Friday, August 8, 2008

The view from flatland

I know that almost every woman has some locus of dissatisfaction in her figure: saggy breasts, big belly, small behind, whatever. So it's probably a little ironic that I actually think I have a great body—for a 58-year-old woman with no breasts. I didn't get the dread dog ears (flaps and wens of skin), keloid scars, lumps and crevasses that are the chestscape of many women who have undergone mastectomies. I have a nice neat flatland. Most important, I have not (yet) developed lymphedema, the elephantine swelling of arms or chest that sometimes accompanies breast surgery. Not everyone would feel lucky to be me. But I know enough to revel in my good fortune (and the prodigious skill of my surgeon).

Still, my particular figure presents certain difficulties. After a mastectomy, a woman has three options: reconstruction (in which new breast "mounds" are created by a plastic surgeon), wearing prostheses (a.k.a., falsies) or going "form-free." Too cowardly for plastic surgery, I am left to choose between falsies and my true self.

In theory I don't object to falsies, but they require a scaffold to hold them in place, i.e., a bra—something I rarely wore in my pre-cancer life and can't get used to post (I hope it's "post") cancer. There are days when I would kind of like to wear falsies, but then there are definitely days when I can't bear the idea. One would think I could wear them some days and go flat others, but something in me resists shapeshifting. I want to have a consistent body image. Didn't someone say consistency is the hobgoblin of small chests—or have I got that wrong? Though I have a drawerful of devices (and—ever hopeful!—another pair in the mail), I think I'm committed to the hobgoblin of flatland.

But flatland has its detractors. Before my mastectomy, a brutally frank friend tried to talk me into reconstruction, telling me about a woman in her gym who wore tight T shirts and no prostheses after her mastectomy. My friend was horrified by this woman's "in your face" attire, but I was overjoyed. "My sister!" I thought to myself—and yearned to meet her and ask her all my premastectomy questions. Perhaps she would even bare her chest so I could see her scars (I was ravenous for information before my surgery)? But my friend—I know she sounds horrible, but I think she meant well—repeated the "in your face" description to me several times, and it has stayed with me.

I certainly don't want to offend or horrify people with my breastlessness—or bring it to their attention at all. In the breast-cancer community there is suspicion about women who make a point of their baldness or their bustlessness or their pink ribbons or their "Survivor"-branded gear. Some are criticized for making their illness into a political issue; others are perceived as milking their victimhood to prolong its perks: the kindness of strangers, the deep and loving attention of friends and family members. I don't have a beef with either path—picket! wallow!—but don't feel a calling to one or the other.

Nonetheless, it's difficult to dress comfortably and at the same time completely obscure the topography. I wear mostly black (to camouflage the absence of shadows) and experiment with busy patterns, off-center designs, loose crisp fabrics, and scarves and shawls and other drapery. But I find myself inadvertently curling my shoulders inward as if I could somehow shield my chest from view. I have given up the elasticized tops that I used to wear for yoga—too revealing—so now I have to stuff the ends of my T shirts into my pants for inversions. I hide in dressing rooms or bathroom stalls to change at the gym—even though I'm tempted to give someone else the thrill of sisterhood that the report of the "in your face" woman gave me.

I know my friends would like me to just forget about my chest. And I would like to too. But it's difficult. It's always there (or, rather, not there), and every day I have to make choices about how to dress it up or down. Putting your clothes on is such a mundane act, and yet it's fraught with meaning for me. Should I be "in your face"? Should I hide my "deformity"? And how? I'm mired in the self-consciousness I had hoped to have outgrown by now. Even though I really, really do like my body these days.


Jacqueline said...
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Jacqueline said...

simply: "in your face" is often INFERRED! NOT implied. A BIG VAST DIFFERENCE!

"deformity": see the above.

i noticed when we were photographing you on your deck that, in the beginning, your arms found a home folded, across your chest. as we continued and you embraced being in the garment, being YOU, your arms fell away and spoke along with your voice. it was just an observation i made... on that very lovely day.

Robin Amos Kahn said...

I think you look beautiful as you are and I love that you feel so good about your body.