As the ink gun gently hit my skin for the first time, it took my breath away. Shock aside from the overall sensation, I knew it was a big moment for me. For the first time in years, I felt truly in control of my body. Something I hadn’t experienced for years, ever since I was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 25.
Once the procedure was done, I looked in the mirror at my freshly tattooed nipples and areolas and it was incredible. Nothing could have prepared me for it. It was a 3D image created on the flat skin of my mastectomy breasts. The detail and colour used made them look so realistic. Even looking up close I bet it would be hard to tell they weren’t the real thing.
Feeling proud of my finished breasts, I decided to post a photo of me having the tattoos on Instagram. Not only was it a reminder of how much I’ve had to face over the years, but I also wanted it to help others in a similar position and realise what is out there for them.
However, Instagram took the photo down.
I was first diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago. I had to have a mastectomy, leaving me lopsided for over a year.
Fast forward five years and I had just healed from my double mastectomy – after being diagnosed with secondary breast cancer in 2017 – and reconstruction.
Both sides resembled more of a ball than a boob, so I was offered NHS nipple and areola tattoos, which I had and at the time felt happy with.
The tattoos made me feel like I had breasts again, but they were far from realistic and still left me feeling very self-conscious about changing in front of others.
Then, a few months ago in November 2019, I was contacted by Vicky Martin, who specialised in tattooing areolas and nipples. I often posted about my breast cancer experiences online and having seen them, Vicky offered to tattoo much more realistic looking nipples onto my breasts. I looked at her work online and booked her straight away.
When I visited Vicky at her clinic in January this year, I decided to let my friend Nicky, who also has secondary breast cancer, film the procedure.
I thought it would be a great way to share live what was happening to me with our social media followers, both on my personal Instagram account (Baldbooblessandbeautiful) and on the Secondary Sisters platform, which Nicky and I had set up to educate and raise awareness of what it is like to live with a incurable cancer diagnosis.
We wanted to show people what options were available, as well as show how a little thing can make a huge difference in helping to give others their confidence back.
The response on tattoo day via our live feed was amazing. So many followers sent their support and many asked questions about the process.
The next day I posted a photo on my personal instagram page. Within a few minutes of it going up, I was informed that the picture had been removed because it was considered to include content of a sexual nature.
I felt flummoxed. Not only was it a tattoo, but I also couldn’t believe that women’s nipples were still considered taboo, yet men were allowed to have theirs on display all the time.
I then went to post another one, carefully choosing images that made it very obvious it was a tattoo. All the photos had the ink machine in it or Vicky’s hands (with blue gloves on) in the image.
Again, they were removed but this time the warning message came through informing me that if I posted it again, the whole account would be deleted permanently.
I couldn’t risk it, but felt so angry.
I was not sharing anything sexual, it was just a tattoo and for an important and educational reason. I had suffered breast cancer at a young age and wanted to feel as normal as I could again, whilst in turn helping many others. I wanted to share the images because it takes away the fear some have of these processes.
My new tattoos have given me back a huge amount of confidence. I’d wanted to have them done for a while but due to costs involved I thought it would be too hard.
Incredible people like Vicky offer this service occasionally for free to those in need. She even trains other tattoo artists on how to do areola tattoos, so they also can offer them for free.
Instagram apologised after my experience began to go viral and the story started gaining media attraction. My deleted post was quickly reinstated and they said that it had been taken down in error, as images of mastectomy and breast reconstruction pictures are allowed to be shown on Instagram.
But it showed that the trouble with social media – not just Instagram – is that there is a one-rule-for-all attitude, which means any female nipple shown is banned without anyone actually assessing each individual request.
Men and women are treated so differently. Put exactly the same tattoo on a man’s hairy chest and it would not have been taken down.
Meanwhile pictures of women posing in overtly sexual positions in their underwear are allowed to remain on the grid because they’re is covering up the ‘right’ parts of their body. Post a picture of a women’s nipple in a very nonsexual way – in fact, for medical reasons – and it’s removed. It’s crazy.
There needs to be far more openness and acceptance of the female body when it comes to social media and I hope what happened to me will inspire others to shout just as loudly if they ever fall foul of the female nipple police.
Laura Hughes is the co-founder of Secondary Sisters and posts about her cancer journey on Instagram.
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