On April 29th, 2021, Beijing-based Yu Xiaodan Studio held its first bra fitting session for mastectomy patients. Twelve volunteers aged between 29 and 62 arrived that day.
It was around three or four o’clock in the afternoon, and the studio was filled with warm sunshine. The 62-year-old customer was the first to undress. “Let’s sit here and sun bathe without our clothes on.” The other participants followed suit and sat shooting the breeze in the sun. “Wouldn’t it just be great if the world had no prejudices and stereotypes about us?”
There they were – women who had undergone mastectomies – sharing their experiences and concerns with each other, totally unworried by their scars or the stares they might easily have otherwise attracted.
Yu Xiaodan is their postoperative bra designer. Unlike her customers, who seemed relaxed and content, Xiaodan lived through an exhilarating and exhausting day: “I was really nervous that day. I didn’t sleep much the night before, worried whether my design would really work.”
During the bra fitting session, Xiaodan helped each customer put on her new bra and kept asking for feedback.
The first user took off her bra and asked Xiaodan to touch – it was all wet. Xiaodan was baffled. How could someone perspire so much in April? The woman said that it was because her sweat glands were irreversibly destroyed during the surgery. And many more breast cancer survivors would suffer from similar complications.
That day Xiaodan received words of commendation and encouragement from her customers. It also became clear to her what sort of enhancement would be needed next.
Out for truth and support
A well-known underwear designer, Xiaodan founded a brand under her English name, Emily Yu. But as well as that, she also has another identity as a writer.
In her college years, Xiaodan studied foreign language and literature at Beijing Foreign Studies College (now Beijing Foreign Studies University). After graduation, she worked as an editor of Foreign Literature Review in the Institute of Foreign Literature, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Then she pursued a Master’s in British and American literature at the Graduate School of the academy.
She produced the published Chinese translations of Lolita and Spring in Filata by Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, and What Do You Do in San Francisco by Raymond Carver. She also authored a novel, Beijing 1980.
Eager to advance her career, Xiaodan flew to New York with only $50 in her pocket in 1996 and started to do translation and other odd jobs. A year later, she was very excited to learn that the Fashion Institute of Technology was open to new student enrolment.
A detail-oriented person with a keen eye for the world around her, Xiaodan has as much of what it takes to be a fashion designer as to be a writer. It is also what she feels passionate about.
When she was only one year old, Xiaodan’s hard-working parents sent her to live with one of her aunts, who knitted sweaters for a living. Learning through watching, she created quite a few pieces of needlework herself. It was also how she became interested in fashion design. As part of the application process, Xiaodan took photos of the sweaters she had knitted, unlike other candidates who submitted dress designs. Fortunately, she was awarded a place in the institute.
Xiaodan officially embarked on a career of underwear design when she graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1999. She went on to work as a full-time designer for 8 years and later as a freelancer and independent designer for more than ten years. At one stage she was employed by Komar, a leading underwear producer in New York, and at other times created underwear designs for household names such as Victoria’s Secret.
At the end of 2019, an American doctor working in Beijing “blindly picked” Xiaodan to design bras for post-mastectomy wear. How could she ever be “blindly picked”? She assumed that the surgeon probably randomly selected her by digital means like a map search because her studio in Beijing was close to the hospital where he worked.
The doctor was a mastectomy specialist. He felt sad when he saw that his patients had very few options to choose from after surgery – only a cotton strap like a baby cradle. Therefore, he wanted to have purpose-designed bras.
In fact, Xiaodan knew little about this group of people. However, looking at clinical images, she was shocked to find that where a beautiful curve had been was now a surface of irregular lumps and a wriggly swarm of centipedes.
Should she do that? Xiaodan talked to a friend who, much to her surprise, said emphatically, “Do it.” Only then did she discover that the friend’s mother was a breast cancer survivor and had had a mastectomy.
“It was the first time that I had ever heard and seen real people rather than those cold, impersonal data, and I began to warm to the idea,” said Xiaodan.
The underwear designer was going to meet her supplier in July 2020, having completed her research work in May. Just as she was preparing to go through the security check at the airport, she received a message from Mi, a friend she had known for ten years: “It is happening to me and I can be your model.”
Mi had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite her earlier mental preparation, Xiaodan gave way to tears right on the spot, finding it hard to accept the fact. That moment made her more determined than ever to do the job well. Even if she only turned out a few comfortable pieces of underwear for her friend, it would have been worth it.
It might seem like sheer coincidence that Xiaodan was “blindly picked” for postoperative bra design, but if you think about it, it might be something that was fated to happen.
Jiang Hao: Just Good
Why do mastectomy patients need a professionally-made postoperative bra as soon as possible? If no one makes it, what can they use instead?
Some mastectomy patients need to have postoperative bras and silicone forms ready as recommended by medical staff. These solutions may look easy on paper, but in reality they’re anything but. A host of problems can follow: abrasion against the wound, imbalance between the swell and the healthy breast in the case of a unilateral mastectomy, poor permeability of silicone material, and so on.
In some cases, the intake of endocrine drugs leads to early menopause, and silicone forms can make perspiration more difficult to deal with. “Their silicone forms are often soaked in sweat,“ Xiaodan said. “I’ve seen patients whose chests were all red, with skin even inflamed and showing allergic reactions.”
