By: Keira Kotler
I never really gave much thought to bras before breast cancer. Lingerie was for the poised and the polished, the ultra-feminine, elegant women who took time to carefully put themselves together daily. Not for people like me who often wore yoga clothes until dusk, or donned the same basic, black styles for days in a row (thus, only warranting the same basic, black bra). The notion of matching sets seemed unnecessary, not to mention costly. Intimate apparel was worn by necessity, purchased by convenience and definitely not a major fashion consideration. While I could appreciate exquisite pieces from afar – at a glance in front of a La Perla storefront or on a beautiful runway model – lingerie was never something with which I identified personally.
Then, I had a bilateral mastectomy followed by reconstruction at the age of 40. I was one and a half years into a new relationship with a man I planned to marry and whose kids I was starting to mother, and the prospect of my life being cut short was more than I could fathom. While I was saddened by the thought of losing such a significant physical representation of my femininity, I had confidence that the loss wouldn’t define me or my relationship. I navigated the procedures as swiftly and well as could be expected, and fortunately, because I had opted for aggressive surgery, once recovered, I was given the go-ahead to get back to my life pre-cancer.
My doctors told me not to shop for bras until 6 or so months after my last surgery due to swelling. At that point, I had no idea what size I was, and I didn’t feel comfortable with my incisions or new shape to be fitted by a stranger. I figured the wonderful world of online shopping would serve me well, and my first order consisted of roughly 10 silhouettes that I had worn before surgery, in varying sizes. With implants instead of natural tissue, I soon learned that anything with wires would likely not fit (there’s no squishing implants into any shape but their own!). So, next, I ordered 10 wireless bras, and then 10 soft bras, and on and on. Nothing worked. I purchased from sites that enabled you to take quizzes to determine your bra shape and size, but none of their recommendations sufficed either. Garments either dug into my scars, rode up into areas of nerve damage or had armholes cut so high and tight that I worried about lymphedema. Even post-operative options caused irritation, and if some were potentially passable on fit, they lacked quality fabrication and fashion (read: matronly, synthetic and scratchy), which ultimately felt like adding insult to injury.
When I tell people that I tried over 200 bras in a 6-month period, it’s no exaggeration. And that doesn’t even include athletic bras. In the end, I settled on layering 2-3 fitted tank tops in order to have discretion and comfort. But this was no long-term solution. My intimate apparel woes were starting to cause self-doubt and questioning: Was it me? Was I just super picky? Was my reconstruction different than other peoples? What did all of the women who had cosmetic surgery do? And why had no one mentioned this issue before?
I posed these questions to my local support group and couldn’t have been more shocked by the responses. Not only was the lack of comfortable and attractive undergarments a universal issue, to my surprise, it wasn’t just newly recovered surgical patients like myself who were suffering. Women who were 10, 20, 30-year survivors were still manually pulling wires out of bras, hand-cutting seams to alleviate discomfort or surrendering to inexpensive sports bras, simply to avoid pain. That’s when the idea struck that maybe I could do something to solve this problem. That’s when Everviolet — a lingerie and loungewear collection that nurtures changes in a woman’s body following treatment for breast cancer – was born.
Going from a woman who gave little thought to her undergarments to becoming a lingerie designer essentially overnight was a trip, to say the least. But the real reason I committed to this new venture was because I learned, in the year-plus of research I conducted prior to initiating garment development, that bras are not mere pieces of clothing. Sure, they support our breasts and offer us discretion while we work, exercise and live our lives. And yes, they can be racy or elegant, helping us to connect with our sexuality and intimacy with others. But the truth is, bras are also a part of how we express ourselves as feminine beings in the world – a deep aspect of our inner identities that often never gets otherwise articulated.
Most women will tell you that they wear lingerie for themselves, not their partners – that a perfectly-cut panty or well-fitting bra can instill a sense of confidence and security from within, allowing us to radiate that strength outward. Lingerie is a little secret we hold within ourselves, for ourselves. For me, someone who predominantly dresses in dark, neutral tones, I have always enjoyed wearing a splash of color underneath – a little brightness or spark of energy that only I know about. I also love the feeling of elegant lace against my skin or seeing a tiny hint of femininity peak out from under my t-shirt.
Lingerie when worn consciously connects us to the essence of who we are as women. Bras can be girly or lacey, simple or refined, but especially after breast cancer, they play a large role in helping us reconnect and renew our sense of self. If we are in constant pain or discomfort, always being reminded of our wounds and treatments, psychologically and emotionally-speaking, we cannot fully heal. In other words, finding comfortable and beautiful lingerie can be a barrier between feeling like a patient and feeling like a person.
My launch into lingerie also helped me realize the profundity of my personal loss. My surgeon said from the onset that I was one of her patients she knew would fare ok in the wake of losing my breasts. They didn’t define who I was as a woman, and out of all of my physical attributes, they weren’t a part of my shape that I considered much. But all of a sudden, after surgery, I felt a strong desire to adorn my chest area with something beautiful and soft, something nurturing and full of love. I realized that I was grieving – grieving the loss of a natural part of my femininity and most significantly, the loss of the spiritual freedom I had before I was diagnosed with cancer. The more I could offer care to my new shape, the more I healed. My body was different now. My mind and psyche were transformed too. I had entered a new chapter of life focused on prevention, surveillance and the ever-present fear of recurrence. And yet somehow, a loving layer of luxurious fabric could offer consolation and comfort, almost like a teddy bear or childhood blanket, encouraging me to gradually and gracefully accept the changes that had transformed my body.
Having a positive self-image is an ongoing journey for many of us, especially as our shapes morph with illness, age and other life experiences. Lingerie is now equated with self-love in my mind, and a means of tending to my body with care. Cliché as it may sound, none of us know what the future holds, but finding small ways to celebrate the present and appreciating what we have are powerful ways to bring beauty into each day. And quite simply, as I’ve come to learn, a bra can do just that.
Keira Kotler. Founder/CEO, Everviolet , artist, designer and entrepreneur. Diagnosed at age 40. DCIS, ER+, PR+, HER2- in 2012. Following her diagnosis, Keira was struck by the lack of comfortable, functional and attractive garments to wear throughout the healing process, and was inspired to create Everviolet — a beautiful lingerie and loungewear collection nurturing changes in a woman’s body following treatment for breast cancer. A brand marketing director and fine artist, Keira’s mission is to help women renew a sense of self and femininity following illness, and to donate a portion of revenue to innovative medical research and clinical trials. She lives in Marin County, CA with her husband and two children. #beautyofchange @everviolet everviolet.com
Editor’s Note: This piece has been republished with permission from WILDFIRE Magazine, the annual “Body” issue (Vol 4, No 3, Copyright (c) April 2019 by Wildfire Community LLC). More information available at wildfirecommunity.org
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