What Lies Beneath

Over the last year, the Pink Ribbon Blues Blog has become a forum for discussing pink culture and industry from multiple vantage points and through a multitude of voices. As the PRB Contributors list continues to grow, I am hopeful that the status quo surrounding breast cancer will dislodge to create meaningful awareness, understanding, and actions that will have a significantly greater impact on the eradication of this and other diseases. To this end, the Pink Ribbon Blues Blog opens 2012 with an essay by Lisa Valentine.

Breasts are out-front, literally and figuratively. Fashions contour. Accessories embellish. They also hold a place of honor in terms of womanhood, motherhood, and almost all that is considered female. I was nourished at my mother’s breasts. My son was nourished at mine. My first bra in the fifth grade was cause for celebration and there has been plenty of comparing and contrasting between friends—size, shape, sag, sex. We each have our own unique pair, but the commonality of breasts connects our feminine sisterhood.

Arguably, though, breasts also have a misplaced status position in an over-sexualized culture inundated with cleavage, cup sizes, and tight shirts. Breasts historically have been sex objects. That is not new. What is new is that the way they are typically portrayed one might  think that is ALL they are—objects of sexual desire. I was disturbed to see a baby bib with “Mmmmm….boobies” on it in a mall kiosk recently. Directly sexualizing breasts at the infant stage. Of course the infant doesn’t pick that up, but the people around the infant do. And what they pick up is that breasts are about sex, so we should want the best pair we can get in order to attract the right mate, have the best sex, and live happily ever after. Really? Women are of far more substance. Why sell ourselves short? Maybe because we are socialized that way.

Many young women, growing up in a culture saturated with a “breasts-as-sex-objects” mentality are encouraged to pursue the perfect perky pair. Teens who haven’t even reached full maturity are having various types of breast augmentation. According to statistics from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (www.surgery.org), in 2009 breast augmentations were performed on 2,953 girls under the age of 18. In 2010, that number was 4,153. Half of the procedures were for purely cosmetic reasons. (Among women of all ages breast augmentation is the most common cosmetic surgical procedure, surpassing liposuction every year since 2008, and accounts for nearly one-third of total operations.) Women have been massaging, lifting, and corseting for a long time to create breast impressions, but women who choose breast augmentation also risk long-term consequences like potential breastfeeding difficulties, the need for further surgeries as implants fail (i.e., they typically last only 20 to 25 years), and interference on mammograms. Those are hefty risks.

The amount of pressure our culture is putting on young women is unprecedented and concerning. Mass media is flooded with images of celebrity “boob jobs” and air-brushed magazine covers that set the standard of perfection to the extreme. The average young woman probably struggles to some degree to accept what has to be a less-than-ideal pair by comparison. Can we reel in this push to have a perfect exterior? Perhaps we should augment something else! Let’s tell the young women in our lives our stories of what it means to be a woman. Stories of heart and soul. Reassure them that healthy choices, taking care of our bodies, being true to one’s own values, working hard, and helping others are all things that will bring true self-esteem. Interior assets trump exterior ones. The latter runs shallow, the former runs deep.

I have a unique perspective on breasts, and a heightened sensitivity to their portrayal in general. Diagnosed with breast cancer in May of 2008, bilateral mastectomies followed for me later that year. My right breast had cancer in it. My left breast was loaded with potential fear and worry. I said goodbye to both and haven’t looked back. I chose not to have reconstruction. It was the best option for me and my active lifestyle. Even with the amazing advancements in reconstructive surgery, for me nothing could truly replace what nature gave and cancer took away.

010-cancerposter-savesecondbaseIn the months following my surgery I began paying more attention to breast cancer awareness campaigns. Rather than being heartened by what I saw, frustration and anger set in. Some branches of the breast cancer awareness movement have succumbed to using sex in the name of advancing the cause. A glaring example is the “I ‘heart’ Boobies” bracelets. Masked as purveyors of awareness, they truly seem more about selling sex to teens. Slogans like “Save the Ta-Tas” and “Don’t Let Breast Cancer Steal Second Base” do sell t-shirts, but did I miss something? I thought we were trying to save lives!

