It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
Ericka Hart was 28 years old when she was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer in May 2014. She received the fateful call from her doctor while walking around Wall Street in New York City, a place where she recalls being thankful for anonymity as she processed the news. In the seven years since, however, the sexuality educator and breast cancer advocate who has gained notoriety for going topless has been anything but unidentifiable.
While the Black, queer, nonbinary femme explains that she has long understood her body as a sort of rebellion as a result of the racism that pervades society, Hart came to a new understanding of how underrepresented Black people are when it came time for her to make decisions about her diagnosis and her double mastectomy.
She recalls being offered photos by her plastic surgeon of previous patients who had double mastectomies in an effort to give Hart an understanding of what the result might look like and what options she had for breast reconstruction. "But it was really challenging because, again, medical racism has completely kept out Black people, even Black patients," she tells Yahoo Life. "So the images that are there and perpetuated around breast cancer do not have us represented."
Hart made the decision to get reconstructive surgery on her breasts without restoring her nipples. "The nipples that I saw they're like constructed out of your fatty tissue somewhere from your body and it just didn't work for me," she explains. "So I was able to say no to that."
Still, she felt that her bodily autonomy was neglected throughout the process.
"I didn't want folks to really see the scar across my chest. My breasts were no longer round. They were kind of like square," she recalls. "Some people opt to have their scar underneath their breasts, so sort of where you can't see it, and mine is across. I don't think I was ever told that you have that option. So I would say that's one example of the lack of bodily autonomy is that I didn't have the information on how this is supposed to be."
Already feeling as if she lacked control of her own body, Hart had also been in the process of getting her master's degree in human sexuality education, making her more aware of the lack of information that patients receive about the impact that breast cancer and related treatments might have on sexuality and pleasure. This too became something that she wanted to bring attention to as she used her experience to educate people on issues throughout the medical institution.
"When it came to realizing that Black breast cancer survivors were not represented, not just in racial identity but also in gender, as a Black, queer, nonbinary femme, I really wanted to raise awareness. So I used my body like I have for most of my life to have it make a statement," she says. "It really became an opportunity for me to talk about how folks living with chronic illnesses and disabilities across the board are kept from pleasure."
While becoming comfortable with her changed body was a process in itself, Hart later embarked on using her body to address the lack of representation that queer Black people in particular have when it comes to breast cancer. She did so by inserting herself into the narrative by going topless.
In an op-ed on the Afropunk website, she recounted the very first time she went topless in public at the 2016 Afropunk Festival. "I went topless at Afropunk to challenge the notion that 'female-bodied' people can’t take their shirt off due to some androcentric, understated rule that it should not happen in public. I took my shirt off at Afropunk to not only to be seen as a cancer warrior, but to reclaim my sexuality," she wrote. "Breast cancer patients are so often painted as walking inspirational beings, thus effacing any opportunity to be seen as sexy or erotic. I resist the notion that because my nipples are now long, stunning scars I am no longer a sexual being. It never went away."
Years later, Hart explains that while her sexuality never went away, her approach to it changed as she learned that she needed to be more "mindful of what I need" as people seemed to believe her body required special treatment.
"Telling folks not to be gentle with my breasts, because I don't need that. Don't treat me like a delicate flower," she says. "I have to tell people I don't have nipples and that was something I never had to do before."
Now she has a platform large enough to share this messaging with the world, which she does so through different speaking engagements and appearances on fashion runways, and by starring in campaigns that use not just her image but also her story on her own terms.
"I really want the end of anti-black racism. The end of transphobia, the end of classism, the end of fatphobia. I really want my presence and the things that I talk about and teach about to really be a disruption. Not just my presence, which I already know is a disruption," Hart says. "If that means I have to walk down the runway to be in a space that oftentimes excludes Black people who look like me, then so be it."