By Anubha Bhonsle
As a woman — and of course, it runs true for men too - I am the sum of all my parts. We are all the sum of our parts. But not all my parts are equal.
I put my mind hard at the top of the body parts list, and it’s true the images, the onslaught of popular culture, the rigid stereotypical roles and the near intolerance with androgyny of any kinds means the perfect pair, the two sisters, were right on the top (I am yet to make up my mind if they aren’t any more).
For years it sat pretty well with me. There wasn’t anything to question till I read an almost iconic piece. About 40 years ago, Nora Ephron wrote an essay in Esquire titled, ‘A few words about Breasts’. Of course, they weren’t few, they were more than 3000 words reeling off anecdotes about being flat-chested and wanting to have fuller breasts. The quest began in her childhood, continued as she grew into a young woman and well she couldn’t shake it well into her adulthood.
Nora wrote, “If I had had them, I would have been a completely different person. I honestly believe that.”
Nora is bang on and I am sure there are many others who believe this. Angelina Jolie, whose big disclosure has lifted a veil of secrecy from the disease of breast cancer, would perhaps agree wholeheartedly as well.
Of course, Angelina’s was a special case; to have to cut off body parts to prevent a disease seems rather brutal. Some of the comments on social media were a pointer to how people perceived this news and the messages they were taking from this revelation.
‘R I P Brad Pitt’, said one on my timeline
‘Does that mean she is lopping them off?’ said another
Angelina Jolie is still a woman, headlined the Atlantic as it went to explain why the icon of modern femininity talking about her double mastectomy was a big deal.
‘Why are Angelina Jolie’s breasts a topic for discussion? Her body, her health, her decision,’ was another frequent sentiment mostly echoed by women.
Angelina Jolie goes for preventive breast removal to lessen cancer risk. It's like deleting your account to prevent tweets from being stolen, was another.
Tom Arnold, the American actor said it bravely, “Angelina Jolie is heroic today because she forced us men to think about and even talk about something very uncomfortable. Our wives’ health.”
There is no feminism here, but currently the wrong parts are in the driver’s seat: the Breasts. This isn’t about breasts. I don’t know a single breast cancer patient, and unfortunately I know a few who wouldn’t have preferred to be keep their breasts, their so called nurturing feminine parts, fully intact.
These decisions are intensely personal and difficult ones and the hope is every woman faced with this tough question has information and support to make the choices for her body. One of my friends, now a 40-year-old mother, runner and painter, chose not to have a reconstruction surgery. She felt nothing would replace her God-given breasts in look or feel. She embraced her flatness, fully.
Did she miss them? I asked her once while we were sipping tea in her small studio apartment.
“Of course, I do. And yes my partner does as well,” she had added.
“Breasts are secondary. They aren’t my most important parts”, she said
My gaze, I admit had dropped down to her open white flannel shirt and then to her face even as she had continued to paint.
Breasts, overrated. No, I would never say that. I am not a mother but I have seen countless pictures of my friends holding their babies close to their bosom. Their lips are placed on their child’s head, the baby’s hand is placed somewhere on the flatness of their gowns. And there is a look, a state I recognize-of profound love, of connection, of intimacy beyond reach.
For generations, the female breast has been enshrined as this centre of eroticism and nurturing. And it probably rightly is. The male gaze, the breast worship, from T-shirts to car bumpers the images that never show how breasts sometimes can be, drooping, sagging, painful, far from well rounded and almost (mostly) never enough.
In her essay called Mutations in the Granta magazine titled Mothers, Russian writer Masha Gessen speaks about the bad gene her mother gave her.
Quite like Jolie, it was revealed to Masha that she had a genetic mutation that made it likely that she could develop breast and ovarian cancer. It was the BRCA 1 gene mutation that gave her an 87% chance of contracting breast cancer and about a 40-50% chance of ovarian cancer. Of course, she could have contracted a different cancer or not got the disease at all or could have been simply been run over by a bus the next day, it was the percentage she chose not to ignore.
Masha writes about ‘the possibility of not being immune to her mother’s physical legacy, her genes not winning the hereditary roulette’ and the absurd argot of the medical fraternity where she was called a ‘previvor’: not yet diagnosed with cancer but with a high risk of getting it.
We love breasts, yet we don’t take them seriously. They embarrass us.
They can turn babies and grown men into somewhat of dolts.
They appear out of nowhere in puberty, they get bigger in pregnancy, but sometimes they get sick.
For such a popular feature of the human anatomy I never really considered whether I had healthy breasts. Healthy heart, yes. Healthy skin, definitely, Healthy gums, maybe.
But healthy breasts? No.
If you don’t do self-examination it’s perhaps not a bad time to start.