Alexis Bittar’s Powerful Portrait Series Showcases the Bodies of Breast Cancer Survivors
As we enter Breast Cancer Awareness Month, designer Alexis Bittar wants to be at the forefront of the conversation—by giving women living with the effects of breast cancer the visibility they deserve. In a portrait series dedicated to the vivacity of such women, Bittar highlights seven survivors who are navigating their recovery journey, with or without reconstruction. The campaign, which is part of the brand’s initiative to raise funds for Living Beyond Breast Cancer (LBBC), is a mixture of strength, realness, inspiration, and healing. Below, we speak with Bittar about the photos—all of which document the women with and without clothing—and why he wanted to highlight these specific stories.
What was the creative idea behind the campaign? You show women fully clothed, then naked.
I wanted to create a space for women to tell their stories about their journeys with breast cancer, discussing the trauma openly as well as coming from a perspective of strength and recovery. For the first shot, I asked each woman to dress “as if you were going to a party”—a true celebratory moment. In the second portrait, I wanted to celebrate their bodies as they are now, post-treatments and surgeries. Each of the seven women had their own individual take on it. For example, Chelsey decided to wear a latex body suit, looking like a badass dominatrix, while Angeles looked like a statuesque ballerina. The concept was to highlight the strength and beauty as they are today. Needless to add, we had a lot of fun on set.
Oftentimes, certain causes are more impactful when they directly affect us. Has anyone in your life been affected by breast cancer and the recovery process?
I have grown up around a lot of illness. My mother became bedridden when I was very young from rheumatoid arthritis. My ex-partner had stage 4 cancer, so I am familiar with the disease. I also grew up in the ’90s surrounded by the AIDS crisis. Breast cancer has affected many women I know. Being around my mother, I’ve always felt very comfortable discussing illness. I know firsthand that someone who is facing illness doesn’t want to be treated like they are their illness and not a full person. I am aware of how much subconscious and conscious shame society places on illness, which seems insane to me. People struggle with grasping that we are all temporary. With breast cancer, I have witnessed many women struggle with not only the shock and fear of mortality, but also their feelings of losing their “womanhood,” or society’s idea of what womanhood is. I have also witnessed women like Jan and Angeles go through the stages of breast cancer and come through the other side to fully claim their lives in a much deeper way than they had before their diagnoses.
Not all brands outwardly align themselves with a specific cause. Why was it important to you to partner with Living Beyond Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer affects almost 13 percent of women, and yet there is still shame surrounding how people discuss it. It’s as if when someone says they have breast cancer, there is something that needs to be hidden. I definitely understand the need to be private and personally heal, but our society also plays into the need to hide it, which creates the feeling of being separated. Whether a woman chooses breast reconstruction or decides not to, these are very personal decisions. I find it interesting how society deals with those conversations. Friends of mine have gone back into the dating world, and have had to navigate their feelings as well as their partners’ perceptions of their body. I think there is a lot to still explore and experience around topics like this, [and] conversations to be had without the taboos attached.
How do these women’s stories inspire you personally?
As a designer, my job is to design and make people feel good about themselves, feel comfortable in their skin, and maybe even push them to let go and have fun with life by dressing up and playing. I wanted to show the strength in being a human being and to help, in my own microscopic way, nurture conversation around breast cancer, by showing beautiful images of seven women that are layered with strength, fear, sensuality, and owning oneself. I had worked with and raised money for LBBC last year after I was introduced to them through the incredible model and activist, Ericka Hart, who had a double mastectomy and starred in my fall 2021 campaign.
While many women spoke out about the power the ad had on them, there was also a real backlash from people who were angry about it. Comments like, “who wants to see this?” were common, and propelled me to take this idea further and create more conversation around it. I think what LBBC does is amazing, both in the funds they provide for medical research as well as creating a community for women who are dealing with breast cancer. I love the idea of fusing consumerism with creating change in the world. I also like real numbers that mean something to a consumer: 50 percent of what you spend will go to LBBC. I know consumers appreciate shopping and knowing that they are contributing to doing good.
What is your response to people who view the visibility of these recovery journeys negatively? There’s a lot of policing and censorship of bodies on social media, particularly of women’s and transgender people’s bodies. Why do you think that is, and do you think campaigns like this will help change that?
The fashion industry is pretty fucked up. It basically drives home the message that you’re not good enough, and you will be better if you buy product. That’s crazy. I think we need to work towards glorifying reality and all its forms, not creating fashion’s historic version of “perfection.” This is why I don’t retouch my images. My hope is that the images and conversations will help spur other women to remove the shame and isolation that breast cancer can cause, and instead focus on their strength and recovery. Having more people show their bodies and talk honestly about where they are in their lives is powerful. I was so happy that Connie agreed to take part in this project. As a trans woman of color, she has a powerful story to tell, but is often left out of the conversations regarding breast cancer.
What does self-love mean to you? How can people own, express, and love their own bodies, even if they’re not what society deems “traditional”?
Self-love is everything. When I was 22 years old, I got sober after using crack and other drugs in the ’90s. I was all ego and no self-love. I had to understand that from the bottom up, and build self-love over time. I think I’ve always related to the “other” in society, not the glorified images we all grew up with in TV and magazines. Loving yourself and your body starts with loving your mind, accepting yourself, past and present, and then accepting your body. Rejecting all the societal norms is imperative.
What do you hope people take away from this campaign?
After last year’s ad campaign, I witnessed firsthand the vitriol that can stem from seeing images of women’s bodies that some may view as imperfect. There were definitely a lot of angry people who only want to see perfectly retouched images. Fuck ’em! The fact that people don’t want to see reality and people owning and taking charge of their lives is their problem to work out. I also hope that people will be introduced to LBBC and the great work they do.
It’s so important to walk the walk with initiatives like this, which is what you’re doing with your 48-hour donation plan. How can others help support?
One of the main action points is raising money for Living Beyond Breast Cancer. For 48 hours, on Oct. 19 and Oct. 20, 50 percent of every dollar spent on our site and across our six stores will be donated to LBBC. So go shopping! I’m hoping that word spreads and we make a shitload of money for LBBC, which will be used for medical research as well as creating a safe place, support network, and community for people to regain control of their lives.
See all the images from the Alexis Bittar x Living Beyond Breast Cancer campaign, below.