Meet two young breast cancer survivors who just revolutionized the runway

Remember that amazing ad campaign for Play Out underwear featuring topless models who’d undergone double-mastectomies? It was an incredible moment, not least because it challenged both gender norms and body expectations at the same time. The campaign went viral, and last weekend, two of those awesome models, Emily Jensen and Melanie Testa, walked the runway in a fashion show for Play Out as part of NYC Pride.

The show was a part of Rainbow Fashion Week, which celebrates LGBTQ style, and it was a big deal: both Melanie and Emily walked the runway wearing just Play Out’s gender neutral underwear, making a huge statement about embracing body diversity and the beauty in every person. Both Melanie and Emily are tough-as-nails young breast cancer survivors who are starting an important conversation about both gender presentation and breast cancer. (Melanie also marched topless in last weekend’s Pride parade in New York City.)

Melanie, a textile designer, author, and artist, was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in 2011. She needed a mastectomy on one breast and began researching her options for reconstruction. “I tried to imagine my body with the best possible reconstructed results. Then I tried to imagine the stress of disliking the results I was able to obtain,” she told HelloGiggles.

Melanie wasn’t wild about the idea of silicone implants or the possible nerve damage and scarring of moving fat and muscle from another part of her body. “The integrity of my body is important to me. Being diagnosed with cancer is bad enough,” she said. When she came across a woman on Flickr who had opted to go bilaterally flat, with no nipples or reconstructive surgery, Melanie saw another option and went for it.

She had to learn to accept her body the way it was, but staying true to herself helped with this new reality. “My sexual identity as a bisexual person helped enable me to make the decision to go flat and eschew reconstruction after a pretty upsetting diagnosis.”

Emily is the founder of Flattopper Pride, an organization that supports LGBTQ breast cancer survivors. She just finished her degree at the University of Washington where she focused on body politics, queer theory, and affect theory. After her breast cancer diagnosis, the decision not to have reconstructive surgery was simple.

“I wanted to have the least medical intervention and surgery possible,” Emily said. “Other than that, not having breasts is more in keeping with my gender. At the time I said, ‘My breasts are fantastic; I want them or none.’ Now I really love not having breasts. I can be more fluid in my gender presentation without them.”

Both women quickly realized that while the majority of breast cancer survivors opt out of reconstructive surgery, society is still really surprised to see women with flat chests. And it’s not just an LGBTQ issue.

“Those who choose non-reconstruction are actually in the majority, even if our society and culture would like to believe that all woman diagnosed with breast cancer reconstruct—or wear breast forms,” said Melanie.

“One in eight women will have breast cancer in their lifetime,” said Emily. “Fifty-eight percent of those women will not have reconstructive surgeries. That is a huge percentage of the population that is flat, yet people are shocked to see flattoppers.”

Melanie added, “While in recovery from treatment, I met a seventy-year-old woman who had worn a prosthesis for 30 years and disliked doing so, which floored me. I could not imagine doing something I disliked for so long.”

Emily saw that there was a range of issues for the LGBTQ community in particular after her diagnosis. “Flattopper Pride began as a result of my realization that people like me had nowhere to turn for support, or even for a compassionate ear,” she said.

“As a young, queer person, I didn’t see role models for myself. There weren’t support groups where I could talk about how cancer affected my sense of gender identity, or even my life as a queer person.” The more survivors she met, the more she realized an organization like this was totally necessary.

“You have to realize that every type of support, be it emotional, physical, financial, medical, educational, or anything else, is designed for cis-gendered people,” she says. “It’s not that queer people have special needs, but rather, it’s that only the needs of gender normative, heterosexual people are addressed.”

This was super clear to Emily when doctors failed to mention the possible fertility issues she might have as a result of the cancer. She was clueless about this until a doctor mentioned it casually. “It was as though no one thought of me as a person who could bear children or who would want to. I was in a same-sex relationship at the time, and no one thought to ask me if I ever wanted to bear children. For any human being, the loss of procreative capability can be traumatic and life-altering.”

Melanie agrees that the biggest issues for breast cancer survivors in the LGBTQ community are invisibility and misunderstanding about how sexual preference dictates treatment choices. “I found it difficult to openly discuss issues related to sexual identity, cancer, and how these ideas support, interact, and affect one another.”

Emily is close friends with the co-founders of Play Out, Abby Sugar and Sylvie Lardeux. But partnering with them to create an ad campaign that promoted Flattopper Pride wasn’t an easy choice.

“We first spoke about me modeling their underwear last year,” says Emily, “but I was wary of the idea initially. I had been posting topless pictures of myself online, and often people would share those pictures without my permission, which felt invasive and unsettling. Then I started my website, and I realized I could model for Play Out and utilize the public’s desire to see pictures of me to advance my cause.”

Emily reached out to Melanie after seeing her in an online support group for survivors. “Emily waltzed into a mutual support forum, posting gorgeous photos of herself, and talking about herself using all kinds of pronouns. I was wowed,” said Melanie. The feeling was mutual.

“Her spirit is so big and strong that you can see it even in online text,” Emily said about Melanie. “I was really impressed by how much she does. Not only is she a talented, prolific artist, she is also an amazing writer. We just really clicked as friends, and as I’ve gotten to know her I’ve learned what a beautiful heart she has, too. I’m blown away by her all the time, and we haven’t even met in person!” (That will all change at NYC Pride this weekend.)

When Emily asked Melanie to participate in the photo shoot, she was completely on board to support all women who are fighting breast cancer.

“We are in a period where women are stepping out and revealing what it can mean to be a breast cancer survivor and to live with the bodily affects of its treatment,” Melanie says. She was anxious to add to this “inspirational and honest representation of the female form after breast cancer.”

“But I also hoped to offer sexually appealing, playful, confident, and strong images. To see your body and your choices reflected back to you through the media is empowering,” she adds.

The reaction to the campaign, and to Flattopper Pride, has been staggering. “It’s been hard to wrap my head around,” Emily says. “I literally created the website four months ago. I never could have anticipated so much media attention. I have to give a shout out to Jodi Jaecks who coined the term ‘flattopper,’ and who has helped me so much along the way in the last year.”

“The positive feedback has been so heartening and encouraging,” she adds. “The best is when someone finds us and is so happy and grateful to meet people like them for the first time. I have moments when I feel completely overwhelmed, and then I remember those times and it’s all worth it.”

“As silly as it may sound, I feel like my story might inspire some people,” says Emily. “When I started this I was unemployed, couch surfing, and didn’t even have a computer. What I did have was a whole lot of passion and ambition. Fast-forward four months, and my website is mentioned in articles in 30 countries, and I’m flying to NYC to model underwear in Times Square. I am overjoyed to have these opportunities and to use them to make a positive impact. This project has been a labor of love, and it has taken over my life. I feel like I finally found my life’s purpose.”

Melanie adds, “Be true to yourself. Embrace the body you have, it heals, it is gorgeous, it is an integral part of your life.”

Here’s the underwear ad challenging gender and beauty norms
One woman’s super-brave “breast selfie” could save lives

[Images of the runway courtesy of photographer Vic Vaiana; image of Pride, backstage, and the beach courtesy Melanie Testa and Emily Jensen]