Art Bra Austin gives cancer survivors the confidence to embrace their bodies.
By Fiza Kuzhiyil
When Norma Jean Chapa heard the words “you have lymphoma” eight years ago, she replied, “That’s cancer, right?” Though she was given news nobody ever wishes to receive, Chapa felt blessed to know what to do with her diagnosis, thanks to her years of work with Art Bra Austin and the Breast Cancer Resource Center (BCRC).
“I didn’t get scared,” Chapa says. “I didn’t feel alone. Because I knew that I had all of this support, [and]even though it was lymphoma, I knew that someone at the BCRC was going to be able to point me in the right direction.”
For over 20 years, Art Bra Austin has raised money for BCRC. As Art Bra’s creative director, Chapa shares her experience with Art Bra and the support it offers to cancer survivors.
“When you find that something that kind of marries your passion, it’s really easy to put in the hours,” she says. “It’s easy to support, and you don’t even really think about the hundreds of hundreds of hours that you’re donating every year.”
The Fashion Show
Art Bra hosts an annual fashion show where survivors and clients of the BCRC model top pieces designed by local artists.
“Our whole purpose for Art Bra Austin is to create visible, wearable art,” Chapa says. “I want people to look at the runway and look at that bra and go, ‘I could wear that bra under a beautiful jacket to a gala.’ I want them to visualize themselves in this bra.”
Chapa says her favorite part about the event is watching new models enjoy walking the runway. The models are at various stages of breast cancer, many facing the effects of treatment. “There is nothing more rewarding than having a new model who’s never done it before,” says Chapa. “She’s so nervous, you know. They’re wearing a bra. It’s really helping them to embrace their new body.
“I cannot tell you how many times that we have had a really nervous model [say], ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this.’ I [say], ‘I promise you, the moment you put your foot on that stage, nothing else in the world is gonna matter.’”
Not only do the models take the stage; they embrace it.”
“The reason why we do it is to help [each woman]feel empowered to really understand or feel like cancer [is]not winning. ‘I am still a beautiful woman, and look at me on this runway.’ That is something that keeps us doing this year after year after year.”
As she watches the survivors take the stage, Chapa becomes inspired to push through her own battle with cancer. Right now she is in the watch-and-wait stage. She works with her oncologists, watching the progression of the cancer and waiting to begin treatment.
“This is why I’ve always said my cancer doesn’t compare,” Chapa says. “[The models] go through so much more. To see them go through that process and feel gorgeous and beautiful and empowered is just the most rewarding experience.”
A Lifelong Support System
After working with Art Bra for years, Chapa says she is confident the Art Bra board and staff at BCRC will support her through her process, even though she isn’t specifically battling breast cancer.
“Anytime I’ve had a little bit of a relapse, [BCRC] has always been there for me [and]always reached out,” Chapa says. “Whenever I need some guidance on any kind of medical information, they are always there to help me again. I don’t even have breast cancer; I have a completely different type of cancer, but they’ve always been my support system.”
As an event, Art Bra Austin in and of itself acts as a support system for cancer survivors and their families. Its staple fashion show takes up a third of their operating budget and brings in the majority of the donations for BCRC. In 2019, they hit their record for highest amount of donations with over $600,000. But after COVID-19 shut down their operations in 2020, they didn’t know how much they could raise online.
“When we went into it, we were nervous,” Chapa says. “We weren’t sure how this was gonna turn out. So for us to present such an amazing show and then to make $400,000 on a virtual event was a huge success.”
Chapa recalls the first Art Bra show she attended in 2010. She said there were fewer than 250 people there and they raised $20,000. Now, just over a decade later, Chapa says they’re working to make Art Bra a million-dollar event.
“It’s going to continue to be an amazing event,” she says excitedly. “I love that we just keep reinventing it, but never [lose]sight of what the purpose of Art Bra is.”