The Amazing Reason This Woman Went Topless At Afropunk

Photo: Courtesy of Ericka Hart.
Two years ago, Ericka Hart was about to walk into a Sephora in Lower Manhattan when she looked down at her ringing phone, and stopped right there on Wall Street. It was her doctor. When she answered, he confirmed that the lumps in her breasts were cancerous. This was May, just four months before her September wedding.

Hart went on to learn through routine tests that she had two distinct types of breast cancer in each of her breasts (one was triple negative, and the other was HER2-positive). In July, she underwent a double mastectomy. While undergoing the process of reconstructive surgery for her breasts in 2015, Hart's plastic surgeon ran into an issue: Finding reference images for a Black woman's reconstruction.

When Hart herself went online to look (via a quick Google image search) she also couldn't find any pictures of what reconstruction scars might look like on Black skin. This lack of visibility, along with her desire to change how breast cancer survivors are portrayed, led Hart to declare her status as a survivor in a huge way.

In late August of 2016, Hart went topless at the Afropunk Music Festival in Brooklyn, scars and all. And her photos definitely struck a chord across the internet.

Refinery29 recently chatted with Hart over the phone about what went into her decision to go topless, why it was important to her identity as a queer Black woman, and how breast cancer changed her relationship with every part of her body, including her hair. By the end of the interview, we had a new perspective on illness, race, sexuality, and how they all intersect — and so will you.

Let's start at the beginning: What was it like to be diagnosed with breast cancer at such a young age?
"Breast cancer rocks your world in a lot of ways, and at 28 years old [at the time], it makes things a little bit different, just as far as what your priorities are. At the time, my priority was to get married, and I wanted to look really pretty when I got married. I struggled with wanting that [because] I was going through breast cancer! And I feel like I struggled because I was pushing up against the conversation around breast cancer, which is [currently] like, okay, now you have to focus all your attention on being this survivor or inspirational guru to people. And you kind of just have to be sad and fight and all these things. It kind of put my life into one dimension, [when I'm so much more than that.]
"As a sex educator who also identifies as queer, what I was noticing is that there aren’t many services for people who are queer. I would go [to chemo] with my wife at the time, and people would stare at us. When I would tell people my emergency contact was my wife, they would say, 'Is Emily a boy name?'"
The doctors asked you that?
"No, front-line staff. A lot of the time, what people don’t talk about is that when you go to the doctor, you’re navigating more than one person. You have to fill out the paperwork, you have to talk to the nurse practitioner before the doctor ever comes in, and all of these people might not be trained in the cultural literacy that a doctor is.

"With that being said, doctors in med school only get about two hours of sex education for their entire time in med school. So my oncologist never talked to me about how chemo might affect my sex life. I was someone who was newly married, and I’m a sex educator, so that’s really something that I think about often, because it’s just my line of work. So that I wasn’t talked to about that, or that [my sex life] would be impacted by chemo. There’s just a lot of side effects with sex that I wasn’t aware of because no one was talking to me about it."

How does all of this tie into your decision to go topless at Afropunk, which we have termed "the most woke festival on the planet"?
"With Afropunk [I thought], how are breast cancer patients portrayed? And they’re portrayed with this survivor mentality, and you’ve never ever seen a double-mastectomy person in a movie portrayed as sexy or having the best sex of their life, you know what I mean? There has to be some story about how they survived cancer, and they’re sad, or they die, or don’t die. Our lives are so much more than that. I can tell you that I have really great sex!"

I still feel really sexy with my body this way, and I want to be received as sexy, not just as a survivor.

"So I went topless at Afropunk, one, to raise awareness of Black — cis and trans — people [with cancer], because we have higher mortality rates. We don’t go to the doctor because of historical trauma, institutionalized racism, so on and so forth. And we die faster because if you find cancer later on, your rates of survival are less.

"I wore my chest out because I wanted to raise awareness, but I also...still feel really sexy with my body this way, and I want to be received as sexy, not just as a survivor. I wanted other people to hear my story and to be touched, like this is so not about me anymore. It's for whoever is going through this, or who may go through this, or who have parents who have gone through it. My mom died of breast cancer when I was 13, and was the most courageous person I ever met in my life. I remember she came home from having nipple reconstruction, after having her lump removed. And she was doing ballet topless in the room because she was so happy to be out of the hospital! She wasn’t walking around outside topless, but I believe that if she were here, she would be in complete support of me doing so.
Photo: Courtesy of Ericka Hart.
Hart as a child, with her mother.
"Each day that I went to Afropunk (a two-day festival), I didn’t ride my bike topless, I did not get on the train topless, I didn't take a cab topless. I got there in a top and then had a whole pep talk with myself, like should I do this? I don’t know if I should do this. Then I saw a cis man there who had his shirt off, and I was like, I’m taking my fucking shirt off."

