Losing a Breast in a Body-Obsessed Culture

Filed under: Medical Conditions, Fashion, Opinions, Development Health

As her tween embarks into womanhood, this breast-cancer surviving mom contemplates the feminine figure. Illustration by Dori Hartley

As my 12-year old daughter and I cuddled up together on the couch for our TV-viewing evening, we had the opportunity to see the controversial cleavage that had all of America buzzing: Lane Bryant's commercial for its new line of undies. The ad got me thinking about breasts.

Every few years, corporate America pats itself on the back for embracing the women who brazenly defy the size-zero standards. It's a trend that dies a quick, unnoticeable death and ensures an equally speedy return to the safe, though impossibly unattainable, skin-and-bones associated with the slithering hotties that sell Victoria's Secret lingerie. The buzz on the naturally bodacious Lane Bryant model was that she was a tad too luscious for mainstream America's prime-time viewers.

Truth be told, America loves breasts. And when we get a chance to see them in a television commercial, it's like a dirty little secret disguised as a fashion show to which we want an invitation. Like apple pie and baseball, breasts are a significant part of American culture.

Three years after my daughter was born, I developed breast cancer. I had a mastectomy and a partial reconstruction. I did not perceive my body as ugly and I never felt sorry for myself. As a mother, it was up to me to make sure my child grew up knowing that we have to make the best with what we've got, and that we're all perfectly beautiful as we are, without need for commercial approval. My single breast was just as worthy as a solo player over my heart.

Shortly after I came home from the hospital, my baby girl noticed that my chest appeared somewhat different than it had in the past. No longer a breast, but a "breast-mound," as the doctor called it.

"Mama, where is your nipple?" she asked.

I had the choice of answering in one of two ways. I could burden her with fearsome thoughts of surgical procedures and a life nearly lost, or I could show her by example that even though life may alter us, it doesn't define who we are.

I chose the latter.

"It went to nipple heaven, honey."

Satisfied, she went on her way. After all, I was Mama, and if Mama was OK, then all was right with the world. My child never knew that her father found me so repulsive in my post-operative state that it was as good a reason as any to end our already decayed marriage. To him, my lack of a second breast somehow made me hideous and unlovable. It was a hard pill to swallow, but an inner voice kept reminding me that this was a clear case of "that's your problem, bud."

Together, he and I kept the drama to a minimum, explaining to our young daughter that it would be better if Mom and Dad lived separately, yet promising "to marinate her with love," which became our divorced-parent mantra. I didn't want her to resent her father or to grow up perceiving all men as ruthless judges of women's bodies. I was up against dispelling the idea that the scarred and imperfect get left behind, while the flawless and beautiful are celebrated and coveted.

In order to do this, I downplayed my so-called flaws and let her become an eye-witness over the years to the woman I really am, scars and all. What she saw was an intelligent and confident person who worked hard and laughed harder. What she came to know was that her mother is a well-loved and respected person who moved through the world as if the word "flawed" didn't exist.

Now, as a preteen, my daughter is hyper aware of the attention paid to women's breasts, as well as the rest of our bodies. These days, during the Victoria's Secret commercials, we acknowledge that we don't actually know anybody who looks like these models, but rather many who look more like the Lane Bryant gals.

We talk about how the promotion of unnaturally skinny is a key player in the selling of procedures, bras and diets. We continue to come to the conclusion – yes, after two minutes of commercials -- that if you're happy with what you've got, you really can't be affected by what someone else thinks you should be.

So, when I recently held my girl to my side and asked her what she wanted for her upcoming birthday, I had to smile. Knowing the days of dolls and games were long gone, I anticipated her response would have something to do with fashion.

"I think I want to get some stuff from Victoria's Secret," she said.

There's no argument that even with all our talks, advertising works. My daughter is a healthy adolescent, about to embrace a world of feminine possibility. Having discovered my own sense of real versus fake as a result of a war-wound isn't going to make me stop her from experiencing life's offerings, even if that consists of lacy underthings draped on impossible-to-attain thinness.

Maybe I'll even get myself something black and lacy while I'm there.

Related: Pregnancy Safe for Breast Cancer Survivors, Study Shows

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.