A few mornings ago, I stumbled into the kitchen to make some tea. My housemate was sitting at the breakfast table, listening to the radio. As soon as he saw me he said, “Did you hear about Angelina Jolie?”
I shook my head. I hadn’t heard any news about her. Had she died?
“It’s all over the news,” my housemate said. “She had a bilateral mastectomy.”
As I drove to work, I listened to NPR’s coverage of the story. I learned that Angelina didn’t have breast cancer; she had what’s called a prophylactic mastectomy — which means she had her breasts moved to prevent her from getting breast cancer. Her mom had died of ovarian cancer in her 50’s, and Angelina had genetic testing done that showed she was positive for the BRCA-1 gene mutation, which not only raised her risk of ovarian cancer, but also meant she had an 87% 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 ten years to keep it from coming back.
Throughout the morning, several co-workers stopped by my office to ask what I thought about Angelina’s decision.
“I think she’s brave,” I said. “I think she’s very brave.”
That 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 twelve-year-old boy,” I cried to my mom one afternoon. And 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.
As I listened to the fallout of Angelina’s announcement, I heard lots of praise and a little bit of criticism, and also a lot of fear from women about why someone would undergo such a drastic, disfiguring surgery.
I think mastectomies make a lot 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.
And this, I think, taps into a deeper issue that many women struggle with. It exposes the fact that many of us identify ourselves — and judge other women — based on external appearances. We often find not only our identities, but also our worth, in the size of our jeans, the length of our hair, the label on our handbag, or the cup size of our bra. And most of us are unwilling to shed these external things to discover who we really are.
The night I heard of Angelina’s surgery, I met up with a friend for dinner. In the course of the conversation, somehow we ended up talking about fairy tales. I told my friend that what irks me most about fairy tales is that instead of the damsel in distress rescuing herself, she always waits for a man to come, which makes her helpless and puts her in even more danger.
“Here’s the thing,” I said. “These women were waiting to be rescued, but all the while they had the means to rescue themselves. For instance, Rapunzel could’ve cut off her long hair, braided a rope and repelled herself down from the tower. And Cinderella could’ve run away from her evil stepmother if only she’d kicked off her fragile glass shoes.”
“Do you know what else those women had in common?” my friend asked.
I shook my head.
“The things they were holding onto were things that made them attractive. They couldn’t sacrifice their hair or their ball gown or their delicate shoes without losing a significant amount of their femininity. The ‘girly’ things they valued turned into a trap.”
As I drove home that night, I realized the real reason I had told my co-workers I thought Angelina was brave was not because she’d had the courage to undergo a major surgery, but because she’d had the courage to get herself out of danger, even if it meant sacrificing something that made her attractive and feminine. Instead of staying trapped in the tower by false standards of beauty, she had been brave enough to let go.
And now I’m left with these lingering questions.
What if all of us women had the courage to shed the external things we’ve used to define ourselves and accept ourselves and each other for who we are instead of what we look like?
What if we partnered with each other in this pursuit rather than excluding or judging each other?
What if we based our worth not on our appearances, but on who God says we are?
What would happen if we prayed for the confidence, and the grace, to simply let go?