I have been thinking a lot about reconstruction these days. The construction and reconstruction of a body, the construction and reconstruction of an identity. I am watching the ways this new choice about this new cancer is about reconstructing my identity as it deconstructs my body.
Of course, there are many forces that reconstruct our identity. Some are delightful: my uncle Tom got married in September. A bachelor for his first 50+ years, he finally found Connie and reshaped his identity around being someone who was capable of and committed to a life-long partnership (the theme of the wedding was flying pigs). Some of our identity reshaping is horrific. I have had two cousins die as young adults over the last 25 years. I have watched my aunts and uncles reshape their identities as mothers and fathers who have lost children, as people who walk through the world with holes in their hearts.
And there are the smaller ones. The promotion that gives you the identity of boss. The move to a new place that gives you the identity of ex-patriot. The first house you buy, dog you get, car of your own. Each of these creates a new version of us, a new way for us to construct ourselves and be constructed by those around us.
In the last week, I have tried to make sense of this attachment I have to my breasts, to my identity as a woman with two breasts. I have wondered about it from my history (as you’ve seen), from my sociology (looking around at the breasts of others), from my psychology (what is the identity I have and how does it change). I have walked on the beach and through the hills with beautiful people who listen well and let me cry and ask me good questions. And I have changed.
I felt my grief at what a future set of clothes and choices might look like; the life of the one-breasted woman is about disguising the deficiency with prosthetic bras or bathing suits or ruffles. Over the course of my search for something that would feel joyful—that wouldn’t be ugly or dowdy or medical—I have been saddened by what our options are.
And then I have felt angry about it. Given how many millions of women would be one breasted, why do we expect that to all be about hiding? And why do I go straight towards that in my own thinking? If a pregnant woman is beautiful even as her body changes, why would not a one-breasted woman be beautiful, a no-breasted woman be beautiful? Why would we not see that shape as a shape that is moving into and toward life and beauty?
When we go through surgery to remove the cancer and the tissue from our body, we are also taking the shape of a new life, a new identity. Whether we reconstruct our breasts or not, we are reconstructing our selves as women who know more deeply than they did before how precious and brief and beautiful life is, how those things that brought us joy and life once can eventually shift into those things that threaten us.
And then, as we recover from the threat, I want to live in a world where we can once again feel our joy in this new shape, this new body. We spend so much of our lives wishing for the body we used to have (or the body we’ve never had). I want to live in a celebration of the bodies we have at this very moment, not to cling to them, but to know that our body shape is the ultimate in ephemerality, that each moment there is something to cherish in it. I do not yet love it. But I want to.
I am coming to see the beauty in the asymmetrical form. I, who love the things that make us special and distinct, have begun to loosen up my attachment to the conventional way a woman’s body should look. I have come to wish that the one breasted could have spectacular fashion that creates and recreates the female form. They make clothes that flatter the pregnant body, that revel in it (although that is a relatively new innovation). They should make clothes and show us pictures of beautiful different ways there are for a woman to be breasted. I can imagine a world where we would see the special beauty in the one breasted. That the small breasted women would revel in their small breasts rather than buying push up bras that disguise that form. That those who have removed both their breasts could delight in a new form with new options that were as feminine and sexy and fabulous as their old form. I want us to take back our love for our breasts whether they come in pairs or singles or they never came or they leave. Women are beautiful, and we are beautiful in our many many forms. How will we learn this? How will we teach each other? This is what I want for us all. Will you help me find it—not just for me but for all of us?
A postscript: Just as I began to feel it was my mission to make the world safe for the one breasted (“the uniboobers,” Keith calls us), I have learned from two doctors that perhaps there isn’t a medical reason, actually, to take off my breast. I have returned into the grey fog of not knowing, and am watching the way the habit of the medical profession might actually be stronger than their thinking about particular cases. (They may have wanted to take off my breast because that’s the way it’s been done before, rather than being medically necessary in my case). Stan will meet with a group of doctors tomorrow and hash it out and then I will hash it out too.
But now my decision will not be made because I’m terrified of losing my breast. And it won’t be made because I am terrified of dying. I will manage with one breast or two. And I will eventually die, and I have come to see that the taking off of my breast might have basically nothing to do with my prognosis. My intuition, with the benefit of more medical knowledge, has faded away. But I expect it will come back. And right now, I live in the delight of my two breasts for as long as I happen to have them, and the promise of a new dawn tomorrow, and for all the tomorrows I happen to have.
(photo: dawn yesterday)