While women survivors of breast cancer often opt to augment the affected breast after a mastectomy, there remains a sheer prevalence of women who choose otherwise. Finnish fashion designers and artistic directors of Monokini 2.0, Katrina Haikala and Vilma Metteri: Tärähtäneet Ämmät/Nutty Tarts, have garnered attention around the world for their social art project that re-examines popular culture’s contrived notion of beauty, and what defines a healthy and whole woman.
They’ve designed a swimwear collection for women who have survived breast cancer — particularly for those who have suffered a mastectomy and have chosen not to augment their affected breasts. Prior to Monokini 2.0, the only available swimsuits had two cups and thus demanded the use of an uncomfortable prosthesis that induces perspiration.
“Our culture, way of thinking and perceiving phenomena’s, are thoroughly commercialized and that makes us very easy targets for visual manipulation and commercial ‘brainwashing,’” Metteri said. “We hope that with the social movement raised by the impact of Monokini 2.0, we can change the mentality just a little bit, and raise acceptance toward the diversity of human bodies.”
In general, Metteri said, Scandinavian countries like Finland are more aware than others of gender equality. And while the attitude toward breast reconstructive surgery varies among cultures, in Finland, Metteri said, women more often opt against it.
“The expectation of having two breasts becomes difficult when you start letting it restrict your life. And unfortunately I suspect this is exactly what happens with many operated women,” said 39-year old Finnish marine biologist Elina Halttunen, whom herself underwent a mastectomy 10 years ago, chose not to have surgery and subsequently originated the project idea. “After my operation, I remember I thought that I had become breast-fixated. I felt I saw breasts everywhere, but after a while I realized that this pretty much is the case. Our whole culture is breast-fixated; I had just become a bit more fine-tuned to the fact by becoming an outlier.”
Halttunen was first diagnosed with cancer when she was 30 years old, but does not remember it being too difficult. She was operated within a week of the diagnosis and finished with chemotherapy within six months of the operation.
“Losing my left breast was not such a big deal for me. After all it had cancer, I wanted to get rid of it,” she said. “I just did not want to undergo a new operation, especially not a procedure that would have required several operations with a suite of possible complications. I did not see the point, especially as I would not have regained the feeling in the reconstructed breast. I saw it as a cosmetic operation that I did not need; I got used to how I looked as one-breasted, and my scar became a part of me…a healthy reminder of my mortality and therefore of my priorities in life.”
But it wasn’t as easy to refocus on all of her priorities. “What I remember as hard was what happened to me as a person,” she explained. “Before my treatments I was active, healthy, strong and social, and the future was full of wonderful things. I was just about to get married and leave for a six-month honeymoon in South America. But months of chemo made me passive, sick, weak and isolated, and I was not even sure I had a future.”
Halttunen said it took time to rebuild her physical health, self-confidence and optimism, but handled it all by streamlining her attention on getting back in shape. For her, this meant taking the time to resume kayaking, sailing, surfing and diving as a self-proclaimed eager swimmer and beachcomber. But the only available swimwear was not suitable to her active lifestyle.
“It’s not difficult to find regular clothing and specially designed swimwear if you are willing to wear the prosthesis. But when doing sports and on the beach, I don’t want to, because wearing the prosthesis is uncomfortable in the heat. And then finding something suitable for my body is difficult, because there are no designs for us one-breasted women,” she explained. “We are expected to either to make or fake a breast to fit the offered suits. So I either have been using sporty swimwear tops that flatten my remaining breast or, lately, monokinis I’ve made myself by modifying the suits to fit my body.”
Aware of the success had by Metteri and Haikala’s former social art projects, including “The Hairy Underwear Project,” Halttunen decided to reach out to them two years ago.
“We planned the whole project and the goal for it, and from the very beginning we were aware of its extent and the need for thorough co-operation with many people who come from different backgrounds—people from art organizations, people who have had to face cancer, people who work in the field of fashion, people deciding about funding and the people who see the results of our work as the audience,” Metteri explained. “In the core team there are a bunch of efficient ladies working: Elina Halttunen—the mother of the original idea; producer, Laura Porola; photographer, Pinja Valja and graphic designer, Johanna Hörkkö. Then we have our beautiful and brave models—10 women who have had mastectomies due to breast cancer.”
The team met their first model, Sirpa, through the Finnish Breast Cancer Association, and after her picture went viral, women began contacting them. Monokini 2.0 eventually produced a series of photos of the 10 women wearing 10 inimitably designed Monokini 2.0s.
“We wanted to make the photos of women posing in Monokini 2.0s to resemble regular fashion photographs, so that they would melt in the world of billboard advertisements where young and skinny Photo shopped women are posing in bikinis,” Metteri said. “We wanted them to blend into the visual world of everybody who sees them, without the preconception of the fact that they are actually looking at art photos—photos that have other messages to deliver than the ones we find in commercial photographs.”
Halttunen, herself, designed one of the photographed swimsuits. She said, “I wanted to make a suit that did not make me feel I was missing a breast. I see asymmetry as a great design opportunity.”
Not only has Monokini 2.0 produced the first swimwear collection in the world specifically tailored to women with one breast, but this is also the designers’ first swimwear collection. Already, nurses in Denmark are showing Monokini 2.0s to patients who have had undergone mastectomies.
“We want to make women feel happy with themselves just the way they are, and give a bold attitude and example of confronting the challenges of being sick and losing your breast—and still feel full and satisfied about yourself and your body,” Metteri said. “You are beautiful as you are, even with one breast or no breasts at all.”
To be successful in this goal, the team received artist grants from the Kone Foundation in Finland, the Norden (Nordic Culture Fund), the Finnish-Norwegian Culture Foundation and the Finnish-Norwegian Culture Institute. But their Kickstarter campaign intends to raise enough funds to take Monokini 2.0 beyond a social art project, and put three of the Monokini 2.0s into production for public purchase.
“This the first time it could be possible to go out to the beach wearing a Monokini 2.0, but it depends on our crowd funding campaign…We are lacking funding. It is not possible to continue without financial resources, although we have been working a lot pro-bono, we can’t implement the project without money. I think we have raised an interesting conversation and it would be shame to settle there.”
Their Kickstarter campaign is open for support through June 30th.
The collection will be on display at The Finnish Museum of Photography (Finland, May 23 – July 9, 2014), Museum Anna Norlander (Sweden, October 2014) and Kunstplasse 5 (Oslo, Norway, January 2015).
“We´d love to do it all over the world with women living in different cultures, it shows the norms in our culture, and gives possibilities to broaden the preconceptions [about] gender, sexuality and social norms,” Metteri said.
As for Halttunen, herbreast cancer journey is unfortunately not over. This spring, she was diagnosed with a recurrence. “This time around it has been a bit harder mentally, mainly because the prognosis is worse. I really have to think what I am going to do with the rest of my—maybe not so long—life,” she said. “Luckily, the Monokini 2.0 project was launched just as I am recovering from my treatments. The project and how it’s been received has been an extremely positive thing to focus on. I feel that maybe I have made a positive difference in some peoples lives.”