By Jennifer Beeman

At the same time that I began working at Breast Cancer Action Quebec, I started noticing the phenomenon of women revealing their experiences of breast cancer and their post-mastectomy bodies in the media. We certainly live in a tell-all/reveal-all era, but this was new. And it was occurring in a range of forums. The phenomenon received added attention with the news coverage of Facebook banning many of the photos, as it had also done with photos of women breastfeeding. Facebook’s policy has been reversed, but it took an odd amount of time for them to come to their senses. Their policy also illustrated one of the many paradoxes of the phenomenon; that is, photos were banned in which some women didn’t actually have breasts, so on exactly what grounds were they being banned?

In addition to often being integral to maternity and sexual pleasure, in Western societies breasts are terribly burdened: They are literally burdened with environmental toxins, threatened by gene mutations, we are lectured and culpabilized about breast health, and breasts are particularly encumbered by contradictory social norms regarding what they should represent. They are often used as signifiers of gender or sexuality; they are also covered, padded, revealed and adorned, augmented, sometimes reduced, flattened in binders, or displayed in ever more diverse and innovative ways. But what are they when partially or completely removed?

The need to reveal:

Part of the process by which we fetishize breasts includes the requirement of hiding them, which means that this part of a woman’s body is no longer entirely in her control but is now under the watchful eye of our collective social norms, as Facebook clearly pointed out to us. Hiding a body part serves to mystify and, in theory, increase its value. Therefore, the act of revealing is considered significant and, again, one that women are not entirely free to control, which points toward the long history of the male gaze on female bodies. Yet, we have not advanced significantly in liberating ourselves from this power dynamic.

Most women live with the give and take of these norms. So, when the breast or breasts are altered, women are confronted more clearly with the paradoxes and hypocrisies at work. The most direct way to shatter the mystification at the base of these norms is by revealing breasts as they are and, in this case, facing and revealing changes resulting from breast cancer. If that which is hidden retains the potential to discomfort and embarrass, it holds unwarranted power. Revealing the source of that discomfort can be liberating. If I am no longer embarrassed by it, it cannot hold power over me. The problem is no longer mine. It is yours.

You will see this:

Tens of millions of women in North America have gone through breast cancer surgery on some part of their breasts. That means millions of women have been obliged to work this through for themselves, in whatever way they have chosen to do that. But the rest of us are taking an awfully long time getting to a similar understanding and demystification of the breast, or the lack thereof. Women are finding power in pushing the rest of us to move forward.

This is not to make light of that process. It is a deep, emotional, complex process with many stages and that involves others, particularly partners. I have heard women refer to their post-mastectomy bodies as feeling “mutilated.” But the breast or breasts had to be sacrificed for the life of the woman. And women must subsequently redefine many aspects of how they see themselves on so many different levels. They need others to understand that society as a whole needs to open up its understanding of women with breasts, with partial breasts or without breasts at all.

One example of a post-mastectomy photoshoot, about which I am the most ambivalent, is The Scar Project, which is also the example that is seared into my memory because the emotions that came blazing through the images were so raw. But when I say I am ambivalent, I mean that my reactions—both positive and negative—were extreme, which probably shows the force of the project and the extent to which it succeeds in forcing us to see.

Take your fetish off my body

What are breasts? They are organs for breastfeeding newborns with big heads on floppy necks that need to be held in the crook of an arm. From an evolutionary perspective, this is more successfully done when the mammary organ protrudes, as opposed to the non-protruding mammary glands of other primates whose young are able to cling to their mothers. (For a wonderful overview of the evolution of our breasts, and much more, see Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, by Florence Williams.) That women are required to cover breasts in most Western societies is completely arbitrary and sexually fetishizes these organs. The fact is that this fetish does not disappear when the breast is no longer there, but in this situation we don’t know where to put it, so to speak.

One of the most fascinating examples related to the post-mastectomy photoshoot phenomenon, but slightly different, are the bathing suits created by Finnish designers for post-mastectomy women. These monokinis have covering for a breast that is intact and also a cutout where there is no breast, only a scar. The designs are flamboyant to an extreme and highlight the paradoxes at play. The audacity of these bathing suits thrills me every time I see them. In one small piece of clothing is revealed all the hypocrisy of our attitudes towards breasts, forcing us to face the discomfort of their absence. But ultimately, I think they help us get to a place where it really does not matter—breast or no breast, there is an extraordinary woman wearing a really cool bathing suit.

This is breast cancer: it is me and it is not me

A woman’s relationship to her breasts is most often very complicated, even without breast cancer entering the picture. When it does, the relationship becomes that much more complicated and layered with so many emotions. Some people promote the idea of “getting back to normal” after breast cancer. Last year, in Montreal, a group promoting breast reconstruction used the insulting phrase “get your breasts back,” advocating reconstructive surgery. There is no going back in life generally, and certainly not in the case of breast cancer. But there is hopefully a new “normal,” and it is up to every woman to decide for herself what that is. Most women will be different, if not always externally, certainly internally. Women don’t want to be defined by the disease, but it generally does change the course of their lives. For some, moving forward and finding that new path involves revealing what has happened; for some, taking pride in their strength; for others, wanting the world to acknowledge that what they are facing is difficult. This insistence on showing and being seen and heard can be done beautifully, maladroitly, sadly, insultingly, movingly, shockingly,  or all the above. For many women, this movement will not be denied. And while we do not have to agree, at all, I think we owe them the respect that comes with looking, listening, and probably learning.