This breast obsession is causing two major disservices. First, adolescent girls get mixed messages about the worthy purposes of our mammary glands, leading some to make choices that are more about fitting unrealistic expectations than appreciating individual uniqueness and accepting human limitation. I also fear that it might lead some women to make health and medical decisions based on misguided priorities. Secondly, it has derailed the efforts to find a cure for metastatic breast cancer, the cancer that still takes 40,000 lives a year like it did thirty years ago. Instead, the momentum of the breast cancer movement got pulled into a pink vacuum, with catchy gimmicks and products about “our girls” leading the way. Too much money goes into cause marketing and the perpetuation of pink hype, sexy as it is. The overwhelming attention to the cause even has many people believing we are making more headway against breast and other cancers than we really are. Although treatments have improved, we still lack answers about causes, prevention, and cure.

So here I am, a flat-chested woman with the “area formerly known as my breasts” as my new “out-front.” Early on after surgery I struggled with self-acceptance. At times, I felt judged for my choices. There were days I wanted to go out in public flat-chested and make a statement, but just couldn’t muster the courage or strength. It was easier to put on my prosthetics and proceed. Today, I am more comfortable in my revised body. I am not less of a woman, just a woman less her breasts. Still out of the ordinary in a society that proudly ogles cleavage, my own acceptance of my breastless body now allows me to make a public statement about the need for flat-chested empowerment every time I go for a run. No bouncing baubles to allure passersby. Just the truth of a new body, embraced.

I don’t mean to suggest that being flat-chested no longer has impact on my life. Hugs are different now. Snuggling with my son is different now. Sex with my husband is different now. But only different in the physical sense. What is lacking “out-front” physically is made up for by what lies beneath. What is that you ask?  What lies beneath is a beating, loving heart. It was always there. But it is more prominent now, after facing my own mortality, after seeing and hearing the messages of our culture from a new perspective—that of a woman without breasts. I will concede that breasts do matter, but they don’t stack up to the importance of heart. Heart is what makes me a nurturing mother, spouse, and friend. Heart is what makes me empathetic, accepting, able to listen. I miss my breasts and grieve them still. But I would miss my heart so much more.

Brief Biography:

Diagnosed with breast cancer in May of 2008, two of Lisa Valentine’s seven sisters have also had breast cancer. She is an active member of the Hastings, MN Breast Cancer Support Group, which created the DVD “Voices of Hope” in early 2010 for newly diagnosed women. The DVD, of which nearly 5,000 copies have been distributed, includes a special segment with ten women showing the results of their breast cancer surgeries. Lisa is one of those ten. (Get further information at www.hastingsbreastcancer.com or www.circleinthefield.org).

Opting to not have reconstruction, she appreciates the words of mastectomy-as-reality writers Audre Lorde and Tania Katan.With a B.A. in Social Science and a M.S. in Guidance and Counseling, Lisa currently works as a school counselor. An avid runner, she has completed nine marathons, four post-cancer. A lifelong writer and poet, her recent publishing credits include opinion essays in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Des Moines Register.

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18 comments to What Lies Beneath

  • This is a topic whose time has come. You are “not less of a woman but a woman less her breasts.” That statement exudes such confidence and POWER!

    When staring down the gun of a breast cancer diagnosis, I doubt ANYONE realizes the number of decisions with which we are faced. Some future decisions (like reconstruction) can be directly impacted by prior choices (like radiation) and when we step on to that runaway “You have breast cancer” train we sometimes act more using our emotions and less using solid medical information and advice.

    Breast cancer is a horrific disease on so many levels. Yet, because it is one of the cancer success stories, not many dig beneath the surface to peel back the devastation it can have on us as women. Society has done damage to women facing this disease by placing breasts front and center and the pink ribbon has done more damage by …… never mind… that’s another story….

