I am 28 years old and I’ve never owned any handmade lingerie.
I’ve honestly never given much thought to my underwear and typically wear cotton panties until they’re full of holes.
My July birthday and Christmas are the two times of year that I purchase anything new and purge the rattiest pairs in my underwear drawer. I can always count on receiving a gift card from my mother or my aunt in order to take advantage of the 5-for-$25 deals at specific stores, but I’ve hardly strayed from the standard cotton drawers.
In recent years, I’ve wandered into the lace section and experimented with different cuts and styles, but my main goal has always remained the same: find something comfortable in a fun color or pattern that won’t create much of a visible panty line in my usual uniform of jeans or shorts. I have a handful of these newer lace pairs that I would consider my “sexy” undies – those that make me feel like I have a secret I’m keeping when I’m wearing them (and most certainly the panties I prefer to be wearing in the company of an intimate partner).
I have never been too much of a “girly girl” and only began to pay any attention to my appearance when I developed friendships in high school with older girls who cared about that sort of thing. My mother is a tomboy and all of those classic conversations surrounding becoming a woman (getting my period, wearing a bra, dressing in something other than jeans and a t-shirt) were either incredibly uncomfortable or basically non-existent, so I received most of my guidance in that regard from my peers. It wasn’t until around my sixteenth birthday that I stepped out in a bikini and realized, based on the reactions of my friends, that I have a womanly figure at all. Since then it’s been an awkward ride figuring how to dress myself in a way that is both comfortable and fun – but sexy has always been the last goal in mind.
My mother battled and beat breast cancer when I was just five years old. She lived for many years with one natural breast and one that had been partially removed in order to save her life. I grew up understanding the importance of maintaining my health without the pressures of having what society would consider a “normal” or aesthetically pleasing body.
Six months ago, I was presented with the reality that I knew I was going to have to face at some point in my life, but I never guessed it would come this early. I have a genetic mutation for breast cancer, called BRCA2, which is one of many that scientists have found at this point. With this and my family’s history, my doctor put my risk for developing breast cancer at 80%, which felt a lot more like a “when” than an “if.” I had to make what I consider to be the most difficult decision of my life thus far – either begin rigorous screening every four months (including mammograms, MRIs, ultrasound, and subsequent biopsies), or remove my breasts with what is called a prophylactic mastectomy. It took me all of one night’s sleep to choose the latter.
I began mentally preparing for the process two weeks before moving from my home in Brooklyn to Chicago, a place that I’ve lived in for a year in the past, but is still largely new to me. I decided on a hospital, met with surgeons, and set a date. I knew I wanted to reconstruct my breasts with a plastic surgeon, and suddenly I was faced with options I never thought I’d find myself considering – what size implants did I want? What shape? What material? Did I want to keep my nipples?
I hated all of the questions and never really wanted to change my appearance in the first place, so I asked my plastic surgeon to make them as close to the originals as possible. Much to his dismay, I decided that I didn’t want to keep my nipples because that meant keeping some breast tissue, and I didn’t want the risk associated with that. He thought I’d be able to have the mastectomy and reconstruction done in one fell swoop, but it turns out that was wishful thinking. Due to an infection and complications, one surgery and an estimated six weeks recovery turned into four surgeries and six months of my life.
By the time my highly anticipated first surgery date rolled around, I’d convinced myself that I was at peace with the physical changes that were headed my way. I’d poured myself into an embroidery project that kept me mentally occupied while anxiously awaiting the removal of my natural breasts, but I soon learned that there was nothing that could have prepared me for the emotional rollercoaster that would follow. My friend and fellow photographer, Jaret Ferratusco, happened to be in Chicago for a period of time leading up to my mastectomy, and he agreed to document my journey. Neither of us could have anticipated all of the extra steps, but I am so happy he was here to help me through it with a creative process.
I woke up after my first surgery with tissue expanders instead of implants, which was a minor setback, but I was okay with it. A week later, I developed an infection, and I was forced to have an expander removed. My plastic surgeon explained that my body needed a break from all of the trauma, so I healed for two months with one pancake-shaped expander on my left side and a completely flat, almost concave pocket on the right. I was destroyed. As much as I tried to tell myself and everyone around me that I was fine with it, I was heartbroken. I was completely uncomfortable in my own skin, felt mangled, and hated looking at myself in the mirror. Jaret’s photographs of that body were my only saving grace, the only thing that helped me see how beautiful I was even though my chest was unrecognizable.
Now, a few months and a couple more surgeries later, my reconstruction journey is complete. I have brand new implants and I’m unbelievably happy with the work of my plastic surgeon. I decided to wear the lingerie that Siobhan Barrett sent to me during my final shoot of the project with Jaret. I was already feeling overwhelmed with a number of emotions, especially knowing that Jaret would be leaving Chicago when we finished and I’d soon be turning the page on this unexpectedly long chapter of my life. With each shoot, I’d gotten increasingly more comfortable in front of the camera, but I still felt mostly like we were just documenting the changes in my body (and my crummy undies) in an artful way.
When I slipped on the lingerie, however, something was different. I felt powerful and totally in control of my body - my body that had been altered and handled and viewed by countless doctors and nurses over the past several months. It was mine again. And here I was trying something totally new, dressing myself in these delicate pieces that were so thoughtfully crafted by hand just for me.
The work that we made that day is unlike the rest because the simple act of changing up my underwear made me feel so empowered and alive. It reminded me of why I began this journey in the first place – to take charge of my life and make sure I am careful to savor every minute of it.
My body may be new and different and strange, but damnit, I’ve never felt sexier.
Writing is by Hilary Corts
Photography by Jarret Ferratusco