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Angelina Jolie's Breasts and the Bravery of Letting Go


May 20 2013
Refusing to let beauty become a trap.

I heard the news of Angelina Jolie's mastectomy on NPR last Tuesday as I was driving to work. Several co-workers stopped by my office that morning to ask what I thought about her decision to remove both her breasts to prevent her from getting breast cancer.

"I think she's brave," I said. "I think she's very brave."

Angelina Jolie's mom had died of ovarian cancer in her 50s, and genetic testing showed that Angelina was positive for the BRCA-1 gene mutation, which not only raised her risk of ovarian cancer, but also meant she had an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer in her life.

I tried to concentrate on work that morning, but my mind kept drifting to my own experience with breast cancer. I was diagnosed with it when I was 27, and went through a bilateral mastectomy, four more surgeries, chemo, and radiation. And now I'm on medicine for the next decade to keep it from coming back.

On Tuesday afternoon, I went for a walk and I remembered. I remembered waking up from the mastectomy with bandages wrapped around my chest to cover the massive incisions that marked the place my breasts used to be. I remembered my hair falling out in clumps when I was going through chemo, until I was completely bald. I remembered losing so much weight during chemo that my clothes hung from my thin frame.

And I remembered standing in front of the mirror for hours, staring at myself, trying to find even a glimpse of the girl I used to be, but I couldn't find her anywhere. I had lost the hair and breasts and curves that had identified me as a woman.

"I look like a 12-year-old boy," I cried to my mom one afternoon. As I laid in bed that night I cried some more, thinking that I was not only unrecognizable, but unlovable. What man in his right mind would love a woman with no breasts and no hair? I felt like I'd had to sacrifice my femininity in order to save my life.

In the fallout of Angelina's announcement, there was lots of praise, some criticism, and a fair amount of fear from women about why someone would undergo such a drastic, disfiguring surgery. Mastectomies make many women uncomfortable because the procedure threatens one of our most identifiable female features. It calls our ideas of sexual attraction into question. It becomes tempting to believe that if we lose our breasts, we lose the ability to attract male attention, and we lose our sexual power.

A mastectomy also insinuates that our breasts are disposable. And we don't want anything about us to be disposable. We want our breasts, and ourselves, to matter.

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