I wrote this in the fall of 2014. First to note, my mother is healthy and enjoying life with only a 6% chance of recurrent breast cancer since her double mastectomy. Second, I’m retracing my steps to retell the story of how Muse Rebellion came to be. This is the first installment of an ongoing series. We start with a flashback to when I began questioning femininity, the over-sexualization of naked bodies and noting the complexity of sensuality given the fragile nature of our health, storied pasts, sexist narratives and spirituality. Let’s begin.
I have edited segments of this piece as well as updated the images with recent Muse Rebellion shoots.
Years ago I was shopping with my dear friend and her mother for a dress to wear at a collegiate pageant. I sashayed down the dressing room hall of Dillards and asked what they thought of it.
“Does it make me look too busty?” I asked half self-consciously and half proudly.
“Well you are busty,” said my friend’s mom. “It’s a part of who you are.”
I bought the dress.
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time running. As a result, I’ve lost a few pounds. The first thing to go was my chest, which as many women know is frustrating and almost counterintuitive to putting forth the effort to work out because all of a sudden you feel awkwardly disproportionate.
The other day I was staring at my naked bosoms in the mirror and rhetorically asked my husband if it bothered him that they were shrinking. I do think they’re lovely and they have been, after all, part of my identity for a large portion of my life.
As I write, my mother will only have her breasts for another eight hours. She is scheduled for a double mastectomy after a third occurrence of breast cancer in the last five years. This is not an elective surgery, but the result of a strong recommendation by her oncologist. Lumpectomies, chemotherapy, and radiation have failed her so the only action left to take is the most drastic one.
Kathy has elected to not have reconstructive surgery. This has come as somewhat of a surprise to nearly everyone including myself. As breast cancer awareness has increased over the years, a new pair perky breasts almost seems like the well-deserved consolation prize after undergoing the stress and pain of cancer. One of my friends’ mothers had reconstructive surgery without nipples so now she doesn’t wear bras. I always thought that sounded luxurious and kind of sexy.
Instead, mother has opted for a prosthetic bra. As it turns out, crafting a set of fresh bosoms is more difficult than you may think. Some women are encouraged to undergo a procedure that leaves the skin of the breast behind for weeks—sometimes months—to prepare for reconstruction. Others need to enlarge existing skin with tissue expanders that are periodically filled with saline throughout a 6-8 week period.
Breasts are a big deal. They define the female body and sometimes define us. They create a tension between normalcy (as the expectation is to have them) and evocativeness (i.e. have them, but for heaven sakes don’t show them). Some are offended by them, and many more don't even take them seriously.
As the author of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History Florence Williams writes, “we love breasts, yet we can't quite take them seriously. We name them affectionately, but with a hint of insult. Breasts embarrass us. They're unpredictable. They're goofy. They can turn both babies and grown men into lunkheads."
As Williams explains, “breasts feed us, nurture us and excite us. But the most versatile organ in the female body can also kill us. They are made up of fat and estrogen receptors—so they soak up pollution like a pair of soft sponges.”
According to cancer.org, breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women next to lung cancer. BreastCancer.org reports that one in eight women will develop breast cancer over the course of their life. This is grim news for any woman (and the men that make up the one percent of cases). These figures make me wonder why we spend so much time worrying about the perception of our breasts when they frequently try to kill us.
We hide them, fluff them, flaunt them, secure them, loathe them, and delight in them. Most of all, we naturally expect them to be there.
The 20 percent of women opting to not have reconstruction are referred to as “living flat” or “going flat.” This small but growing cohort appears to be living liberated and active lives. A website dedicated to education and support of “flat women,” BreastFree.org shares testimonies of women who feel their appearance bears the scars of a warrior who has survived a great battle. Some are enjoying their active lifestyle more than ever before without the hassle of sports bras while others mourn their former bodies but are ultimately thankful for their health.
Kathy never got on to my sister and I about cleavage; it was more of a conversation. We would ask if our outfits were showing “pretty cleavage” or “yucky cleavage.” Elizabeth and I were usually awarded with the former. Our small but predominantly female family always celebrated our bodies regardless of what stage we were going through. Living with my mother made me feel like a rock star. That attitude shaped me into someone quick to compliment features. It feels so good to have another woman celebrate you.
Today I am mourning the loss of my mother’s breasts. They have always been a source of comfort and all I have ever known of my busty Kathy. As a child I remember resting my head on them during long sermons at church; hugging them in the pool after swimming lessons; admiring them as she got dressed. But this surgery is necessary. Obviously I would rather have my mother around for a long time than a futile sense of security over a few lethal bosoms. As I discover more about her own unique experience, I would also rather her recover quickly and forgo reconstruction if it’s what makes her feel empowered and in control of an otherwise chaotic and unpleasant situation.
Breasts are a big deal. For many they are a large part of the female experience, but life and femininity move forward without them.
Disclaimer: I fully and enthusiastically support any woman's thoughtful decision that affects her own body. Whatever speaks to you and your journey, I’m here for it.