I was as stunned as everyone else by Angelina Jolie's revelation on Tuesday that she'd had a double mastectomy to reduce her risk of developing breast cancer. That's not only because one of the most famous women in the world had managed to keep such a dramatic secret under wraps for so long (although that is pretty amazing). Mostly it was because one of the most beautiful women in the world had publicly declared that her breasts do not define her -- her power over her health and her body had trumped her dependence on a body part to express her femininity.
Not that a woman's breasts are just a body part. Our relationship to our breasts is, to say the least, complicated. As young girls we await their arrival with a mix of anticipation and worry (will they be big enough? Will they be TOO big?). As young women we flaunt them, obsess about them, and sometimes even have to defend them (hey, buddy, my eyes are up here). Pregnant women and nursing mothers develop a whole new understanding of their breasts as true working body parts. And as middle age creeps up on us, we have to start fighting gravity to keep our breasts where we want them.
Of course, where we want them most is right where they are, attached to us front and center as a powerful and healthy representation of our femaleness. At any age, our breasts (or a tantalizing show of cleavage) show the world that we are women. With the right neckline, they practically shout "I've still got it, baby!" That's undoubtedly the reason that so many women name breast cancer as their number one health fear. The same little (or not so little) body parts that make us feel so powerfully female can also make us feel so terribly vulnerable. The thought of cancer invading our breasts is downright terrifying.
Breast cancer claims the lives of nearly 40,000 Americans a year, so it's certainly a legitimate thing to fear -- but heart disease kills half a million American women a year, lung cancer another 70,000, and we don't fear those nearly as much as we do breast cancer. That's because death is not the only source of our fear here. We're also frightened about the quarter-million new diagnoses of breast cancer each year, and how treatment can conjure up the specter of disfigurement and loss of femininity. It's a tragedy that creates a scarred absence that needs to be covered up, where once there were beautiful breasts to be shown off.
Angelina Jolie sent us a very different message this week: that even though much of her fame and power have been rooted in her beauty (and beautiful body), in making this decision she claimed a different kind of power. Knowing that she carried the BRCA mutation that raised her risk of breast cancer to an astounding 87 percent, she willingly chose to undergo a surgery that forces all of us to rethink our fear: that it's not our breasts we have to worry about, it's our lives.
Angelina sacrificed her breasts in order to save her own life - the life of a wife, mother, actress, humanitarian and, yes, movie star. She came out to the world not as a victim but as a woman taking control. She reduced the odds that her children will be left motherless, her husband widowed. With reconstructive surgery, her breasts are still a visible sign of her female beauty - the vulnerable tissue that was removed from within them was only that, tissue. It's not what was inside her breasts that make her a woman, it's what's inside her head and heart.
I'm so impressed with Angelina, not just for choosing the surgery but for publicly asserting her power over her body. Not every woman facing her odds (or a new diagnosis) will make the same choice, nor should she. The point is that we have choices now that we didn't have just a few years ago. The science of genomics has made available amazing amounts of new information. Some of it we can't act on, but some of it we can -- and Angelina did. Now that is power.
"I do not feel any less of a woman," Angelina declared. "I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity."