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What does it mean to be a fighter? To summon the strength to fight not only for your own life, but for women who aren’t able to raise their own voices?
At 21 years old, Aly Rae Santos decided to undergo double mastectomy surgery after testing positive for the BRCA gene. Her mother had just gone into remission for breast cancer, and genetic testing revealed Aly had an 89% chance of developing the same disease.
What followed was an uphill battle against life-threatening complications, against an industry where diverse bodies are still largely unwelcome, and against the traditional definition of womanhood and femininity.
This is the story of how Aly found her voice in the face of immeasurable struggle, how she stood her ground as an “imperfect” model, and how she made women around the world feel seen – finally.
What made you want to become an activist?
Before my surgery, I was not someone who spoke out. But after I decided to have the mastectomy, people started talking to me about how they “could never.” Or about how their breasts were their “womanhood,” and other terrible things. So, I decided to speak up – but I did not become an activist until after my third surgery, going septic, and ending up in the hospital for 8 days with only one breast implant.
People made comments about how I had mutilated my body and how “disgusting” I looked. But to me, my scars were never ugly. They were a sign of strength and a symbol of life. As my agencies dropped me for not being “sexy” anymore, my voice only got louder. It was never truly about me; it was about the other women who didn’t get a choice between keeping their life or their breasts, and who needed to see someone like them in the media.
How has your view of "womanhood" evolved following your mastectomy, and what empowers you today?
Women empower me. When I was told that I was no longer sexy to men and should not shoot swimwear, I was heartbroken – even though I never shot swimwear to begin with. I never truly felt sexy enough to shoot swim, but when I was told not to, my mind immediately went to all the women who were being told the same, or who felt they had lost their womanhood, and I immediately wanted to do it for them.
As time went on and more and more women reached out to me, the more I felt that I could change the industry and that this was my purpose in life. I never originally did it for myself; I did it for other women like me, or who society may deem “imperfect." I wanted them to fall in love with themselves. My idea of womanhood is loving yourself unconditionally and empowering others around you.
On social media, you mention that you'd rather have "imperfect" breasts than continue to have more surgeries. What did it feel like to embrace yourself so radically?
Honestly, it was not something that happened overnight. In the beginning, I cried a lot, often in the shower where nobody could hear me. I would stare at my reflection in the handle and feel… broken. People told me I was “ugly,” “disgusting,” and would often say things like, “how does your husband still find you attractive?”
It was overwhelming, and I was spiralling. Then one day, while I was sobbing, my husband picked me up off the shower floor. He told me to stand still, and he took this photo of my breast and my scars, and he turned it to me and said, “LOOK at it. Look how beautiful it is.” And he hugged me while I continued to sob – and that was the moment I decided I needed to be the representation for other women.
I posted the photo on Instagram and I started to use my voice. Women who had never thought about being tested for BRCA started contacting me. Others shared how they were terrified to get more surgeries to appear normal when they had almost died, and I understood what they meant. I didn’t want to go septic again, and I was exhausted.
So, I decided that life was more important than breasts. I was done, I was perfectly imperfect, and society could learn to conform to me, not the other way around. I fell in love with who I was as a person, not my looks. I fell in love with life. I fell in love with helping women and I never looked back. My message has shifted over time, but the gist has stayed the same: love yourself unconditionally.
The modelling industry can have a rigid definition of beauty. How did you break in? How have you navigated that rigidity?
The industry was originally not kind to me. I started this journey three years ago, back when agencies still wanted “perfect” instead of stories and unique personalities. I was originally dropped from my agencies and wasn’t getting any work.
I found myself thinking of all the women who were crying in their bathrooms like I used to, or who could no longer look into a mirror, and I knew I had to keep going for them. My goal in life is to normalize all bodies and remind people that imperfections are beautiful. Whether you have one boob, two boobs, scars, freckles, cellulite, stretch marks … you are beautiful and you DESERVE to be represented within the industry.
So for every “no” I experience, I think of every woman who I could be helping, and I keep going. I believe that this is my purpose, to show everyone how powerful self-love can be.
When you need a little extra self-care, what's your go-to treat?
When I am feeling like I need a little extra love for myself, I take a bath, get some ice cream, and breathe it out. If I need something a little stronger, never underestimate a super-hot sit in the shower. I spray some eucalyptus oil, breathe, and take as long as I need.
Learn more about Aly Rae Santos on her Instagram.