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Ask the Mutant: Skin, Paint and Transformation

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It all started about four years ago with naked body painting. I went to a performance at The Little Red Studio in Seattle. It's sort of an adult variety show and as part of the program, four members of the cast offered their nude bodies up to a bright selection of tempera paints and the imaginations of the entire audience. I was both intrigued and faintly nervous about it. Not that it was going to be me getting naked. Time had had its way with my formerly perky body parts and I was not ready to subject an audience to the saggy spectacle.

Painting on living flesh is an engrossing experience -- very different from the flat, snowy expanse of a blank canvas rectangle. It gives and participates in the process of painting -- energy and creativity flow both ways.

I found myself in front of a naked woman who had obviously been quite heavy at one time. Now her skin draped loosely from her bones in lavish sweeps. I began with a tentative swirl of white across the yielding expanse of her thigh. It quickly grew into a curling vine and sprouted tendrils and leaves. I was hooked. I painted all four bodies.

The atmosphere was almost reverent -- almost ecstatic -- as four bodies were transformed into atavistic, aboriginal forest spirits. I fell into a trancelike state, watching wet green tempera transform the finely pebbled skin of a middle aged man's scrotum into some kind of exotic sea creature. I'd never painted a scrotum before (or since) and when I came to and realized how long and intently I'd been doing it I looked up at him a little embarrassed. At the time I thought the smile he bestowed on me was wise and beatific. Thinking back, I suppose it may have been some other emotion... but that's how I chose to take it at the time.

Fast forward to February 2012. It's four days before I'm to undergo a double mastectomy and I want to honor this part of my body that has been the source of such pleasure, so many intimate memories, nourished two babies. I don't define either my worth or nature by my breasts, but as with other life passages, I will be profoundly altered by it and though I know it's the right and necessary thing to do, I'm afraid. Losing them is hard. I want to give them the send off they deserve.

Rites of passages are a very human activity. We have special customs to mark birth, coming of age, marriage, death. There's no specific way to recognize a profound physical change like mastectomy, but the desire to do so is natural. I've talked to many women who have made this same journey and the urge to create some kind of memorial seems to be innate. Some have parties with a lot of friends or just a few. Some mark the moment with prayer or charitable work. Some pose for portraits, professional boudoir photos or homemade. Some make plaster casts of breasts. Some garland scars with tattoos. Some privately mourn. There is no right or wrong way to honor the passage.

I invited my girlfriends for a "Boob Voyage" party. Since I was having my surgery in New Orleans in February, the theme was Mardi Gras. We draped ourselves with beads, drank far too many hurricane cocktails (thanks, Honora), danced, sang. We had an authentic king cake. Everyone brought a boob-themed dish to share. The balloons were pink (in pairs, of course). My friends cheered as I ate the maraschino cherry nipples directly off the boobie cake. We laughed and cried and hugged and had an absolutely wonderful time.

I'd never forgotten the power of that night of body painting but it never seems to be the right time for something like that. This was the right time. After years of being self-conscious about my body, it suddenly didn't matter anymore. I was a little nervous at first. Would it be awkward and weird? Would I be able to recapture that rapturous feeling from four years ago? As my friends watched, I stood on a chair, took a deep breath and quickly pulled off my clothes. I needn't have worried. From the first touch of paint to skin it was magic, primal, joyous. Everyone felt it. I could see it in their eyes -- they were as altered by it as I was. Unexpectedly, boxes of sequins appeared and were pressed by the hundreds into the wet paint to spangle my body from head to toe. This was my tribe and I was humbled by the connection we shared.

Four nights later, on the eve of my surgery, I was getting ready for bed. When I pulled down my pants, a solitary sequin fluttered to the floor. I have no idea where that sequin was hiding for four whole days.

But I still have it.

The video below contains pictures from my boob voyage party, including the body painting. The song, Where Are You Now, My Dancing Girl, was written and performed by me and is from my show "The Mutant Diaries: Unzipping My Genes."

Warning: NSFW Video