#lifereboot: Stephanie Gilman’s struggle to feel feminine after battling breast cancer
Our columnist wrestles with what it means to be a woman and a feminist.
I never used to think too much about my breasts. They were on the (very) small side, fairly unremarkable, and usually in need of a decent pushup bra. I didn’t see them as a major part of my self-identity. You might even say I took them for granted.
I didn’t think too much about my breasts until they were no longer a part of me. At the age of 28, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a bilateral mastectomy. At that time, all I could think about was that my breasts were trying to kill me; I didn’t worry too much about losing them or the physical and emotional consequences that would follow. I worried that I was in my 20s and might die of cancer. Nothing else concerned me more than that terrifying possibility. So I figured I would do what I needed to do, get through it and deal with the after-effects later.
And now it’s later – two years, to be precise – and I am still very much dealing with the loss of my breasts and its enormous impact on my sense of self. Apparently, as it turns out, my breasts were more important to me than I realized.
The feminist voice inside my head pleads with me to be bold and make grand statements about not being defined by my breasts, feeling secure in my femininity and being proud of my body and my “battle scars.” I’d love to be like Angelina Jolie, who, in her now-famous New York Times piece about having a preventive double mastectomy, wrote: “I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.” I want to be seen as one of those inspiring breast-cancer survivors who are unwilling to let cancer take away their self-confidence. That narrative, as ideal as it sounds, is not my reality. Not even close.
Whenever there’s a scene on TV where the men are ogling the woman with the big, bouncy breasts, I’m reminded that that part of my sexuality and womanhood is gone. Instead, I have firm, uncomfortable mounds of silicone under my chest muscle and there is almost no sensation; I try to draw attention away from them rather than to them.
When I hear mothers discuss the challenges or importance of breastfeeding, I think of how I will never be part of their club. Like a child who has been left out of the cool kids’ clique, I am on the outside, always looking in.
When I look in the mirror and analyze my body, “sexy” and “feminine” are not words that come to mind. I feel like a science experiment gone awry, with two huge scars across my chest and smaller ones under my armpits. And, to add insult to injury, my eyebrows have not fully grown back in, I suffer from treatment-induced menopausal side effects and I currently can’t have children because of the medication I need to take (that is, if chemotherapy didn’t already destroy my fertility). I see all of these things as being at odds with how I define femaleness.
This column is all about finding meaning, purpose and acceptance throughout my journey. When it comes to rebooting my self-perception and making peace with a new definition of what it means to be a woman, I am not quite there yet. I seek to find that inner strength so that I can move on and not dwell on what I’ve lost or what I will never have. But I’ve still got anger and sadness inside of me that creep up every now and then: when a pushy salesgirl in a lingerie store eagerly demands that I let her measure me for a bra; when I overhear someone making a comment about how she would never get fake boobs; when I think about the breasts that I once had, that I never really cared about, and how I can now barely remember what they looked or felt like.
I know that I am not my breasts and that they don’t define my femininity. I also know that I am not any less of a feminist because I miss them, mourn their loss and wish I could go back to a time before my surgery, before my cancer and before I ever gave my breasts more than a passing thought. There is no black and white here, and there are no easy answers. This is simply the body I must now live in, and I am determined to continue figuring out how to do that. I am woman. Hear me roar.