Paul Tanner is an artist who’s known for his work in prosthetics. But he doesn’t make the kind of thing you probably think of when someone says the word “prosthetics.” He doesn’t make fake body parts that just look like chunks of plastic or metal. He doesn’t make things that are functional but don’t look anywhere near “normal.” He makes prosthetics that look almost exactly like the original body parts he’s copying.
Tanner has been fascinated by the idea of prosthetics since his teenage years, when a family member lost his ear to melanoma and got a new ear that looked just like the other one.
Since then, Tanner has devoted his life and his career to making prosthetics that look exactly like the original body part they’re meant to replace. One of the most recent extensions of his work is in prosthetic nipples for patients who have undergone mastectomies, and the results are unbelievable. He uses molds and photographs to make personalized and handpainted nipples for each of his clients; no two of his creations are the same.
“I could mass produce these, and I could try to reach the 150 million women in the world who could possibly use these,” says Tanner, “but I’ve found that when I give a woman her nipples, it has a far more powerful effect than anything that could be mass produced. When I give a woman her nipples, the emotions are joyful and powerful and overwhelming.”
In 2008, Tanner met a woman named Brenda who had breast cancer. She had a mastectomy in the hopes of surviving, but she felt less whole, less like a woman, without her nipples.
Using molds of Brenda’s breasts and pre-mastectomy photographs of her nipples, Tanner took on the challenge of making Brenda a set of nipples that weren’t just a replacement pair—they were an exact replica of her own nipples. And when she tried them on, something unexpected happened.
Brenda, who had had no problem lifting her shirt in front of Tanner while she had no nipples, immediately blushed and pulled her shirt down as soon as she had them on. She finally felt “naked,” for the first time since having breast cancer.
Tanner wants the world to know that wanting to get your own nipples back is not a vain desire. It’s not about looks; it’s about healing and feeling like oneself again.
“I love that I get to be a part of this, that I get to be a part of their journey,” says Tanner. “I love that I can use art to help people feel whole again.”
Check out the video below to learn more about Tanner’s story and see more women’s reactions to trying on their new nipples for the first time.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?