Several years ago I had a tumor removed from my left breast. An older woman I'll call Cassy, known for her community-mindedness, called me up to ask how I was doing. I felt great, and told her so. She happened to call me up the night before I was scheduled to have the bandages removed.
"Have you scheduled reconstruction yet?" she asked.
"Reconstruction?" I asked. "Why? Why would I want to have more surgery?"
"Oh, come on, honey," she said. "You have to. When those bandages come off and you see what's underneath, you're going to be devastated. I'm telling you, I know people who have been through this."
"No," I said. "I'm not going to be devastated. I'm going to be happy to be alive and feeling strong and healthy."
There was an exasperated sigh from the other end of line.
"Look, don't you realize how ridiculous you're going to look? What are other people going to think of you when they see you with that awful deformity?"
"What awful deformity?" I asked. "I had a small tumor removed."
"You'll see," she said, angry now that she realized I wasn't interested in her opinion or her advice. "You'll regret this, you'll see. You're going to look awful, honey, just awful."
"You know what? I've got to go, Cassy," I said, and hung up.
When the bandages came off I was startled, but not devastated. My left breast looked different, but so what? My breasts are not sexual tools for selling products or attracting men, however our culture may wish to define them. My breasts are a part of my body that God, in his love and in his artistry, created.
I had breast-fed my son, Noah, for several years, and from my breasts flowed nurturing, love and devotion. Now Noah was five years old, strong and tall and healthy. I didn't feel my breasts needed to find a new purpose. I felt that I, myself, needed to achieve the greatest possible strength and self-respect so that I could be the best possible mother. Achieving that strength and self-respect certainly did not call for submitting my body to more blood-letting, more surgery-related drugs, more time away my real life as a mother, as a writer, and as an activist.
Some time later, another tumor appeared, and this time, I had a mastectomy. I recovered from this even more rapidly than I did from the lumpectomy, because, this time around, I knew precisely what I needed in order to recover. By this time I'd shut off access to myself from people whom I knew, like Cassy, to be emotionally destructive, people who speak of caring but who are in fact disrespectful.
On the other hand, I now had people in my life whom I could trust with my very soul in the most difficult of circumstances. While they might not always agree with my choices, they offered real support and respect. These were the people who, upon hearing I would be having surgery, responded with good cheer, vitality and precisely the sort of help I asked from them. These were the people who cooked the foods I asked them to cook; who helped me succeed in making lifestyle changes I wanted to make. These were the people who met me with smiles and good humor and a sharing of their own strength and optimism. These were the friends who sent me sleek clothes to help me look towards the future; who brought me scented lotions and candles, who baby-sat for my son and who never burdened him with gloomy faces. These were, above all, the people whose presence was energizing, and whom I knew made my son's life better as well as my own, because when they visited, called or wrote, they brought their joy and their faith in me with them.
After the surgery, I healed rapidly and well. I had no intention of doing reconstructive surgery, and in fact, I found the scars from the surgery quite beautiful. My scars are like a red embroidery, as if they were a warrior's ornamentation. I feel like an Amazon woman, a warrior, a woman who lives life on her own terms. For several years I had lived with an abusive husband, whose abuse had included mauling my breasts. For the first time, after this mastectomy, I began to feel some healing from that abuse. All the love and all the strength of spirit that my friends shared with me, and all the strength and self-respect that I had found in myself in the process of choosing my healing path, had replaced the injured breast, a breast burdened with the memory of abuse.
Where one of my breasts had been, there was now an abundance of power and strength. My remaining breast felt new, as if it had been re-formed as I slept through the surgery; it seemed to me the breast of a young woman. This breast would not be mauled; it would not be wounded by an abuser. For the first in my years, when I looked in the mirror, I found my body truly beautiful.
For about a month, I wore many layers of clothing, feeling a need to protect my chest during its relatively vulnerable time of healing. But I felt impatient and frustrated with how much difficulty I had in one particular respect. I love to run, although I am not a great athlete, and I was finding it difficult to run so encumbered.
I realized, one sunny day, when I just didn't feel like wearing bulky clothing, that I was doing more than protecting my body. I was protecting my ego. Cassy's ugly remarks about my "deformity" still resonated in my soul. Every time I put on one of the sleek running shirts my friends had given me, I felt a need to cover it with something else, something bulky, something that would obscure the fact that I only had one breast. Would I ever get over that, I wondered? I felt certain that I would, and yet, when I looked around me, I saw no one who looked as I knew I looked. With the millions of women who have had mastectomies on one side, surely there must be other women with bodies like mine. Is it possible that every single one of us so fears looking "ridiculous" and "deformed", as Cassy said, that we feel we must wear prosthetic bras, or have further extensive surgery done to our bodies just when we most need to be concentrating on healing?
This idea was appalling to me. Does society value women so little that instead of celebrating our survival, it pressures us to take serious health risks by undergoing further surgery, or, less brutally, but no less absurdly, to buy clothes that enable us to pretend to having bodies we do not have? Is it really possible that at this time in history a woman cannot be perceived as being worthwhile and valuable unless she meets society's criteria for being a sexually desirable object? That is, to put it bluntly, is she considered repulsive -- not only by men, but by women -- unless she meets the visual criteria that make her appear worth fucking by a man?
I pondered this, revolted, and finally, inevitably, I did revolt. Yet, the morning I did this I was not even thinking about my appearance. It was very cold and windy, and I put on a pair of long underwear, top and bottom, under my running clothes. Over this I wore a jacket. With the jacket, there was no room for a bulky sweatshirt. I ran well, that day, drinking in the brilliant sun and enjoying the exhilaration of the cold air on my face. I ran a comfortable mile and a half, and then decided to treat myself to a cup of tea and a New York Times at a local Starbucks. It was warm inside, and, without thinking about it, I took off my jacket while I was waiting in line. I sat down with my tea at a table by the window, read the newspaper, and relaxed. Then, just before I was about to leave, I got up to use the bathroom. In the bathroom, when I washed my hands, I glanced into the mirror.
There in front of me was a runner, in sleek, close-fitting running togs, looking healthy and fit. She had lovely color in her cheeks. Her posture was straight, and her shoulders were square. She looked happy. Then it dawned on me that she had just one lovely breast, on her right side. Her left side looked sleek and strong.
I looked at this woman, at myself, and smiled. I had been drinking tea in Starbucks like this for nearly an hour, and the world had not stopped. No one had noticed me at all, as far as I could tell, except in the casual way that people glance about in coffee shops. No fashion police had appeared to escort me to the door; no one had fainted of disgust. No, nothing at all had happened, except that I had freed myself, in the most natural way possible, from the power of an absurd social stigma.
I am done obscuring my beautiful body with bulky clothing.
In losing one breast, I have gained power over my body and my self in a way I could never before have imagined. To a great extent, I was able to find this power because I was fortunate enough to find a true sisterhood of friends who supported me with their strength, their love, and the power of their own self-respect. I believe it is well time that all women threw off the mantle of shame and self-consciousness that society imposes on us for the differences in our bodies and souls, and I believe that we need each others' support to do this. How else can we survive, and grow as a society, in any meaningful way? How else can we teach our children to have self-respect of their own, and to respect the women they will know as adults?
Power does not come from conformity; it comes from solidarity. There is a very big difference, and I am grateful to have learned it.
mmo : february 2007