When I first saw Angelina Jolie's announcement about her double mastectomy, my mind immediately conjured up a picture of her once-magnificent chest, the prominent supporting-actors in Tomb Raider eliminated from her commanding figure. But of course, her famous breasts were skillfully, and I assume rather beautifully, restored. In an age where stardom now includes the fetishization of particular body parts, she had no other choice.
Yet, as equalizing and humanizing as Jolie's words were, the reality of mastectomy is quite different for much of the world, and cuts a bit deeper than even Jolie herself has bravely let on. Much of yesterday's discussion was right in praising her brave choice and assuring us that Jolie, and all women like her, are indeed "still women." However, it is both flippant and naive not to acknowledge that this procedure changes women , however intact their femininity remains.
As any survivor will tell you, breast cancer shows no clemency.
As a girl my cousins and I used to sneak into my grandmother's room to play with her boobs. She kept them in her sock drawer, palm-sized silicon inserts that gave one the sensation of a balloon filled with jelly. Her real breasts had been removed at the age of 57, before the tumors had a chance to prey on the remainder of her still-youthful figure.
Looking back, I realize I never took a moment to think about the experience she had withstood. I had known her in no other way. The subdued contour of her silk blouses were entirely normal to me. But as I spent last night contemplating my own two breasts (and asking my boyfriend obnoxious questions like, "What do these mean to you?"), only then did I begin to understand both the literal and figurative parts of her that were lost.
I called her, and to my surprise, she had once been a rather voluptuous woman. "My breasts were huge!" she told me as if recalling some exciting memory of the past, "Huge! But you know after you have seven children they get pendulous. I had to sort of stuff them into a bra."
After losing them, the most harrowing part, she tells me, was the loss of sensitivity—something faced even by those like Jolie who have reconstruction. It's a kind of sexual evisceration, a source of tremendous pleasure tossed out like spoiled milk. The public, and even doctors, often forget about this. When she heard her surgeons telling my grandfather, "Oh she's so lucky, we'll just remove both her breasts, and she'll be fine," my grandmother remembered thinking to herself, "Well god, why don't you go get your penis cut off and see how you feel?!" (to which I said, Grandmama!).
Following a hysterectomy ten years prior, the additional loss of her breasts precipitated a swift end to her sex life. "It was probably a lot harder on your Granddaddy," she said, "but I just couldn't care anymore. It would have been worse if I was younger."
Luckily my grandmother was approaching her 60s, a time where breasts and sex and one's public image begin to figure relatively less into one's day-to-day existence. But unfortunately many young women are also victims of this diabolical disruption, and at increasing rates.