The idea for this post came about when I found myself sitting between several people reading an article about the ‘No Less a Woman’ campaign (in which I feature). I imagined myself having a conversation around some of the - upsetting - comments I later saw posted about the article.
Man on the Train
I was sitting next to you on the District Line last Wednesday, reading the Evening Standard over your shoulder. I know it was irritating – sorry. I just couldn’t help myself. I saw my topless photograph on page 11 in the article about ‘No Less a Woman’ - the collaboration by Stella McCartney and Laura Dodsworth to highlight breast cancer awareness. It’s not every day you see a picture of yourself half-naked in the newspaper! I blushed didn’t I? It sounds crazy, but there was this awful split-second before I realised that neither you, nor anyone else in the carriage would know that I was one of the three women in the article because our identities were not revealed.
I noticed that you looked at the images for a long time. It’s okay to be curious. We wanted you to know what mastectomy scars look like; to better understand the impact of breast surgery on women’s bodies. Sadly, not everyone gets to have neat scars and beautifully reconstructed breasts despite the wonderful advances in surgery. Not everyone can have a tattoo over their scar. Radiation treatment, for instance, can cause invisible, but long-term damage to the skin.
It didn’t cross your mind that you were sitting next to one of the women in the feature? You didn’t think I looked like I had breast cancer? It’s hard, but we all need to remember to try not to make assumptions about how people look, sometimes people can be ill, even when they look great.
You can’t understand why I wanted to show my scars? To be honest, I would never have agreed to have a topless photo before I had breast cancer. I took my breasts for granted. I didn’t see them as emblematic of my womanhood and femininity. I was sad to say good-bye to them when I decided to have risk-reducing surgery but when a reconstruction failed, and I got cancer again, I was devastated. Around 1 in 8 women in this country will develop breast cancer and 11, 000 women still die every year. I heard cancer described as ‘sexy.’ I hope these images will help people to understand that cancer is not sexy and they will have a better appreciation of this disease.
I worry that my daughter’s generation will struggle to develop a healthy relationship with their bodies if they are only surrounded by airbrushed images of idealised women. I worry that we are in danger of denying the truth of who we are if we carry on holding such unrealistic expectations, not just about our breasts, but about our bodies and the control we imagine we have over them.
Please don’t call me ‘brave.’ I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. But if you must feel pity, turn that emotion into a verb – do something to help, even if it’s just making a donation to charity.
Were you shocked? If you were, then it gives you some insight into how I felt for a long time. Nudity is something of a taboo in our culture, but to bare an imperfect body, a scarred body, feels like the final taboo, one that I wanted to shatter by showing off my body in all its flawed glory. My scars might be hidden from you, but I see them and they tell the story of my body, of my courage and strength.