So the latest hot topic of conversation around the watercooler last week was actress and director Angelina Jolie’s boob job.
More specifically (and slightly more seriously) her decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy after learning she had a gene that significantly raises her risk of breast cancer. Jolie revealed the information in an op-ed for The New York Times, where she talks about how she made the choice to undergo elective surgery after watching her mother fight ovarian cancer for nearly a decade, before passing away age 56.
Jolie had tested positive for an inherited mutation of the BRCA1 gene, which significantly increases the chances of breast and ovarian cancer. Jolie’s own doctors estimated that she had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer, and a 50% risk of ovarian cancer. With these kinds of odds, not to mention six children to think about, it seems only logical that she would proceed with the preventative surgery.
So why would having a medical procedure to stay safe from cancer be worthy of so much media attention?
It is, of course, because the surgery involved having her breasts removed. Whether we like it or not, a woman’s breasts are inextricably linked directly to her sexual desirability and identity as a woman. So when an actress, whose career is largely built on playing sexy action heroines, has one of the symbols of her sexuality (her breasts) removed – it makes headlines.
There are many women who are terrified of ever needing a mastectomy, even with the advanced reconstructive surgeries available today. There seems to be a notion that that if you remove a woman’s breasts, you somehow also remove her sexual desirability and even femininity. This supposedly makes her less of a woman or even less of a person.
What I find unusual is that a woman can legitimately stuff bags of silicone or saline into her chest and society largely views this as making her more sexually attractive. Yet when a woman elects to remove her breast tissue in a medical procedure, even when (as in the case of Jolie) she has it replaced with implants, we somehow view this as negatively impacting on her sexual appeal.
This is of course a totally bizarre concept when you think about it. Nevertheless many women have spoken about how having breast cancer or a mastectomy has somehow made them feel diminished as a woman. However there are also many, very brave women who have fought breast cancer and had to come to terms with this surgery.
Jolie is being praised for telling her story because she is helping to break down the idea that a woman’s sexual appeal or femininity is determined entirely by what her body looks like; and that there is only a limited range of what a woman’s body should look like to be sexy. It also confronts the notion that a woman’s ability to be sexually desirable or feminine somehow also determines her worth as a person.
As a woman who often appears on many a “worlds sexiest” list, writing about the decision to have a mastectomy as empowering rather than diminishing, Jolie will help other women struggling with cancer, surgery and genetic testing…and even to some extent challenge restrictive ideas about body image, gender and sexuality.
I think that is definitely something to be admired.