Angelina Jolie's announcement she'd undergone a preventive double mastectomy may revolutionize how we view women's health and the objectification of our bodies.
Jolie is a sex symbol, and those Lara Croft breasts were a part of her appeal. If you're the sort to reduce women to just their lady parts, Jolie offered plenty to talk about. One smarmy website set up a memorial page to Jolie's breasts shortly after her New York Times essay went online.
She had the mastectomy because she carries the so-called cancer gene, BRCA1, that puts her at a sky-high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Her doctors, she writes in her NYT essay, estimated she had an 87 per cent risk of breast cancer and a 50 per cent risk of ovarian cancer. Her own mother died of ovarian cancer at 56.
And so she opted for the surgery. I have an acquaintance who made the same difficult decision because she carries the gene. She was further motivated because she had witnessed the terrible death of a close friend from breast cancer.
That friend was my husband's first wife and, when she died, she left three young daughters. We live in the shadow of her cancer and the devastation to her children and my husband. It is 10 years today since she died, and the pain still ripples through our house.
My stepdaughters have been tested and, thank God, do not carry the gene.
An estimated 75 Manitoba women have had preventative bilateral mastectomies since BRCA testing became available in 2000.
Jolie's essay was interesting for more than just the jaw-dropping revelation of the surgery. She wrote that her husband, Brad Pitt, was loving and supportive during the procedure. Let's hope he was.
"We knew this was the right thing to do for our family and that it would bring us closer. And it has," she wrote.
This was likely meant to comfort women facing mastectomy, the assurance that the loss of your breasts will not diminish the bond you have with your love.
"On a personal note," she wrote, "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."
And in those lines, perhaps the most important in this essay, Angelina Jolie came to the crux of the matter. Our breasts are glands that have become fetishized. Men comment on them, judge them, look at pictures of them naked. We learn early their shape and size will be used to grade our desirability. But they're functional, and it says a great deal about how we really feel about women's bodies when the sight of a woman breast-feeding in public elicits condemnation or discomfort but Kate Upton becomes famous for hers.
Jolie made the decision to have her breasts removed to save her life. She was at a high risk of developing cancer and now she's not. She has six children and wanted to reassure them she won't die in the same way their grandmother did. Her surgeries began in February and finished in late April with reconstructive surgery and implants.
"... I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience. Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people's hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action."
Her doctors tell her the chance of developing breast cancer has dropped to five per cent.
"Life comes with many challenges," Jolie wrote. "The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of."
Will Jolie be less of a box-office draw because the world now knows her breasts aren't real? Unlikely, because surely many of Hollywood's breasts (and other parts) have been augmented. Will she still be seen as a sex symbol? By the majority who are able to see a woman's attractiveness as more than her cup size, yes.
What's more important is that making her decision public has opened a dialogue. It's likely more women will have the genetic test (although Jolie points out the $3,000 price tag in America makes this prohibitive for many), and some may be encouraged to have the surgery. It was brave to make the personal public and challenge our ideas of what is sexy.
Angelina Jolie is more attractive today because she stepped forward, knowing talking about her painful choice would make it easier for other women to have the conversation.