I know it’s old news now, but such is my life as a stay-at-home-hermit to comment on weeks old news. On May 14, actress Angelina Jolie submitted an article to the New York Times illuminating her choice to undergo a preventive double mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery based on genetic screening. As someone who’s personal and family history puts me at higher risks for the female cancers, I appreciate Jolie’s transparency regarding this aspect of her life. While I question her decision and her desire to promote this level of preventive care, I admire and respect her willingness to discuss them openly. What bothers me is not Jolie’s decision or publicity, however, but the responses I’ve seen calling her “unheroic”. Some have said she is cowardly or selfish because she chose to also have reconstructive surgery rather than allow her flat chest to become a billboard for breast cancer screening.
For a woman to look feminine is good. While femininity indeed has great depths, it is not shallow to associate a female body shape with a woman’s identity. It is good for a woman to look like a woman. I can’t help but wonder if Angelina Jolie is coming under attack because she is known for her full figure in an over-sexualized culture. Would a less famous woman be unheroic for wanting reconstructive surgery? Or a less voluptuous woman be so criticized?
I’ve been surprised to see this backlash against a woman who merely wants to look like herself again. Every cancer diagnosis leaves permanent changes–not all of which can be seen, not all of which can be hidden. Certainly facing the world with an altered appearance requires great bravery and ought to be lovingly supported. A cancer survivor may feel pride in overcoming their battle, may remain involved in research efforts, may provide support for those going through treatment and still want to look like their pre-treament selves. Not wanting to look like you are still undergoing treatment does not mean one is ashamed nor does it in any way imply weakness or frailty of character.
A patient is not always the only one battling cancer. There can be a great sense of comfort and relief in seeing a loved one return not only to health, but also to their normal appearance. Gone not only is the frailty and sickness but also the fear and anxiety that comes with a cancer diagnosis. Keeping this fear and anxiety from her spouse and her children is what Angelina Jolie says motivated her to be pro-active in seeking medical care.
Arguably Angelina Jolie was quite brave and almost heroic to undergo additional elective surgery in order that her children be spared images of her disfigured body or fear for her health. I think we should cut her a break 😉