Danica Patrick explains how she knew she had breast implant illness: 'It’s such a gradual process'

It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.

Danica Patrick is getting candid about her relationship with her body and femininity as a former athlete in a male-dominated sport, and acknowledging how getting breast implants impacted the way that she felt about herself on a daily basis.

The former IndyCar and NASCAR driver tells Yahoo Life that she grew up in sports, participating in everything from track and basketball to tee ball and cheerleading. Even before she set her sights on racing, she had an understanding of how to cherish her body.

"I always knew that my body was for more than just looks, like it had a functional purpose," she says. "Knowing that whatever I did was to make it a highly tuned functioning machine I think was great, because it gave priority to function over aesthetic."

Forming that relationship early on was important for Patrick, who ended up in a sport lacking female representation. When it came to competing amongst men, her physical appearance remained low on her list of priorities.

Patrick talking to drivers at the Inaugural Superstar Racing Experience Event in 2021. (Photo: Getty Images)
Patrick talking to drivers at the Inaugural Superstar Racing Experience Event in 2021. (Photo: Getty Images)

"Being around guys didn’t give me any kind of complex about my body. At the end of the day, I was doing the same thing as them. We were both competing in sports," she explains. "But I do think it gave me some insight into how guys operate. So that’s probably more of a downfall of men."

In fact, the 40-year-old found that her recognition and success as an athlete gave her a unique opportunity to explore and express different parts of her personality, from tough and aggressive to feminine and sexy. "I think the worst thing is for us to be pigeonholed into this sort of single identity of something," she says. "And one of those aspects, especially as a female, is to be sexy, is to be beautiful, is to aesthetically feel good about yourself."

And although she felt confident in her body, she recalls her desire to get breast implants in her early 30s. "I was like, ‘Man, I’m fit. I look good. I have no boobs.’ I just wanted to kind of have it all," she says. "Then I got them and I wouldn’t say I loved them, but I liked them."

Patrick hadn't publicly shared that she had implants upon getting the surgery in 2014. It wasn't until April 2022 that she opened up about health problems she had faced in the years since. She tells Yahoo Life that she had capsular contracture in one of her breasts, which is a formation of scar tissue around an implant that can lead to aesthetic problems or pain.

"I thought maybe it was from racing and crashing, and I was like, 'Ah it’s justifiable going 200 [miles per hour] and hitting a wall,'" she recalls. "Time went on and the other one did the same thing, and that’s when I knew it was my body not really liking these objects in my body."

By 2018, Patrick had noticed changes in the health of her hair, as well as weight gain. Over the next few years, those symptoms persisted and became worse.

"Hair loss and weight gain, and nothing I did fixed it. And I couldn’t lose weight and then I lost my cycle," she says. "It’s not something that all of a sudden you get [the implants] in and then you’re sick the next day. It’s such a gradual process."

She explains that she "tried so many things" over the course of a year to address the symptoms. Ultimately, she decided to get the implants removed.

"I noticed a difference within hours," she says of her appearance and her energy levels, noting that she wasn't expecting to share her experience with the world but then felt the need to do so just 36 hours post-op.

"I wasn’t sure I was ready to share this.... but then I remembered that true vulnerability is sharing something you’re not really ready to. So here it is," she wrote on Instagram, where she detailed her decision to get the implants, as well as each of her symptoms of breast implant illness after the fact. "If this post helps just one get to the root of their issues, it did it’s job. I will share my progress as I go along."

Patrick tells Yahoo Life that she continued to notice improvements throughout her body in days to come.

"Within five days, my face totally looked different. And I had been saying to people for a year or two, I’m like, 'My face doesn’t look the same' It just looked like I always had a double chin going on because my lymph nodes were sticking out. And I had so much energy like 12 hours after surgery the next morning," she says, adding, "It’s just a matter of time before the rest of it clears itself out too and everything gets back to normal."

Patrick has since re-explored her relationship with her body image to get to the root of her desire to get breast implants in the first place. "I think that with my implants I really did feel like it would make me feel more feminine. But the thing is is that after I got them, I knew they were fake every second," she says.

In another Instagram post, she shared an old photo of herself in a bikini alongside the lessons that she's learned through her experience.

"I wish I could of told this 32 year old girl that boobs won’t make you more perfect or have it all or be more feminine. These were my reasons and to me these narratives are the problem. Implants just feed into it. Culture feeds into it. Social media feeds into it. Filters feed into it. Unhealed trauma feeds into it," she wrote. "The work is always an inside job. The real question is - how can I do the emotional work to see myself as perfect, having it all, and feminine? When we do that, we won’t seek outside validation or a way to get it."

She now has a new approach to feeling empowered in her body.

"Really just embodying femininity makes me feel sexy, to just remember the essence of femininity and what a woman’s capable of and our bodies and how beautiful and shapely they are," she says.

Most importantly, she's come to fully embrace her body "in its natural state," returning to her original ethos of prioritizing her ability over appearance.

"There’s nothing in the way, there’s nothing interfering with performance," she says. "I’m all about just maximizing the body for function and for just living a really amazing life and living a better life for longer."

—Video produced by Olivia Schneider

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