Monday, June 21, 2010

Holding a Mirror to Myself

It's funny how life has a way of teaching you lessons. Last week, all I could think about was revision surgery; today, I feel much more content.

Over the weekend, I helped friends who own a fair-trade clothing design and import business sell their wares at a street festival on the North Shore. I love working for them for a number of reasons: 1) Their clothes are fabulous (see what I mean?) and, since I get paid for my shifts in clothes and jewelry, today I'm rocking this little number, and 2) Their mission is unimpeachable: they work with democratically structured women's cooperatives in India that provide benefits--including childcare and overtime pay--denied to many in the garment industry. The clothes they produce aren't just stylish and unique, they're helping empower women in impoverished communities; they are beautiful on the outside and on the inside. And I'm proud to watch my friends grow their small, independent, women-owned business. It's an honor to put in a couple shifts a summer, and I look forward to the weekends I can help out.

Saturday was a picture perfect day. A little on the hot side, perhaps, but the sun was bright, and we were busy. I've never had a retail job (does that summer I worked in a coffee shop count?), but I think I'm a natural saleswoman, especially when I believe in what we're selling (and boy, do I ever). I like interacting with the customers, answering their questions, and helping them find something that makes them feel good.

Towards evening, two women--one blond, the other brunette--ducked into the tent (we were selling outdoors, of course). They were probably in their early forties, and the brunette had in tow a young daughter who dozed in her stroller just outside the booth. Not long after they started shopping, they grabbed a few items and hit the dressing room. We were cramped for space and among my many duties--including running credit cards, giving people the wrong copy of their receipt (note to self: we keep the white one), and generally forgetting to keep an accurate track of inventory--was holding the full length mirror (this was a job I was particularly good at). As soon as the brunette came out of the dressing room, I could see it. And my heart leaped to my throat. She'd had breast reconstruction, I was sure. I could see that her left breast was different than her right, I could see the familiar roundness of an implant. I wanted to say something, but what could I say? "Hey, fellow fake boobed lady, I couldn't help but notice..." But I felt an immediate kinship with her, and I wished there was a way to reach out.

What really astounded me, though, watching her watch herself in the mirror, was how happy she was. How pleased she was with her reflection, with how happy she was with the way the clothes fit on her body, even with her imperfect decolletage. She went back into the dressing room and tried on another dress. This time, because of the cut, I was even more sure she'd had reconstruction; her armpit was hollowed out, a telltale sign of a sentinel node biopsy. And then, this time, as she stood before me, in front of the mirror I held, she adjusted her neckline and I saw the scar from her chemo port. She was a breast cancer survivor, I was sure of it.

She smiled so brightly and exuded such joy it nearly took my breath away. There I was, feeling very different about my post-surgery body. I was self conscious and worried that my reconstruction was noticeably imperfect. I worried what people would think if they knew I had implants. I feared people could tell. Here was a woman who didn't care, who didn't apologize, who didn't fiddle with the dress and ask sheepishly, "Can you tell I've had breast reconstruction in this?" She just seemed so very happy to be alive.

It put things into perspective for me. You can own your new body, with its new imperfections, and you don't need to explain it to anyone. You can be wear your scars, your choices, your journey with pride. My friend Cancer Bitch is one-breasted and proudly so. After her cancer, she chose to not to reconstruct. And I'm always astonished when I see her how amazingly confident she is, how it doesn't bother her, so it shouldn't bother you either. I need to see more of that. More women who aren't worried so much about what others think because they are happy with their bodies. I forget to think like that sometimes. But I'm going to try to more.

When I held up that mirror on Saturday, I got a better look at myself. And I'm going to try to learn to love what I see.


  1. What a beautiful entry, STEPH ;)

    My days vary with how I feel about the surgery, the anxiety of reconstruction, and overall body image. I love that you got to see this woman!

  2. I must tell you . . . this post is something I needed to read/hear today.
    Thank you.

  3. Thank you for this post. For the past 2 weeks or so I have been struggling with how I like my look while clothed but am almost horrified by how round and huge my foobs look to me "in the flesh". In the end, I am glad I don't have cancer, and also, I just need to be a little more patient with the healing and reconstruction process. Mary B.

  4. I love the title of this entry! Its so fitting. I love it when life gives us signs that help us learn and put things into perspective, especially when we need it the most.

  5. Thanks for the kind words about this post ladies. I've been feeling SO much better about myself recently (going to the FORCE conference and having lots of people compliment your rack is a HUGE boost to your self esteem). I'll probably have days I'm less confident than others, but I still know I made the right choice. Breast cancer sucks. Slight imperfections in my reconstruction are small troubles in comparison.