To combat this problem, many patients make their own pads. “I’ve seen scarves, handkerchiefs, toilet paper, and in some cases, mung beans, grass seeds, quinoa and so on being used.” Xiaodan said. What is good to use is something absorbent or granular, breathable and permeable.
Wearing an uncomfortable, ugly bra after surgery is not so much a humble option to be put up with, but more like a full-scale endurance test.
It took Xiaodan 8 months to develop her design. More than ten samples were made for maximum comfort and beauty.
“It’s essential to consider how a bra is made first, then to think about what it can be filled with, and then combine the two.” For Xiaodan, these women are not incomplete. How to make the bra needs to be addressed first because “every woman needs a good bra”.
In cases where the mastectomy involves the removal of axillary lymph nodes, a more careful choice of material, coverage and cupping is needed. Therefore, Xiaodan chose the softest high-density modal cotton, and did her best to produce a seamless design. “To avoid any foreign body sensation, no loose threads or seams will be allowed in the interiors of the bra – the side exposed to the skin, that is; even rings on the straps and the hooks in the back are kept away from the skin.”
Feedback from the trial users also opened Xiaodan’s mind about breast form design. For one thing, the problem of breathability needed to be tackled, as the memory of a wet bra was quite unforgettable for her. For another, the bra must give a sense of wholeness.
During the bra fitting session, Xiaodan replaced a breast form with a thick mold cup, but the user poked her affected breast and told the designer that it felt a little empty. Xiaodan and her staff wondered what that meant. Later, after much discussion and consultation, it was found that a weak and hollow cup could result in an awkward situation, such as one in which the user may be exposed as she pushes her way through on an overcrowded bus – enough to make her recoil with fear. A good bra needs to feel both safe and comfortable.
Finally, Xiaodan used a soft, breathable and resilient form of high-density cotton foam as a breast plate, completed with a special curvature design on the concave side.
In January 2021, Xiaodan completed her first postoperative bra design and named it Jiang Hao. In Chinese, the first word jiang means ginger, a spice traditionally believed to have healing properties and to be very beneficial to women. Moreover, Jiang Hao sounds the same as “Just Good” and may even be morphologically mistaken for “beautiful” if a gentleman is not being careful – to err on the side of beauty, right?
So far, Xiaodan and her team have held bra fitting sessions in Beijing, Shanghai, Taiyuan, and Wuhan, with nearly 120 participants varying in age from their 20s to 70s. The design of large-size postoperative bras is being finalized. Next will be postoperative underwear designs for different real-life scenarios, such as swimsuit and sports bras.
Bras: not a cure for all ills
In the long and tedious process of design and refinement, Xiaodan repeatedly felt that she could do no more. Some of her colleagues had clearly indicated that the target market of breast cancer patients was too small, and from the market-based point of view, “there is no way to do it, and it is not worth doing it”.
According to the data of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2021, there were about 420,000 new cases of breast cancer in China in 2020. A report published in the Chinese Journal of Science on December 24th, 2021, shows that there are about 2.5 million breast cancer patients in China. These two figures may seem large at the clinical level, but nevertheless suggest that the target market is relatively very small.
“It’s definitely not a way to get rich, but these people and their definite need are true and real. How can you simply turn your back on them? No way.” Since the plan was rolled out, Xiaodan and several core members have worked for more than 600 days without pay. On top of that, she scraped together tens of thousands of yuan from brand sales and family savings to fund the project. And this did not include labor costs.
But Xiaodan doesn’t intend this business to be a charitable cause. Her goal is to make professional bras. “Only when she pays for a product sold in the market, will the user tell you what she really needs, expect you to do more, or even take you to task, demanding an awesome design.”
Xiaodan also understands that her work alone can’t be a cure for all ills no matter how perfect it may be.
In addition to physiological impact, women who have their breasts surgically removed find themselves facing many hard stares in all walks of life. Some chemo patients wear wigs when going out, worried about their husbands’ faces. While changing her underwear in the fitting session, a mother wheeled around and turned away from her 3-year-old son, who was running towards her.
They are afraid that they may frighten their loved ones, that their husbands may feel embarrassed, that they may have some exposure swimming, doing gym, or getting onto crowded buses, and that they may evoke horrified reactions from others. For them, understanding and acceptance means more than being mentally strong and confident.
In 2020, for the first time, breast cancer overtook lung cancer at the top of the global league of malignancies.
What Xiaodan can do is design a comfortable and decent bra for women after a mastectomy. An extra reward may be earned along the way if, by any chance, her efforts bring a greater awareness of this disease, draw more attention to the affected community, and help change the public view and perception.”
“Some people say that I’ve made the softest female armor. I hope so. With this bra, to say the least, they can feel warmth from outside the world, instead of hostility.” said Xiaodan. ?
Born in Luoyang, Henan Province, Yu Xiaodan moved to Beijing at the age of one. She became a well-known writer, underwear designer, and founder of underwear brand Emily Yu. In 2019, she began to design underwear for postoperative patients with breast cancer. In January 2021, after more than ten trials, her first mastectomy bra product was officially released.
Article by in-house reporter trainee Wu Lijun
Photo credits: interviewee