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Victoria painting a woman's face blue and gold

Women with breast cancer can sometimes feel undesirable, I want to change that

Victoria Gugenheim is a world-famous body painter, and has worked on some astounding projects. More recently, they have been working with breast cancer patients in order to raise money and awareness.

I didn’t think about cancer until later in my life

Years ago, I worked with my late friend, a model named Sean Jones. He had lost his mother to breast cancer, and I had lost my grandmother.

I painted him as a way of doing something that would honour his mother, create a beautiful piece of work, but also do some good. The project was called Immortal Enemies. It had a pink ribbon in the middle warding off cancer cells, and I used electron micrography to ensure they were painted accurately.

Until then, I didn’t really think about breast cancer. But then it hit me like a wave, and I started thinking about how I could help other people who have been affected by breast cancer?

The project with Sean led to me doing a piece in The Guardian Science called ‘Sum of Her Parts’, which addressed the war on gene patenting raging in the Supreme Court at the time.

The project ended up going viral. I was glad to see it getting so much attention as, each time I sell one of these pieces, some of the money goes to breast cancer charities.

A woman with grey and orange robotic paint covering her body

Breast cancer influences a lot of my work

A lot of my art is science-based, so I’ve researched a lot into how cancer starts and metastasises (spreads), the risk factors, and so much more. I’m also planning more pieces and projects based on preventing and raising consciousness and awareness of breast cancer.

Breast cancer also affects men, so this is another factor that has influenced my art.

I’m naturally curious anyway, but it’s led me to be more aware about how I can help, try more effective ways of painting and getting messages across.

My main focus used to be competitive painting (I ended up ranking third in the world at one point!) but now I can’t just paint for competition - I also paint for compassion. Much of my work is directed by activism, and I ended up making a competition piece based on the life and death of someone with cancer.

I want my models to feel empowered

For the last 10 years, I’ve worked alongside Pink London as a resident painter, and I want to do so much more. I haven’t even started on how much I want to do and the ideas I have!

It is primarily women who develop breast cancer, but I work with people of all gender identities who have a connection to the disease.

What I love about my work is that it takes mutual trust and respect, as well as compassion. It’s not a commercial exercise; it’s an exercise in allowing people to become strong and powerful within their body.

When these models see themselves transformed, the look of joy that spreads across their faces is one of the most beautiful things in the world. Noticing how they then hold themselves and move, how empowered they feel - that makes my work feel so rewarding. 

Everyone I work with is unique and has their own story. Through bodypainting, their individuality shines, even when they are part of an abstract art piece.

Whatever stage people are at with their treatment or recovery, they have a right to be recognised as individuals and to see themselves as empowered figures.

Victoria painting someone's body with a blue pattern

Bodypainting can help you reclaim your body

I have found that women with breast cancer can sometimes see themselves as undesirable. I hate that society’s standards of how a woman ‘should’ look makes people feel somehow wrong or incomplete after surgery or a mastectomy. These are incredible people, and they have every right to see themselves as - and feel - beautiful.

That’s what body paint can do.

When people are painted, their posture changes, their smile widens, and you can see how truly beautiful they really are. I hope they carry that feeling home with them, because it’s entirely theirs.

I want to share the message that your body can be a source of strength and beauty, and that body painting can be an amazing way of reclaiming your body. That, through brushstrokes, you can become anything you like for the day.

A woman with a painted red face with shiny sequins covering her head and a black and gold pattern covering her chest.

Everyone needs help sometimes

Because of my family history, there is a possibility that I am a altered BRCA gene carrier. It’s something that sticks in the corner of my mind, and I think everybody should have access to gene testing if they want it.

If I am found to have it, I’ll likely have a double mastectomy as a preventative measure. I don’t assume this will be the case for everyone though, and nor would I advocate for that - it would just be my decision.

To the models I paint, and to anyone else with a breast cancer diagnosis, I want to say this: your body is strong. It has carried you through your life, whatever imperfections you may see or feel. Harness that strength and realise how resilient you are. And in your moments of needing help, it doesn’t mean you have failed, it just means that you need assistance - and that is ok.

You can find more of Victoria's incredible work via their website or by following them on Instagram.

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