    I applaud your choice. I applaud every woman’s individual choice. I am tired of hearing about second base, boobies, ta ta’s ….. Let’s stop slapping a pink ribbon on it and simply refer to this whole thing with TRUTH. BREAST CANCER. A Disease. One that steals much from many.


  • Excellent essay Lisa. You really summarize very well how sexualized our culture has become. And it has become so extreme that we have even founds ways to sexualize breast cancer. A cruel and unrelenting disease. We have created a pink sexualized monster that continues to hide from view the suffering that this disease brings with it. When are we, as a society, going to get real and demand better?

  • Here, here. And I’m (still) astonished at how many women do not get how damaging, insidious & entwined all this pink washing is with the sexualization of our disease. Kathi

  • ThePinkBirdie

    This is awesome. We need more women speaking up on this subject.

    “Let’s stop slapping a pink ribbon on it and simply refer to this whole thing with TRUTH. BREAST CANCER. A Disease. One that steals much from many.” So true, AnneMarie, so true!

  • Lisa,
    Fabulous post and I applaud you for writing it with such candor. And the title, “What Lies Beneath,” is so perfect. Sexualizing breast cancer has become so accepted. I just don’t understand how society (especially the females) has allowed this to happen. Also, Lisa I can’t help but notice there have been many breast cancer cases in your family. There have been in mine as well. Also, I see you’re from MN – I spent most of my life there. I’ll definitely be “looking you up.” Thanks for the wonderful post.

    Thank you Pink Ribbon Blues as well.

  • You’re right Lisa, the heart’s the thing. My partner (Being Sarah, though we don’t call her that at home!) decided, after a couple of years, to have a reconstruction. Her choice, and she’s very happy with it. What I’m happiest with is that having that choice has been psychologically good for her. Pink didn’t help and neither did the societal pressures looking on her DIEP surgery as a ‘boob job with a free tummy-tuck.’ She helped herself. As you too are doing.

  • Patti Sauro

    SO THRILLED to read your post! I, too, am “breast-free.” I was never well-endowed to begin with, so now, as one friend noted, “You don’t look much different!” Before my surgery 2.5 yrs. ago, I found a wonderful site, breastfree.org for women who feel they are “not defined by their breasts.” That was so comforting. I’ve also known women, as we likely all have, who have had tremendous inconvenience, pain, even trauma from their reconstructions. One gal I know has had 8 procedures to get her very large breasts “right.” (Her surgeon finally said that’s it.) Of course I understand the emotional and psychological reasons for wanting to be made “whole” again, but in my case, those reasons didn’t outweigh my thoughts of scar tissue, pain, and breasts that really aren’t mine. But I’m a rebel–I also declined conventional treatment–chemo or radiation, and am doing well on a natural path.

    Yes, I think my heart is more prominent now, too. I like being admired for WHO I am, not WHAT I look like.

    God bless you, Lisa! Continued health and happiness! And thank you Pink Ribbon Blues! Cheers!

  • Brilliant article , Lisa. I honour your courage and clarity in challenging the culture (cult?) we live in. These words make my heart sing: “Let’s tell the young women in our lives our stories of what it means to be a woman. Stories of heart and soul. Reassure them that healthy choices, taking care of our bodies, being true to one’s own values, working hard, and helping others are all things that will bring true self-esteem. Interior assets trump exterior ones. The latter runs shallow, the former runs deep”.

  • katie steege

    Thank you for being so bold and courageous to write this article! Your words inspire and empower ALL women to look at “what lies beneath” to find true worth, acceptance, and confidence!

  • Zita

    Hi I am one of the seven of Lisa’s sisters that had breast cancer as well and I am very proud of you dear sister. What you wrote was excellent and oh so true! We need to get our society as a whole and especially our younger people to start thinking in a completely different way about our bodies and that what lies beneath is by far and away the most important. Keep up the good work!

