When Angelina Jolie's name is mentioned, her well-documented status as "the most beautiful woman in the world" and a sex symbol comes to mind. Beyond her acting career, Jolie has done much to help girls and women throughout the world. Her screenwriting and directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, certainly wasn't the vanity project some Hollywood A-listers might take on. Rather, Jolie tackled the rarely-discussed use of rape as a tactic of war, both documenting the most systematic use of rape in recent history and also shedding light on how sexual violence continues to be used as a weapon of war throughout the world. It's more than fair to say that Jolie cares about improving the lives of girls and women. Perhaps time will show that Jolie's revelation that she has undergone a preventive double mastectomy will do more to help girls and women then even she may realize.
Jolie's thoughtful and carefully crafted op-ed explains her decision quite clearly. In short, like many other women who have made this decision, she values her life and wants to be healthy for her children for as long as possible. From her op-ed, we learn why she chose to share her experience with the public and how we can go even further to see the power of this revelation. Here are the top 4 ways that Angelina Jolie's revelation may help others:
• De-stigmatizing preventive mastectomy: Many people do not understand why a woman would choose this surgery prior to being diagnosed with cancer. For those women who carry the BRCA1 gene, not only do they have to deal with the difficult decision about whether or not to have preventive surgery, but they may also have to deal with others in their life that have never heard of the surgery or have a knee-jerk reaction that it is too "radical." Now, everyone will have heard and thought about it.
• Helping Others Overcome Fear of Genetic Testing: Understandably, many women with a family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer are afraid to get tested to see if they carry the BRCA1 gene. Some who do get tested may find themselves too afraid to consider preventive surgery. Seeing such a high-profile person make this decision may help others to consider doing the same, and most importantly, at least seek out medical information.
• The high cost of healthcare: An advocate for women and particularly impoverished women, Jolie was quick to point out how the expense of gene testing alone is prohibitive for many women in the U.S. and abroad. This is an issue that never makes its way into the public discourse and simply has to if we are going to effectively help women fight breast and ovarian cancer.
• Women are not their breasts: While issues pertaining to health and the cost of healthcare flow from Jolie's public statement and are certainly very important, perhaps the strongest part of her message, which she is uniquely positioned to deliver, is that femininity and women's sexuality are not reducible to their breasts. Jolie used her standing as a worldwide "sex symbol" to debunk the myth that women become any less beautiful, feminine or sexy when they lose their breasts. The message extends far beyond women who by "choice" or necessity have undergone mastectomy. Our culture is obsessed with women's breasts and body parts in ways that diminish women, their work and their sexuality. In order to really grasp the power of Jolie's statement, one must look at the broader cultural context. Let's think back to not so long ago when Anne Hathaway's Oscar win took a backseat to the media's coverage of her nipples in her gown. Gloria Steinem was quick to point out that ironically, Hathaway earned her Oscar for playing a woman forced to sell herself in an attempt to keep herself and her child alive and in her acceptance speech, prayed for a world in which women wouldn't end up the way her character did. What did the media cover? Her nipples. The examples are sadly endless. If I see one more story about Kim Kardashian's expanding body during her pregnancy, I might lose my mind. Her body is just that: hers. When Jolie came out and said that she elected to undergo double mastectomy, she was simultaneously saying my body is mine and mine alone and I will make choices for my health, my sexuality and my life.
Dedicated to Liza Talusan
Follow Patricia Leavy, PhD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PatriciaLeavy