Body Image, Barbies and Bad Jokes (not for the sensitive)

This is a frank post. Read on at your own risk. You have been warned —

The word is that some women suffer from a crisis of body confidence after breast cancer surgery. And I have to admit that with my clothes off, at the moment I am not a pretty picture. I look as if I have been subjected to a major assault (well, I have). But the bruises are already fading, and the scar is – sort of maturing. And I have been thinking quite a lot about my options for presenting myself to the world from now on. These are several. Here goes – in order of conformity to the media image of the ideal woman.

1) Ask for a re-construction. (I rejected the offer of an immediate reconstruction at time of the mastectomy, in order to keep surgery to a minimum). There are pictures on the internet of a reconstruction at various stages, and, to the surgeon’s credit, the end results are pretty good. Seems you need a few operations, though, as they “expand” your skin, insert an implant (or maybe some of your own tissue taken from your back or belly = more pain, more scars), and tattoo on (yes!) nipples/areolae. Also, the pictures I saw were of a woman who had had a double mastectomy, Angelina-style, so ultimately, she had two nice new rather pneumatic-looking and matching boobs. I assume she could choose how big to go, too!

Questions: a) Would the extra surgery be worth it? b) How “natural” would it look? I only need one new boob – and I think anyone would have a hard time matching my remaining (well-loved, well-used) breast, which has been going South for some time now. So I still might look rather lop–sided —

2) Wear a prosthesis. I was given a “softie” – an initial temporary one – before I left hospital the day after surgery, so that, wearing it in a well-fitting bra, I look as if both sides match. And in a few weeks’ time, I will be fitted for a more permanent “chicken fillet”. Then it’s off to M and S, or wherever, to buy some slinky lingerie and a new swimming costume (all with special pockets in to keep the falsie secure). If that’s what it takes to make me feel better.

So, thank you, dear NHS, for these options – and all free at the point of delivery. I am grateful. And maybe I will still take you up on them. But wait a minute. There are more options, if I decide neither to pretend that nothing has happened, nor to conform to the “ideal” of the female body.

3) Forget any prosthesis; customise my bras so that I just have the one cup (neither M and S nor anyone else one seems to have thought of this, so I can’t buy them). Or even go entirely for comfort and dispense with bras altogether (because – has anybody, ever, anywhere, found a really comfortable bra??). And wear clothes and scarves which disguise my profile – including that of said remaining well-loved, well-used, southerly-migrating breast – for the sake of my own confidence, and so as not to scare anybody.

4) Be out and proud – no falsies, no bras, and tight T-shirts if I feel like it. This would be a bit like re-visiting my slightly militant breast-feeding days, when I was not always as discreet as I could have been. I only ever had one negative comment, feeding my older daughter outside Great St Mary’s in Cambridge. And, as an extension of being out and proud, B. and I have discussed the possibilities of me auditioning as a porn star; or baring all as usual on holiday in France; or offering “The Sun” my services as a page 3 girl; or working as a model for life-drawing classes. Now figure out which of these are the Bad Jokes.

I’m feeling quite a lot better, and have been sallying forth to some local social engagements; and so far, I have gone for options 2 and 3. Maybe it’s a bit early for 4. Maybe I’ll never do any of that. But I think there is a real issue here. If breast cancer is as common as they say, there are millions of women walking round the world with only one breast, or maybe none; but you’d never know it. Because there is pressure to collude with the pretence that all women are like Barbie. One quick visit to any naturist campsite – maybe the very best therapy out there – will show you how very far from the truth that is.

Then again, maybe Islamic culture has got it right. Maybe there’d be more freedom in us all hiding our curves (if we have them). There’d be no problem under a burka, would there? And is that another tasteless joke?



  1. An extended-family member (in Cape Town, where no NHS exists to offer the options you listed earlier, but who had access to private medical aid) elected after her first mastectomy for your option 3. When she later required a second mastectomy, she was rather pleased she had made that initial choice, and is now an option 4 woman. TBH, she’s always dressed for comfort above style and it was a bit of a non-decision for her really, but even several years on she still spoke of her sense of herself in space being different. She felt that her body ended earlier than she felt it should, that it shrank her personal space, inviting others in closer than she felt completely comfortable about. And that she felt a little vulnerable and exposed as a result – a bit like cycling without a helmet on a busy road.

    That said, she still felt it was the right decision for her, and hoped that her mind would eventually normalise her new body dimensions. Perhaps that’s simply a function of it happening at an age when your memory has firmly fixed ideas about how much space you fill.

    Scaring the natives is a secondary concern, really – people adapt – but what matters is your own comfort inside a body that you may still not entirely trust, and how best you can effect that.

    • This is encouraging. I think I will be experimenting a bit. I recognise already a similar experience about a sense of space. I understand that people who have had amputations still sometimes feel the limb is there. Sometimes I think I’ve got a phantom right boob —

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