  • Mary

    Excellent, Lisa!! You don’t see prostate cancer sexualized, so why breast cancer? The odd thing is that so many women, including those with breast cancer, allow this nonsense to continue. The prevailing sentiment seems to be “anything” for awareness and who cares the method as long as the money keeps rolling in. We have to start thinking of exactly how that money is being used. “Awareness” we have more than enough of and it has become meaningless. That money needs to go into meaningful research of the disease, itself, and better treatments.

    Patti, with my first BC, the aggressive one, I refused all adjuvant therapy, about 100,000 dollars worth. I knew, chemo, Herceptin, and the AIs were not for me. I guess I just wasn’t scared enough to do them or perhaps, with good reason, I was more afraid of the treatments than residual cancer! Good to meet another “rebel with a cause”! We are in the minority!

  • Bonnie Adams

    Lisa, thank you for sharing your gift of writing with us. You did a beautiful job expressing what you and so many have dealt with and are dealing with as we read your blog. You are a wonderful role model to your family, friends and others. We can only hope that your words can somehow help change the culture of everything is sexual with our bodies. We have generations that are being bombarded with sexual this,that and everything. “What Does Lie Beneath” is being lost in the shuffle. We can only hope that your words inspire others to discover what really matters! Katie is right, thanks for being bold and courageous to express your thoughts and feelings.

  • Lisa,

    Brilliant, insightful post about today’s culture. It is so breast-obsessed, and this won’t stop until women stop being sexualized by our society. And I don’t know when that will be. I love the way you write and you are so right about only the heart mattering. The sexualizing of breasts, unfortunately, leads to the sexualizing of breast cancer and diminishing the chances of a cure. Thank you for an essay very well-worth reading.

  • Kelly Lorentz

    Lisa, it is with tears of joy and that I finished reading this; your courage, stamina and HEART went right through my HEART!! I so appreciate you sharing this piece of your life with me and respect you for your courage and voice which will help others everyday!

    I am blessed, so very blessed to have you in my life.

    Again thank you.

  • Ruth

    Lisa, What great writing! Very insightful and thought provoking.

  • AWESOME. Thanks for sharing this incredible piece with the PRB community.

  • Great job, Lisa! You are a wonderful woman and what a fine example you have been working so hard to overcome the obsticles in your life. You are to be applauded for sharing so much of your life with others. I have felt that the PINK BREAST CANCER movement has been overdone. Where does that leave patients diagnosed with other cancers or as far as that goes with other diseases that can be just as debilitating and costly as cancer? My concern is that the funds collected are used for the treatment and cure rather than for the needed research to erradicate the disease. Erradicating the disease should be the ultimate goal. Thanks, Lisa, for your wisdom and involvement!

  • Another Halocene Human

    Seconded all the way, Lisa!

    Breast cancer ends in death for so many women, including my wife’s stepmother who lost an agonizing 13 year battle against metastasized breast cancer two years ago, and making orphans of her two children (their father died of lymphoma three months later). Save the ta-tas? When I first saw that logo I thought it was black humor or sarcasm directed at the ubiquitous and brainless pink-ribboned “awareness” campaigns. You know, when you have grandmothers and great grandmothers who have died from advanced breast cancer I’m pretty sure you’re quite “aware” of breast cancer. Nothing more than smarmy marketing which attempts to establish an irrational emotional connection between product and buyer. Thank goodness for the Komen Foundation’s overreach so that we can all talk about this openly now and not be labeled insensitive.

    I think you’ve tapped my rage now… I’m ‘a sit down for a moment…

"women urged to get screened because it might save their lives. But that’s only 1 possible outcome, and it’s the least likely one" @cragcrest cutt.ly/jei8WJr

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"Seeing clearly through the pink haze" Toronto Sun

*Sad face*: Being happy does not help you live longer" New Scientist

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Your Fun 'No Bra Day' Photos Are Overshadowing Terminal Breast Cancer Patients Broadly

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