An extraordinary photo project by a New York underwear brand aims to change the way people view post-mastectomy breast reconstruction — and those cancer survivors who choose not to undergo the procedure.
But there’s a lot more than that involved in the explicit topless images of three women shot by Play Out Underwear, a queer label that produces unisex underwear and has a deep interest in evolving concepts of gender identity.
“This is about gender, lingerie, femininity, health, health care, age, agency and breast cancer in the LGBTQ community,” Play-Out co-founder Abby Sugar writes in a blog post to introduce the unique portfolio.
The company worked with three amateur models — Melanie Testa from Brooklyn and Emily Jensen and Jodi Jaecks from Seattle — who underwent double mastectomies after being diagnosed with breast cancer and now call themselves “flattoppers“. Links on the Play Out website connect readers to deeply personal essays that Emily, Jodi and Melanie (known as Melly) share on their own websites.
Their stories shine an unblinking light into an aspect of human experience that is rarely discussed: women diagnosed with breast cancer who choose prophylactic mastectomy without either surgical reconstruction or the use of prosthetic breast forms to replicate their pre-surgery curves.
And their experiences call into question the overwhelming bias in the medical establishment in favor of post-surgery breast reconstruction, as well as the tyranny of established notions of femininity and female gender stereotypes.
“Melly and Emily have similar but different reasons for making their choice to ‘go flat’, but both reasons resonated very strongly with us at Play Out,” Abby told Lingerie Talk this week.
“In our underwear — gender-neutral designs, androgynous styling — we try to raise these questions regarding the social construct of gender as well, and to normalize androgynous styling. Their experiences with breast cancer and choice to be flattoppers resonated strongly with not only our styling, but also our position in the gender conversation, in the LGBT community, and our desire to move away from the heteronormative male gaze of traditional lingerie.
“For us, it was important to give them a platform to take strong, sexy photographs in underwear. It’s that sexiness that is missing from a lot of breast cancer survivor stories, and why?”
Play Out, which used models of indeterminable gender in their runway show at Lingerie Fashion Week last fall, developed the idea for the new photoshoot when Emily (an old friend of Abby and her partner Sylvie Lardeux) approached them about modeling for the brand. Emily, 33, then introduced Play Out to 44-year-old New York artist Melly, who had already begun writing about her experiences on her blog.
Photographer Candace Doyal shot Emily and her friend Jodi — another double mastectomy survivor who made headlines in 2012 when she was prohibited from swimming topless at a public pool — in Seattle, while fashion photographer Nomi Ellenson shot Melly and androgynous model Rain Dove in New York.
Both Melly and Emily chose to undergo prophylactic double mastectomies after their doctors recommended surgical removal of only one breast. And both say they are thrilled to have the opportunity to expose the “flat-top” issue to a wider audience.
“I get to help disseminate images of a body type that is usually kept hidden,” writes Emily, who was 31 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “These are images that challenge modern conceptions of femininity and gender. … These bodies – the mere sight of us – can open up a rich intellectual schism through which we can conceptualize and understand gender in a different light.
“This is a body that I refuse to keep hidden.”
“If I had my way, these images would be projected onto the tallest building in Times Square,” writes Melly, who was 42 when she was diagnosed. “No one should feel compelled to present a shape that is not true to themselves.”
Melly’s story is perhaps the more shocking of the two: when she decided not to undergo surgical breast reconstruction, her doctor refused to perform her mastectomy until she submitted to a psychiatric evaluation. And despite the enormous network of services for women dealing with breast cancer, she found there were no support groups for women who reject breast reconstruction.
“This bias is unacceptable, and clearly illustrates a preference for reconstruction to the shape of a breast, and breastedness in general. It also serves to make it difficult for women to choose otherwise,” she said.
“But here is a truth: not all women equate femininity with breasts or even like their breasts, for that matter. … For me, beauty ideals and expectations related to the female body are a form of tyranny. I resent that in the face of a lethal disease the conversation turns to hair and wigs, reconstruction and ‘Look Good, Feel Good’ programs.”
Emily had a more positive experience with her doctor, but knows not all women are so fortunate.
“Female breasts are a highly political space. When it comes down to medical decisions, it is demonstrated that women are not the owners of their own bodies,” she writes. “Doctors will strive to maintain gender-normative women’s bodies even against the wishes, and to the detriment, of these female-bodied patients.”
For both Emily and Jodi, their body-changing cancer experience overlapped and even dovetailed with their identities as queer butch women and gave them a broader perspective on stereotypes among breast cancer patients.
“As a queer butch woman my experience of gender was already far from center, and unexpectedly my gender was blurred even further through cancer and oncological treatment,” Emily writes. “My body is that of a woman, but since I lost my breasts and reproductive capabilities to cancer, am I any less female?”
For Jodi, who was told by a Seattle city worker to wear “gender-appropriate” swimwear to the city pool in 2012, her double mastectomy helped clarify her sense of self.
“This was actually territory I’d trod for most of my life,” she writes. “I am androgynous. I have always been androgynous. I am gay. I have always been gay.
“I feel good and ‘normal’ in this new body. I feel sexy and attractive and, well, like me. I have never had a millisecond of regret over my decision. My breasts never defined me, my identity or even my gender. I am not less myself without them, I am more condensedly myself, because there is less in the way of you perceiving my sheer humanness.”
The three women in the Play Out photoshoot are among a new breed of activists who are speaking up about female body stereotypes in the hopes of ‘normalizing’ public perception of flat-topped women.
Emily, who frequently walks around bare-chested in public and posts images on her Facebook page, recently started Flattopperpride.org, a website and support forum for women dealing with the issue.
“Why do we feel that we need to promote the false impression that all women have breasts?” Melly asks on her personal blog. “I seek a culture where we aren’t as concerned about hiding our illness as we are about healing our bodies, our minds and the earth we walk upon.”
The last word on the subject (in this space) deservedly goes to Emily, who offers a lengthy and whimsical defence of ‘going flat’ in the introductory article on Flattoppers.org.
“I want to let you in on a little secret: I really love not having breasts. I love it,” she says. “People ask me all the time if I miss my breasts. I had a bike that got stolen five years ago and I miss that bike more than I miss my breasts.
“I can go topless anywhere, and in this way I am returned to the days of my youth when I could run alongside my brothers or neighborhood friends without thinking of breasts dividing us from each other. Simply being topless in public can be a revolutionary act.
“My personal favorite thing about being breastless though, is that jumping on trampolines is so much better now.”
Below are more shots from Play Out photographer Candace Doyal’s visit with Emily and Jodi in Seattle. To learn (a LOT) more, follow the links below.