Angelina Jolie’s New York Times op-ed about getting a preventive double mastectomy is worthy of celebration for many reasons. When the world’s most famous actress advocates for preventive women’s medicine, the message goes far. There is also the pleasure of marveling, yet again, at Angelina’s transformation from enfant terrible to responsible mommy. (Her rationale for seeking the procedure: “I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.”) But the feat I most appreciate is that the former Lara Croft, Tomb Raider refuses to equate breasts with femininity. After undergoing reconstructive surgery with implants, she wrote:
It is reassuring that [my children] see nothing that makes them uncomfortable. They can see my small scars and that’s it. Everything else is just Mommy, the same as she always was. And they know that I love them and will do anything to be with them as long as I can. 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.
Angelina walks the reader through her procedure step by step, describing the breasts once considered so flawless that an entire movie franchise hinged on their resemblance to an idealized virtual reality. But Angelina’s breasts were not flawless; there was an 87 percent chance that the cells in them, afflicted with a mutation to the BRCA1 gene, would eventually turn cancerous. So she hired doctors to take her breasts apart, replacing mammary tissue with implants.
“I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy,” Jolie says. But the article itself does not hesitate; other than that one sentence, there is no angst. If anything, the removal, filling, and draining of Angelina Jolie’s breasts is banal. She expresses wonder at the marvels of modern technology, but her own life remains “normal.”
My own process began on Feb. 2 with a procedure known as a “nipple delay,” which rules out disease in the breast ducts behind the nipple and draws extra blood flow to the area. This causes some pain and a lot of bruising, but it increases the chance of saving the nipple.
Two weeks later I had the major surgery, where the breast tissue is removed and temporary fillers are put in place. The operation can take eight hours. You wake up with drain tubes and expanders in your breasts. It does feel like a scene out of a science-fiction film. But days after surgery you can be back to a normal life.
The implied message: You can be a normal woman without natural breasts. You can be a normal woman with no breasts at all.
For Angelina Jolie, “normal life” includes being a sex symbol. She does other stuff, too; she mothers, she reads, she works on projects that have nothing to do with Hollywood. But she also wears couture gowns, poses for magazines, and makes male hearts race when she flashes her legs, hips, and yes, breasts. The Internet’s most shameless objectifiers of women are in open lament: “Let’s all weep for Angelina Jolie’s breasts,” reads a thread on a sports message board. “Angelina Jolie’s Breasts (1995-2013),” a site called The Superficial memorializes. (For those who still haven’t gotten it through their thick skulls: Angelina did not “get rid of” her breasts. Her mammary tissue has been replaced with a synthetic substance, but the resulting anatomical features are still breasts. They aren’t natural, but neither are the breasts on plenty of women in Hollywood.)
We know that breasts do not define femininity, but the schematic and pragmatic associations persist. In addition to concern about breast-feeding and reconstruction, women sometimes cite feelings of diminished femininity when considering mastectomies. Meanwhile, the National Cancer Institute estimates that 12 percent of women born in the U.S. today will at some point develop breast cancer. America is simultaneously breast-obsessed and among the more breast-cancer-afflicted nations in the world. Not every woman keeps her breasts, not even when her breasts are famous. “I miss my exquisite breasts sometimes,” Christina Applegate noted after her preventive mastectomy. (“Exquisite breasts” refers to an Anchorman joke.) The sentiment is powerful in its honesty. But some women don’t miss their breasts, and there is power in hearing from them, too. Jolie expresses no sorrow whatsoever. Her only nod to missing one’s natural breasts comes in a brief, optimistic note about reconstruction: “There have been many advances in this procedure in the last few years, and the results can be beautiful.”