The Activism of Oversharing

Angelina Jolie, in publicly airing the details of a surgery that forced her into early menopause, is taking a stand on the ways in which women should think about their bodies.

Jolie at a summit to end sexual violence in conflict zones on June 12, 2014 (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

Let’s talk about menopause. Or let’s talk, at least, about Angelina Jolie. The actress, filmmaker, and advocate recently underwent surgery that removed her ovaries and fallopian tubes—and that, as a result, put her into forced menopause at the age of 39. Jolie has written about the surgery, and its effects, in Tuesday’s New York Times. “I will not be able to have any more children,” she writes, “and I expect some physical changes. But I feel at ease with whatever will come, not because I am strong but because this is a part of life. It is nothing to be feared.”

That Jolie would undergo the surgery she did, given her genetic risk for ovarian and breast cancers—she lost her mother, her grandmother, and her aunt to the disease—is not in itself terribly noteworthy; it was a decision she made, she writes, after long consideration, and with input from medical professionals both “Eastern and Western.” What is noteworthy, though, is the fact that Jolie detailed the decision in the pages of the New York Times. Even in the age of US Weekly and TMZ, celebrities’ personal health is still generally regarded as, you know, personal. And reproductive health even more so. What Jolie is making, by being public about her surgery, is a subtly political point: She’s breaking the barrier between reproductive health and health in general.

She’s also breaking a cultural barrier, though. In her essays—the one published today is the sequel to a piece Jolie wrote in 2013, detailing her decision to get a double mastectomy—Jolie has emphasized the fact that she still feels, despite and even because of the surgeries, fully feminine. “I do not feel any less of a woman,” she wrote in 2013. “I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.” Today’s essay echoes that sentiment: “I feel feminine,” she notes, “and grounded in the choices I am making for myself and my family.”

This is significant, and not just because Jolie’s openness is bringing normally taboo subjects—menopause, mastectomies—into the public sphere. There’s also the fact that Hollywood has, particularly in its notoriously troublesome dealings with women, emphasized a divide between beauty and health. Or, more specifically, between health and “health.” The media-industrial complex, with its emphasis on images and consumerism, has treated beauty not just as evidence of well-being, but also as something that can be obtained at the expense of it. It has sold us, and particularly women, on beautifying solutions like Botox (the injection of toxic botulism into one’s skin), tanning (UV radiation increasing one’s risk of developing malignant melanoma), and plastic surgery, with all its attendant dangers. It has emphasized, in other words, beauty—which doubles, often, as youth—over longevity.

The toxicity of all that, literally and otherwise, is obvious. The good news, though, is that as humans, we're rapidly evolving away from it. It’s not that we’re becoming less superficial, or less interested in beauty and youth and the extension of both; it’s instead that the media is beginning to understand beauty as a holistic proposition—something that is intimately connected to health. Sure, women can still buy their way to better looks, occasionally at the cost of their own longevity and quality of life. But what's becoming apparent now as never before is that the best way to look healthy is to actually be that way. All those Cosmo articles detailing the best diets for glossy hair and glowing skin; all those Marie Claire pieces sharing de-stressing tips. The rise of yoga and meditation and “clean eating” and detoxing and quinoa. The popularity of organic foods. The fact that “green juice” is a thing.

It’s easy to make fun of this stuff, and of all the other things that tend to result when Peter Pan complexes meet conspicuous consumption. What they suggest, though, is an extremely salutary thing: that beauty, in the end, is another thing that's best when it’s organic. Hollywood's embrace of kale, ultimately, implies that the best way to become hot is to become healthy.

Which is another way of saying that hotness is increasingly a holistic proposition. As is celebrity. US Weekly and People magazine and TMZ have made a sport, if not an art, of emphasizing the human banalities of stars' lives (“Celebrities: they’re just like us!”). Social media have given celebrities even more platforms for sharing their relatable humanity. So have more traditional forms of commercial media. Beyonce has, on top of everything else, a line of yogawear and a vegan food delivery service. Gwyneth Paltrow is selling a life philosophy, along with recipes for gluten-free lemon bars, on GOOP. So is Blake Lively, on Preserve. Even Kim Kardashian, who might yet prove to be a mannequin come to life, is selling humanity—her lifestyle, her catchphrases, her particular approaches to celebrity and beauty and capitalism—along with her image.

In that context, Jolie’s discussion of her decision to remove her reproductive organs is not terribly surprising. Celebrities have long used their fame for political advocacy, and Jolie herself has been, on top of everything else, a human rights advocate. (Her bio on her New York Times essay lists her as “a filmmaker and special envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.”) The fact that Jolie is training her focus on her own health puts her in league with a long list of fellow stars who use their fame, and their personal experiences, to bring attention to health issues: Michael J. Fox and Parkinson’s. Katie Couric and colon cancer. Magic Johnson and HIV. Padma Lakshmi and endometriosis. Brooke Shields and postpartum depression. Maria Shriver and Alzheimer’s. Etc.

Jolie's advocacy is especially powerful, though, because the issues she's discussing—and the issues she is, more importantly, encouraging a discussion about—are intimately connected to cultural assumptions about youth and desirability. Jolie is oversharing, in a way, but it's a productive form of oversharing—far removed from the vapidities of the Kardashian Selfie or the self-indulgences of Celebrity Instagram. Jolie, in talking about her surgery, is also emphasizing the inextricable connection between inner health and outer beauty. "I feel feminine," Jolie writes in today's essay. That declaration is preceded, tellingly, by this one: "I will look for natural ways to strengthen my immune system."