Breast cancer survivor hits NYFW runway bearing post-mastectomy scars: 'We should be able to exist in our bodies the ways we want to'

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 12: A model walks the runway during the Chromat x Tourmaline Spring/Summer 2022 Runway Show at New York Fashion Week on September 12, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Sean Zanni/Getty Images for Chromat)
Ericka Hart walks the runway during the Chromat x Tourmaline Spring/Summer 2022 Runway Show on Sunday in NYC. (Photo: Sean Zanni/Getty Images for Chromat)

Ensuring that New York Fashion Week 2021 went out with bang, sexuality educator, activist and breast cancer survivor Ericka Hart made a powerful statement on Sunday, modeling a red one-piece swimsuit on a beach runway and pulling the top down to expose her post-mastectomy scars and reconstructed breasts as she walked.

Hart, who modeled on the last day of New York Fashion Week, and is known for proudly bearing her scars — whether at AfroPunk, fashion shows (she's done several others) or in magazines — captured the moment in an empowering Instagram post, noting in the caption, "They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but it's worth a little more or less depending on how you look."

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"Fashion weeks," her post continued, "put such a high premium on whose body is worthy to be seen — even the shows that include one small fat, racially ambiguous person are sending a message. There's no way you can be a part of the fashion world and not critique it. Well I'm sure there's a way and perhaps that’s how it mostly just stays the same — from the folks designing the clothes to the models to the folks who are granted a seat to watch — no one should be feeling like s**t over some damn fabric!"

Hart adds, "Even as many Black queer trans non binary fat and disabled folks are granted access to a space that was created to exclude us, we have to still critique it and consider why we even want access to that space. And who am I if I don't or can't participate."

Finally, she thanks the designers behind the show — artist and activist Tourmaline, who collaborated with Chromat, the inclusive swimwear line founded by Becca McCharen-Tran — for "creating a show that didn’t disrupt a sacred space."

Hart, at center, wades in the Atlantic after walking in the Chromat x Tourmaline Spring/Summer 2022 Runway Show at Riis Beach Park on Sunday. (Photo: Sean Zanni/Getty Images for Chromat)
Hart, at center, wades in the Atlantic with other swimsuit models after walking in the Chromat x Tourmaline Spring/Summer 2022 Runway Show at Riis Beach Park on Sunday. (Photo: Sean Zanni/Getty Images for Chromat)

That space, the eastern end of Jacob Riis Park, a beach on the peninsula of the Rockaways in Queens, has long been a queer beach, particularly for LGBTQ people of color. As it gets discovered by others, Hart warns in her post, "is currently at risk of being gentrified."

"Gender euphoria" and the beach were themes of the show, Hart tells Yahoo Life. "Chromat has done swim for a very long time and has always included queer and trans and nonbinary people in their show… and it was great to bring it to Riis to honor what is a very sacred space and have folks in suits that were gender-affirming." The show was inclusive of all sizes, shapes and gender expressions, and the new swimwear line being premiered, collaborator Tourmaline explains in her own post about the show, is "designed for the girls who don't tuck, nonbinary and intersex people…"

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 12: Models pose after the Chromat x Tourmaline Spring/Summer 2022 Runway Show at New York Fashion Week on September 12, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Sean Zanni/Getty Images for Chromat)
Models pose after the Chromat x Tourmaline Spring/Summer 2022 Runway Show at New York Fashion Week on Sunday. (Photo: Sean Zanni/Getty Images for Chromat)

Hart says it felt natural for her to walk part of the show with her suit pulled down, which she did towards the end of the show, and also an homage to the beachgoers at Riis, who often swim and sunbathe topless. "I am always topless," she says. "I'm pretty comfortable, but the nerves are always there… There’s so much pressure with Fashion Week."

Still, bearing her breasts, scars and all, is part of Hart's awareness-raising mission. As she told Allure in 2017, her mother died of breast cancer at 38 and Hart was 28 when she found her own lump, leading to the diagnosis of bilateral breast cancer followed by double mastectomy and reconstruction. "Because my scars run across the breast, I have reclaimed these scars as my nipples," she explained, also discussing the first time she exposed her scars at AfroPunk, the festival showcasing Black artists, musicians and designers that started in Brooklyn, where she'd been attending for years.

"I was thinking, you know, I want to go topless at AfroPunk, and I want to go topless because I want to raise awareness about breast cancer. There's not an image of a Black breast cancer patient… let me go and educate," she said, recalling that she was nervous at first, but then motivated on many fronts. "I want people to check their breasts. I'm gonna take this off and I want to be seen. I felt so attractive, I felt so sexy, and people took pictures of me and people came up to me and asked, like, 'What happened to you?' And that was super alarming to me. Like, how come you don't know what this looks like? And then I remembered: We don’t talk about it. There are no images of it."

While that's still an issue, there are more images of post-mastectomy breasts and chests than there used to be, thanks in large part to Hart — who admits that part of why she keeps at it is that she’s mostly met with affirming responses, including "cheering and applause" on Sunday. Also, she adds, her motivations have expanded to include not just breast cancer awareness, but a "f*** you" around censorship.

"I was watching the VMAs, and there was a cisgender man who was topless, and it was not a big deal — he's not getting interviewed, that's just the way he gets to express himself. I would like to be that way, too, without issue," she says. "So, yes it is for breast cancer, but also that we should be able to exist in our bodies the ways we want to and for others to affirm us."