Were you nervous about doing it?
"Oh, absolutely. I was nervous in the sense of, how is this going to be received? Are people just going to be staring at me? Breast cancer can be an invisible disability. As a Black woman — lots of Black women wear their hair bald — so when I was going through chemo and was bald, people would compliment my 'haircut.' I’ve been bald before willingly, but it’s very different. So if I’m wearing a shirt, you would never have known [that I had breast cancer]. People assume that cancer looks a particular way, so I wanted to show that cancer doesn’t look any way. It doesn’t look bald, it doesn’t look frail, it doesn’t look white, it doesn’t look straight. It looks like this: 28 years old, queer, broke, and living in Brooklyn."
What was it like? How did people react?
"People were super kind, and came up to me and hugged me. People asked me what happened, and that was really surprising for me, because I understood how much this education is missing. The fact that you would look at my chest and not know is odd to me. Like oh, you don’t know what this looks like then. We need all the education in the world for people to be like 'oh yeah, she had cancer.' Some people knew, and came up and shared their stories with me, which is amazing. Some people contacted me over social media and said, 'you made a difference.'

"If you did a Google image search for 'double mastectomy' right now, what would come up would be a lot of white women. I’m very visual, so when my doctor told me that I was going to have a double mastectomy, I went to see what this would look like. So I searched and searched and — not that there’s nothing, but there was very little [in terms of photos]. And there are plenty of Black women who have double mastectomies. So where are their photos? And plenty of Black women are taking pictures of themselves. My intention is to fill up Google; that’s what I want to do. I want Black people and people of color to see themselves, to see what their scar is going to look like."

Was that a problem when you were undergoing surgery?
"Oh, yeah. My plastic surgeon works in the Bronx, but sees a lot of white women. Because when I told her I wanted to see a photo of what this [scar] was going to look like on me, she had to find an old patient’s photo. She had tons of white images — she showed me a white image. And I said, 'I get that, but it’s going to look different on me.' So she found one, but it was hard for her."

Did you want to go topless at Afropunk because the festival was so important to you?
"Yeah, I wanted to do it at Afropunk because there’s a high concentration of people of color — in particular, Black people. Afropunk, for me, is also a safe space. I was nervous, but I also felt I would be received in a way that’s supportive, and I was. I wanted to raise awareness with Black people, I wanted to be around people of color, and have them see this up close and personal. "

I want you to see my kinky hair, and I want you to see my scarred tits.

How did all of this change your body image or your relationship with your body?
"It completely impacted my relationship with my body. Growing up in this century, you have lots of opinions and thoughts about your body, comparing it to this Eurocentric standard of beauty. Even as a Black girl with body-affirming parents, I still had the same stuff ingrained in me. And I still do, I can’t even say that it’s gone. But it’s certainly something that I challenge and resist on purpose. Now, It’s like, I really want you to see my size. I want you to see my full stomach, to see my full lips, my Michael Jackson nose, like Beyoncé says. I want you to see my kinky hair, and I want you to see my scarred tits. I want you to see all of that as another body. I have to take care of this body. This body is super important, this body is healthy. It’s a different perspective that I have on it [now]; it's more than just aesthetic."

I saw a photo of you with your amazing pink hair. What was your decision behind that?
"I had long dreadlocks for five years, and the day before my double mastectomy, I did a 'Breast Beach Day' with all of my friends, where I went to the beach and just celebrated my breasts. That night, we cut my locks, which is super-duper hard for me Black women and hair and all. I had a friend dye my hair pink breast cancer is so 'pink,' so I kind of played with that. And I was just kind of like, 'this color is fucking cool.'"

You mentioned your relationship with your hair; how did that change after you underwent chemo?
"Oh, cutting my locks was super-duper hard. I feel like a Black woman’s relationship with their hair is just like, you talk about body image, but forget about that. My relationship with my hair is just always a thing. It’s not a contentious relationship, but we have conversations. We know each other really well. I’m just super connected to what's on top of my head more so than my breasts, honestly. When my breasts were cut off, my question to my doctor was, 'do I have to go through chemo? Because I don’t want to lose my hair.' I was connected to my breasts, of course, but not as much as I am to my hair. Like it was way more of a thing. And I’ve been bald before, but I didn’t want to be [this time]. I wanted to wear my hair the way I wanted to."

"But how it’s changed is that I used to be able to cut my hair down whenever, but I now do not want to cut my hair at all. Like some of the comments on my pictures are like, 'she’s really empowering but she has pit hair.' And I’m like, 'hell yeah I have pit hair!' When you go through chemo and your pit hair falls out, you love it when it comes back!"

Ericka Hart is a sex educator based in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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