Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past week, you already know that actress and activist Angelina Jolie revealed that she had chosen to have a double mastectomy due to the fact that she carries the gene BRCA1 which sharply increases her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Jolie’s mother, Marcheline Bertrand, died in 2007 after a 10 year battle with cancer. While Jolie’s situation is fairly rare (the genetic mutation is not common), I was really impressed by her decision and I applaud her for being so forth coming about the reasons why she chose this course of action. As you know, I am all about family and the fact that she chose this option to ensure that she could continue be there for her children and partner has garnered my, as well as seemingly the world’s, total respect. What’s even better is that she used her celebrity to shed light on the need for greater accessibility to cost effective genetic testing, research and education to women of all socio-economic backgrounds. I know that it sounds corny, but in this case, it does prove that knowledge is power.
However, there is one other aspect of this story that really struck me. In her op-ed piece for the New York Times where Ms. Jolie went public about her medical ordeal, she says, “On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.” We’re talking about Lara Croft, here! I don’t care what your man said as he was running, not walking, out of the door to see the Tomb Raider movies, he was not going to see these movies because he thought it was great cinema. Angelina Jolie is hot! I know it, you know it and your man knows it. She has built a career (at least in part) due to the fact that she is a bona fide sex symbol. Granted, in recent years her movie roles and philanthropic interests have ventured away from roles like Croft, she is still regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world. With that in mind, it made her decision to remove her breasts, for more or less a prophylactic reason, that much more powerful.
Would you have done the same thing? I’ve never been in that situation so, obviously, I don’t really know what I would do but, the truth is that few things are so synonymous with a woman’s femininity as our breasts. Well, maybe our ability or desire to have children. Even the Bible makes it clear that a woman’s breasts are a sensual part of her being designed for pleasing her husband:
Your stature is like a palm tree,
and your breasts are like its clusters.
8 I say I will climb the palm tree
and lay hold of its fruit.
Oh may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
and the scent of your breath like apples,
Song of Solomon 7:7-8
18 Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
19 a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
be intoxicated[a] always in her love.
Proverbs 5: 18-19
So, is it not understandable why so many women who have been confronted with a breast cancer diagnoses have struggled with the thought of losing their breasts? I have listened survivors tell me how they have mourned after the mastectomy and wondered if their spouses would still be attracted to or even love them. These were average, everyday women just like you or me, not women that have had their red carpet appearances scrutinized and every fashion choice critiqued. Not, women who have appeared nude on the big screen or have hair and make-up professionals waiting to fix them up whenever they need it. They are our neighbors, our hair stylists, our manicurists, the lady at the grocery store check out or the dry cleaners. They are us. On the other hand, our careers weren’t built on our looks and that is what made Ms. Jolie’s decision that much more remarkable.
No, our identities and our femininity are not tied to our breasts. We are wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. We are lawyers and doctors, writers and teachers, nurses and firefighters, police and construction workers. Our hotness is measured by so much more than our bra size. Our value is determined by how we feel about ourselves – powerful, strong, capable. Courage is our tool to taking care of ourselves and faith is our armor. Thank you, Angelina for reminding us that being a woman is about the sum and not just one (well, two) parts.