Friday, February 26, 2010
The Scar Project: What Would You Do?
Last Spring, when I first learned I carried the BRCA2 mutation, my dear friend D suggested I reconnect with T, a fellow NU alum, who, in the years since I had seen her last (probably at graduation), had been diagnosed with breast cancer. At age 27. (Pause for reflection on the unpredictability -- and occasional shitiness -- of life.) T, who does not have a BRCA mututation, is now in remission. But she kept a blog during her cancer year, and, as I was just beginning to write my own, I read through the whole thing, absolutely rapt. It was through one of her entries that I first learned about The Scar Project, a photo collection of breast cancer survivors (the image at the top is representative of the quality and candor.). Eventually, T, who'd had a mastectomy, was photographed herself for the project, and the resulting image was so bold, so brave, and so beautiful, and I wondered if, when I had scars of my own, I would be ballsy enough to do the same thing: stand in front of a camera, look into its lens, and dare the viewer not to pity me but be empowered by my strength.
Fast forward nearly a year: I have scars. And I have new breasts -- breasts I'm crazy about showing off. It's not that I'm a an exhibitionist; in fact, before my surgery, I would say I was a bit modest (and I've written about my long struggle to accept my natural breasts and allow others to see and touch them). The first time I ever participated in a show-and-tell (I just looked and learned) with BRCA+ women who'd have surgery and reconstruction, I was incredibly uncomfortable; I was shocked at how casually the women popped off their tops and bras and allowed me, a stranger, to feel (feel!) their breasts. I remember thinking they all looked like proud pheasants, chests jutted, showing off their plumage. But something changed when I had surgery; I became one of them. I flash people ALL THE TIME. At book club a few weeks back, talk quickly turned from the book at hand to my boobs, and after sufficient champagne had been consumed, they were made available for inspection (it turns out, one of my fellow book-clubbers is considering testing for the BRCA mutation, so I was especially glad to show her, "Look, if I'm the worst case scenarion, look at how good it looks."). Last weekend, at my housewarming party, my boobs made a late night appearance. When this happens, the intention is never grandstanding; it's to inform and to educate. Most of my friends, that is, women in my non-BRCA life, have terrible misconceptions (as I did) about mastectomies; they imagine my chest slashed and resewen with cartoonish Frankenstein stitches. And I simply want to show them that that's not the case: I'm not walking around hiding a monstrous deformity under my clothes. I'm whole. I'm beautiful. I'm proud. It seems strange to say this, but my breasts are no longer just my own; they belong to the collective. They can evangelize; they can convert.
And so, it was with this in mind that I contacted David Jay, the photographer behind the Scar Project. I told him my story and he wrote back, inviting me to New York in April to pose for a portrait. I'm both incredibly excited about this opportunity and wholly terrified. The Project, so far as I can tell, has only featured survivors, and that's something I'm not. I didn't have breast cancer. But, nevertheless, I still lost my breasts to breast cancer. I lost my breasts to the fear of breast cancer, to the likelihood of it. Sure, they've got a fancy neologism for what I am, but I wonder, in this case, is being a previvor good enough? Are my scars poignant enough? Is my story not tragic enough?
Those are the philosophical questions I'm wrestling with. But there is also the more pedestrian concern: if I agree to do this, there will be a topless photograph of me on the internet. Now, granted, this isn't the same kind of topless photographs that ruin beauty pageant contestants or boost the careers of the talentless Kardashians. And of course, the purpose of these photographs is to be inspiring and educational, not to be raunchy or sexy. But am I ready for that kind of exposure? I value my (semi)anonymity; I'm able to blog so freely here about my experience and my boobs because I know that no one googling my very distinctive full name will come across this page. I'm not "out" on Facebook because I'm friends with certain people (I think mostly of people like my high school basketball coach and professional colleagues from work) that simply don't need to know about this part of my life. My career is very important to me; although I have no shame in what I'm writing here, I do not want future employers' first contact with me to be through this blog. Sure, it shows I can string a sentence or two together, but boobs and what hell I've been through with them are entirely separate from my professional aspirations. (All of this of course, will change, gladly, the moment I have a book contract in hand. But there's a lot to do before that happens. Like, I have to write a book.) All of this is to say, I'm in control here; if I pose for a topless photograph, I lose some of that. But I also have the power to reach so many more with my image than I do with my words.
All of this is to ask, dear reader, what should I do? What would you do? My husband says go for it. My heart says go for it. But my head tell me I should think about this a little more. What do you say?