The female body and the woman
Important note: The physical appearance of a body is not always an absolute predictor or determinant of a person’s sex. For example, there are those who have a female body but whose particular internal organs or chromosomes dictate the opposite sex, and there are those who have the physical or internal (or both) parts of both sex. I have a female body and a female identity, so my talk below stems from this fact and addresses the issues of someone like me.
Also note that this article is progressive in structure: it proceeds in a step-like manner, so what I talk about in the beginning is somewhat different from what I end up talking about (don’t let your curiosity overwhelm you; be patient and don’t scroll to the end first!!!)
People seem to have an implicit and explicit idea of what constitutes a female body, and it allows them to tell with high accuracy who is a female and who is not. Several factors play into this seemingly “automatic” knowledge. Some of these factors are the length of the hair, the face and its shape, the body’s shape (including things like the extent of the hips, width of shoulders, musculature, and so on), the hairiness of the body, the way a person carries the body, the pitch of the voice, and, of course, the presence of breasts. Moreover, a person’s attire can be a very reliable clue about his or her sex, or at least what the person accepts as his or her sex.
Today, I want to focus on the issue of breasts as an indicator of a woman. Just to be certain, everyone, man or woman has breast tissue; most men just have a (permanently) underdeveloped or inactive mammary gland. Hence, men can also (and do have) have breast cancer. The thing that interests me is how this breast has become so important to a woman’s identity. Some women who have small breasts stuff their brassieres to give the illusion of the breasts’ fullness, and some rely on the magic of a surgeon to make present what was formally absent. I remember that as a 14 to 15 year-old girl, with no breast or menses, I felt frustrated that I was still just a girl—an underdeveloped woman. This time was particularly frustrating for me because I had younger friends, distant relatives, and adopted relatives who were already expressing their femininity to the world. Since I was older, it was my due to get respect from them (this is in accordance with my Nigerian cultural values), but I felt my high status was diminished because they were physically more matured. Of course, immediately I saw my own little bumps, which I scolded for being so late yet immediately welcomed to my life, I confined them into a brassiere, and they were always accompanied by a brassiere whenever I was outside. My ability to wear a brassiere and the presence of these two bumps comforted me and made me feel like a woman, a person of authority. The absence of my menses was tolerable, because as long as my breasts were growing, no one would worry (except maybe a mother) about my monthly visitor or lack thereof. To a maturing female, her breasts are an important part of her, as any teenage girl will demonstrate to you. Moreover, a woman’s breasts add to her attractiveness to a man, and in some cultures, it can affect whether or not (or how quickly) she will get married. (Whether a woman’s breasts has become too important for her identity and maybe even unnecessarily so, is another matter, and one that I do not wish (as of yet) to tackle fully.)
This brings me to the point that in our society, breasts are an indicator of the particular organs and parts that are underneath a woman’s clothes. A woman’s breast is such a strong indicator that it takes on the modesty that is required for those other parts. So as early as possible, girls (unlike the boys with the same level of breast development) are not allowed to bare their chest in public. Even a grown woman with “no breast” will not bare her chest in public, because her chest has added significance. This significance is due in part to the effect that female breasts seem to have on a man’s physiology and to the additional role that a woman’s breasts serve: to provide nourishment to a baby. The ability of a woman to nourish a child with her body or to bring forth a child from within her body is one of the things that make her a remarkable and special creation. It is true that from the body of women come the rest of the world. This is amazing indeed. Unfortunately, a woman’s breasts have also allowed her, especially in the past, to be easily distinguishable and an obvious target of violent, unjust, and discriminatory actions and thoughts.
With the significance that breasts seem to have on a woman’s perception of her femaleness, what happens to a woman’s concept of herself when one or both of the breasts are gone, because of a disease like cancer? I started thinking about this question when, as a part of our readings for my Medical Humanities course, we were presented with the works of artist turned cancer-survivor turned cancer activist-artist, Matuschka. Her self-portrait, “Beauty out of Damage,” where she bared her right chest (showing her mastectomy scar) while covering her left, unaffected chest was the cover for the August 1993 issue of The New York Times Magazine (see the picture here). While some of her art were not to my taste (owing to my Christian values), this particular self-portrait touched my heart, and I felt that this work lived up to its title’s proclamation. Judging by the reaction it provoked when it was published, the picture brought breast cancer to the forefront of people’s mind: breast cancer is not just something that happens to some women or other women, it is not just a myth; it is real, it could happen to anyone. I saw this self-portrait and found myself wondering how or what I would feel if I had to have a mastectomy. What happens in the minds of breast cancer survivors, who in exchange for their life had to give up one or both of their breasts? An illness, any illness, is not to be experienced alone, but I think this is exactly what happens in a significant number of women with breast cancer, solely because of the importance attached to having breasts. Because of the high value that society places on women’s breasts, it might serve to hinder women’s healthcare activities in two ways. The first is that women might be more afraid to do a self-breast exam, because of fear of what such action means. The second is that women would be more reluctant to part with their breasts, even if their lives depend on it. Some women would rather die than have a mastectomy, because their breasts have become so much of their female identity. Moreover, I imagine that when a woman has a mastectomy that there would be pressure not to talk about it, not to make others aware (and uncomfortable). I also imagine that people would look at her weirdly when they notice the uneven fullness of her chest area, and (because of internal and external cues) she would begin to feel that she is a disfigured woman! No. No. No. Breasts do not make a woman.
To be honest though, since I have had my own breasts, I cannot imagine my life without them, since they are my constant companion and everything I do has been checked to make sure that they can comfortably participate as well. They are, frankly, a part of what makes me a woman. They are not a necessary part, but because I have them now, they seem so to my body. Therefore, when a woman has breast cancer, it is a big deal (and not just because of the issue of the mortality involved), precisely because it involves a body part that women perceive to be important. Alternatively, we can alter our mentality, starting early in the process of socialization, to reduce the importance of breasts, so that the only big deal to worry about is the issue of death that is associated with the disease. One can see how important a woman’s breast is to her and to her society (friends, family, and strangers) by observing what question, image, or worry is provoked after a diagnosis of breast cancer. Does it involve the issue of loss of breast tissue or loss of life or both? Test yourself.
Matuschka’s work brought up the issue of the body as art. Is there a point when the body loses its aesthetic value? Is the body as art only valuable when it is young, fully complete, highly symmetric, and with no other goal other than to please the eye and keep the mind in awe of God’s creation? Can the body be political? Matuschska’s picture is provoking, certainly, but one can’t, at least I can’t, deny its artistic value. Art represents the condition of life. Sometimes life is obviously perfect and beautiful, and sometimes its beauty comes from its imperfections or perceived ugliness. Her picture is disturbing to some people, because it crystallizes aspects of their vulnerability. It exposes the impact that this thing, this cancer, can have on a woman’s body, on her perception of her womanhood and on her claim of being a woman. I think part of the thing that upsets people about her art (i.e. “Beauty out of Damage”) is that it is not just artistic; it is also political—a very potent combination. When you introduce politics into art, since it (i.e. art) renders the heart and mind so vulnerable to its influences, people become very edgy. In this particular case, I think Matuschka’s combination of art and politics does more good than harm. It educates the mind, it arouses us from our ignorance, and, if we respond properly to it, it has the potential to change, radically, our life and mindset for the better. I thought her pictures (depicting the effect of a mastectomy) were bold, insightful, and no less pleasing (compared to when she had two breasts)—and perhaps they are more functionally pleasing, because they rise beyond our expectations, beyond the ordinary, beyond just observation and mimicry of nature or the social world to an extrapolation of it.
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