Beauty and Mastectomy Scars: Removing Scar Stigma

Recently I read a complaint online about John Legend’s music video “You & I (Nobody in the World)”. 

This video is an inspiring, emotional celebration of the unique beauty of all women. John expressed his praise by featuring 63 women and girls from around the world. Included in the 63 was Brenda O’Brien, a woman diagnosed with breast cancer - for the second time.

The woman raising the complaint (let's call her ‘Michelle’ for this post - no offence to any Michelle's reading this!) was upset about seeing Brenda revealing her scars in the video.  The scars were the results of having a double mastectomy. In the video, Brenda is seen taking off her bra and revealing her scars underneath.

Brenda O’Brien, featured in John Legend's video You & I. She has survived breast cancer - for the second time.

Brenda O’Brien, featured in John Legend's video You & I. She has survived breast cancer - for the second time.

‘Michelle’ is a breast cancer survivor, who wrote to complain about Brenda revealing her scars in the video, saying she felt offended by seeing Brenda’s scars in the video, and scars like Brenda’s would be upsetting to other women diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s right. A woman with breast cancer complained about seeing another woman with cancer mastectomy scars.

As a woman who has had breast cancer, and a designer who makes mastectomy swimsuits and post-surgery bikinis for women with breast cancer these comments upset me on so many levels:

  • I felt terrible when I read her comments.

  • I felt awful not only for myself, but for hundreds of thousands of other women who have felt ashamed of their bodies after cancer treatment.

  • Similar words are used to hurt and shame women around the globe, who have had to deal with feeling changed by something completely out of control.

I was also disappointed but quickly realised that this was not a new feeling.

Through my work running my mastectomy swimwear brand, I speak to many women and hear many stories.  Experiences of being scorned by unsympathetic partners who refused intimacy out of disgust for missing breasts and scars. Other women spoke of husbands who didn't want to see the scars, forcing these women to dress in separate rooms. My eyes pricked with tears from just hearing what they shared.

Scar-shaming is shocking, but fortunately, attitudes towards breast cancer survivors are changing.

The fact that a well-known and very popular musician has chosen to include women with bald heads and mastectomy scars in a pop video about women's beauty is a change for the better,

There was a time when no one dared to share they had breast cancer, let alone mastectomy.

Below I share an image which has stuck with me since I first saw it. First featured in 1993 on the cover of the New York Times magazine. “Beauty Out of Damage" is a series of photographs by breast cancer activist Joanne Matuschka (aka Matuschka), displaying her face and body after a mastectomy.

Beauty Out of Damage. © Matuschka

Beauty Out of Damage. © Matuschka

Though controversial at the time, this photo (and the accompanying article on breast cancer) opened up a huge discussion for funding for breast cancer research, and

Matuschka’s photo sparked debate about the treatment, awareness and how women with breast cancer were seen throughout the world.

Up until then, far too many women hid away and even died because of leaving being diagnosed too late -  out the fear and shame link to breast cancer.

The New York Times received thousands of letters, both applauding and complaining the photo, the photo and article raised awareness of women with breast cancer. This image went on to become one of the  "100 Photographs That Changed the World”.

“Activists like Matuschka—a tall, striking artist in New York—set out to shock. As a member of a small group called W.H.A.M! (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization), Matuschka make art of her mastectomy with poster-size, one-breasted self-portraits that force people to see what cancer does. Though the graphic images discomforted some conservative women, they admire her determination. As she says,

  “You can’t look away anymore.”

— Susan Ferrara


I'm so grateful for this image, and the Matuschka’s courage at that time. I feel that this photo, appearing in the press became a huge turning point for how breast cancer was talked about. I believe that we whose lives are touched by breast cancer benefit from the conversations raised by her photograph. She is one of my influences for creating my collection of post-surgery swimsuits and bikinis.

Mermaid Image © Matuschka

Mermaid Image © Matuschka

Images of breasts accepted in newspapers and online: think of Page 3 in Sun tabloid, or "hold a bottle of Coke between your breasts" campaign shown on Buzzfeed. Many of us are still signing petitions for mastectomy photos to be freely shared on social media. We don’t want our accounts closed because of these. So why can't women going through breast surgery, who choose to support other women in similar situation share their stories through images?

My scars tell a story. They are reminders of when cancer tried to break me but failed.

My scars tell a story. They are reminders of when cancer tried to break me but failed.


I then thought of women I know who wear their scars with their heads high. Jennifer is one of my post-mastectomy swimwear models. When she shared this photo with me,  I couldn’t help but feel the joy and beauty of the selfie she took a selfie with her two children. Scars and all. To this day, this image warms my soul.

There are many examples over on The Scar Project, where again you will see powerful images of women who share their pride with their scars through photography.

After some time,  I came to realise that ‘Michelle’s’ comments had inspired me to focus in on the important 21st-century discussions happening within the breast cancer community.  

Thank goodness times have moved on because of the bravery of women like Brenda, Matuschka and the many women nowadays social-sharing are continuing bringing about change. What was spoken in hushed tones now is discussed openly; what used to be kept hidden is now shared, revealed and used to support others with breast cancer.

So in contrast to the disapproval of visible scars, I found compassion, acceptance and camaraderie that women with breast cancer have towards each other.

I'm in awe of all the women carving out new ways of dealing with breast cancer using social media.I'm also filled with admiration for the growing voices within the “flat and fabulous” community (women who choose not to have reconstruction and live with their scars).

The ‘Breast Cancer Club’ is one that no one wants to join. However,  once you’re in, you will find strong connections with those who are in it!

Women in the 'Club', women like myself who bear the scars of making the tough decision to have our breast(s) removed.

Women with breast scars often find ourselves coping with a new, almost unrecognisable bodies. But we are not freaks.  We are not damaged goods.

We are women who have been brave in making life decisions that have resulted in scars. That's all.

I wear my scars like trophies. They are courage marks on my skin, a visual reminder of what I have gone through dealing with breast cancer, and how I am going to keep rising above whatever next comes my way.

We are breast cancer thrivers, with dresses made of hellfire, our scars are evidence of this!

Clover, Creator of Clover Lewis Swimwear

Clover started designing mastectomy swimsuits and bikinis after struggling to find a stylish, beautiful post-surgery bikini to wear on her first holiday after a breast cancer diagnosis. The holiday? A trip to Bali to overcome her fears by learning how to scuba-dive. 

She made her first mastectomy bikini, got her PADI diving certificate wearing it, at that moment personally realised the connections between body image, clothing confidence for women with breast cancer.

So despite the expectation to carry on with “life as normal” after cancer, this experience had a profound effect on Clover. It became the fuel for her mission creating beautiful swimwear for women to feel good about their bodies so they can swim again. 

Through Clover Lewis Swimwear, Clover helps women feel body confident… and feel like they belong on a beach. 

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