent rod. She caught the performer again on TV wearing a spiked, black-lacquered leg, then stomping the tip to shatter glass.
“Where?” she wondered, “where has she got that leg from?”
Viktoria Modesta, a musician with a prosthetic leg who describes herself as a “bionic pop artist,” was the first online search result that then led her to the Alternative Limb Project. For the next decade, Ms. Hughes followed the work of the founder of the company, the prosthetics artist Sophie de Oliveira Barata, who makes bespoke limbs at her workshop in Lewes, a town south of London.
After Ms. Hughes proposed to Mr. Wheatley, her boyfriend of 12 years, on leap day 2020, the thought bloomed that perhaps she could get an arm made by Ms. de Oliveira Barata.
With her color-matched arm and long-sleeve shirt, people may not notice that Ms. Hughes is wearing a prosthetic arm, and she has found herself suffering at times in order to maintain the illusion.
Wearing an arm with suede lining in the London heat wave, she fantasized about taking it off and shoving it in her bag, letting the air cool her skin.
“I hadn’t done that, because I didn’t feel like I was able to,” she said. “I felt a bit like I was hiding.”
When working as a payroll specialist on her laptop at Heidrick & Struggles, an executive search company, in London’s West End, she uses a typing prosthetic, which has, instead of a hand, a rubber-tipped digit on a metal rod with a 90-degree bend. She usually changed into her more realistic hand anytime she wasn’t typing. When she needed a meeting room for a call, she would pack her phone, laptop, and typing arm, put on her realistic arm to walk through the office, then change back once she got to the room.
She started therapy to work through the anxiety she often felt and find better coping strategies.
“I had a lot to talk to her about my experience as someone who has been born missing a limb,” she said, “and how that influences so many facets of my life, beyond just the physical.”
The pandemic caused a yearlong postponement of the wedding from their original date of May 26, 2021. During that time, between therapy sessions and the knowledge that she’d be staying closer to home, Ms. Hughes felt confident enough to leave the house on a few sweltering days without covering the skin on her arm with a prosthetic socket.
She also felt that she was ready to commit to something beyond “perfect” for her wedding, and emailed the artist.
“When I first met her,” Ms. de Oliveira Barata said, “I thought, ‘Wow, you’re just like a little jewel yourself.’”
As many brides do, Ms. Hughes and Ms. de Oliveira Barata used a Pinterest board for brainstorming. Wanting the arm to feel like jewelry, she filled the board with the star motifs of the necklaces she loved by Laura Lee, moonstone and celestial tattoos. Dramatic silver cuff jewelry inspired the socket, which she decided to make a feature in defiance of her previous sensitivity about that area.
Ms. Hughes had never worn jewelry on her prosthetic, and so she decided on a magnetic pointer finger on the silver hand where she could attach various rings.
“Weddings are meant to be a representation of who you and your partner are, as people,” Ms. Hughes said. “It’s about being authentic to yourself and not trying to change who you are to fill the role of being a bride.”
The rod in the forearm’s center nods to the first alternative limb she saw. Surrounding it is moonstone covered with resin that cracked during production.
“It had broken in a really beautiful way,” Ms. de Oliveira Barata said. “We were going to have this slick piece that was just a smooth transition. And I said I can redo it, or we could work with the way that it came out, like a happy accident.”
Ms. Hughes chose the latter.
According to Ms. de Oliveira Barata, while the typical prosthetic limb costs around $7,500, the bridal arm, her first ever, ended up costing roughly $10,000. Ms. Hughes and Ms. de Oliveira Barata worked together for more than six months, virtually as well as at her studio, where Chris Parsons, the in-house prosthetist, joined them to fit the arm.
On the day of the ceremony, June 24, 2022, Ms. Hughes wore her shining silver arm in public for the first time. She remembers telling herself, “I’m committing to this. I’m wearing this all day,” as she left her realistic hand behind instead of bringing it as a backup.
“This might sound weird, but it was such an empowering moment for me,” she said. “Going out without wearing my arm isn’t something I do. It kind of felt a little bit on par with that. I’m not necessarily showing my arm off to the world, but it’s quite a statement: This is not a real arm.”
With a mix of nerves and excitement, she walked through London to Old Marylebone Town Hall, where the ceremony was held, then to Dishoom King’s Cross for lunch, in a sequined dress and holding flowers, with her husband and their six wedding guests. People stared, but with smiles that didn’t veer into, “Oh, what a shame.”
“When I’m wearing the alternative limb, and people speak to me about it, I feel like I have a lot more power in that conversation,” she said. “I think that a lot of that comes from the fact that I’m choosing to wear an arm that looks significantly different, rather than trying to mask it.”
Ms. Hughes imagines passing it down, a family heirloom her great-grandchildren can take out in 100 years and remember her by.
“There’s definitely a dreamlike quality about it,” she said. “I’d like people to think that I was a freethinker and a dreamer.”