I’ve always been interested in scars. The first thing I ever wanted to be, career-wise, was a pirate. And pirates – if we’re to give credence to possibly offensive pirate stereotypes – always have long, jagged facial scars. Aged three, all I had was a blotch of scarring on my foot, from where a woman at playgroup had spilled hot coffee on me. Knowing, even at such a young age, that a foot scar wasn’t going to help me through the piratical glass ceiling, I’d often opt for a painted-on face scar. The kind that’s a single vertical line with lots of small horizontal ones — representing stitches — all the way up. As my career path shifted and facial scarring became increasingly less requisite, the face painting stopped. I still have the foot scar though. And I still find it sort of intriguing.
So it’s probably no surprise that, in the photos of breast cancer survivors accompanying this New York Times article about mastectomies, I was drawn to their scars. It would be a patronising lie to say I find mastectomy scars beautiful. Nor do I think they’re particularly ugly. They just are. Like belly buttons or noses. But, unlike belly buttons and noses, scars tell stories. In the case of these women, those stories are (variations on) “I survived a disease that kills tens of thousands of women in the US every year”. Perhaps that empowering message is one reason these, and so many other women who have had breast cancer, are choosing to “go flat”. An increasing number of women, according to the NYT, are shunning post-mastectomy restorative surgery on their chests.
Fortunately for me, it’s not really my place to write about cancer. I’m in my twenties and I’ve never had it. And I can’t imagine the physical and emotional pain of a mastectomy. My paternal grandmother died of breast cancer in the Seventies. My mum, who helped care for her, describes the post-op scar that ran from her ribcage to her armpit, where her lymph nodes had been removed. All she wanted to do, according to my mum, was buy pads for her bra to replace her one missing breast. I can only hope that none of the adherents to the “go flat” movement would have judged her for that. As someone unable to speak from experience here, my one suggestion is that mastectomy recovery should be a matter of pure choice.
There’s a lot of pressure on women to take the “natural” route. Especially those who have children. To give birth without an epidural. To breastfeed. Whatever we do with our bodies, someone will have some kind of political/ethical/aesthetic complaint. And while having to deal with the latest craze in (external) criticism, we’re likely to be judging ourselves; wondering if we’re making the right decision. Meanwhile, progress on the male birth control pill has been halted, after a study in which the side-effects were judged as being too severe. This is despite the fact that some of them were similar to side effects which women have been dealing with for decades. Male bodies simply aren’t as (creepily) guarded by society as women’s. Every change men make to themselves isn’t seen as some sort of attack on the Earth Mother Goddess High Priestess Curvy But Not Too Curvy Because That’s Unhealthy Shaved In All The Right Places Woman Thing.
There are a lot of perfectly legitimate reasons to “go flat”. Many of the women mentioned in the NYT piece feel like they’ve been through enough already, without the added pain and risk of breast implants. What’s more – and this is really worth thinking about – the implant route is simply expected. So much so that some women, post-mastectomy, have been ushered towards plastic surgeons without any discussion of their options. Which stinks, in its own way, of Sacred Woman. The female form is so important that it’s inconceivable anyone could shun the science that seeks to make it all neat and tidy again. At the same time, it’s important that “going flat” doesn’t become yet another pressure on women to take the “natural” (and possibly more feminist) route. If a breast cancer survivor wants to “go bigger” rather than “go flat”, that’s her choice. It isn’t intrinsically political. And maybe she fancies having incredibly realistic nipples tattooed onto her new breasts. All power to her. And all power to the women owning their flat chests.
In evolutionary terms, scars can be attractive because they say, “I fought, and I won”. My foot scar, for example, shows anyone who may seek to mate with me that they will impart unto their offspring the strength to win a fight against some coffee. And that’s why I like it.
But it’s OK to fight the scars themselves too.