On Oscar night, I was an unlikely attendee. I am a university professor, not a filmmaker or actor. I was there to celebrate the success of a nominated documentary short in which I was a subject. After donning a fantastic new dress, borrowed jewelry and shoes, I was red carpet ready. We took a limo to the Dolby Theater and reapplied lipstick in the traffic.
On the red carpet I felt happy, ethereal and not quite in control, as if helium balloons were helping me float along. People I love were sharing this fantastic experience. I was with the individuals who made my life into a work of art. I was with women who supported me during one of the most trying times of my life. We slowly worked our way down that carpet, ignored by much of the press, embraced by some. I gawked at a few celebrities and photo bombed Reese Witherspoon. A friend texted to tell me she could see me on TV just behind Kristin Chenoweth. My group made it into the theater, downed some champagne, and took our seats. I was buzzing with anticipation and reveling in the success of our film. This was a far cry from my usual routine of grading papers and sitting on committees.
Then Seth MacFarlane took the stage. He started singing “We Saw Your Boobs,” and I found myself laughing out loud. Sitting in the audience that night, I was supposed to be appalled that the words were sexist and misogynistic. I laughed not because it was funny, but because it was absurd. For a moment, he was singing to me. Someone saw my boobs? The last person who saw my boobs wasn’t my husband, or my gynecologist, or even me. It was a pathologist, and they were no longer attached to my body at the time. We saw your boobs? I pulled my shawl over my chest.
When I was 36, my breasts were amputated. One was eliminated to excise the cancer from my body; the other was removed to diminish a lifetime of worry about cancer returning. I chose not to get implants or to have muscles taken from other parts of my body to create “foobs” (the breast cancer community‘s mash up of “fake” and “boobs”). Instead, I am a flat chested woman with no breasts and no nipples. My chest is an anomaly. I’m not flat anywhere else. I have a tummy that pokes out, obvious hips, even a round face. I’ve been living without breasts for two years and have, for the most part, become accustomed to it. On Oscar night, I was hyper aware of my breastlessness. I was wearing a formal dress, the first one I had bought since the mastectomies. I was having my picture taken. Even though I was confident and comfortable, I noticed the absence of my breasts that day.
If Seth MacFarlane saw our documentary short, he saw me shirtless. In one scene, I’m holding a video camera, filming my naked chest in a mirror. It was a moment of pride for me. I’d made it through another cancer treatment hurdle, getting my radiation tattoos. I was feeling upbeat, strong, and proud of my healing. Then there was Seth, making a joke about a body part I no longer possess. Perhaps this is the nature of recovering from any trauma. A child’s innocent question at the pool can upend my day, while a simple comment from my son about how smooth my scars look brings me back to center. My daily life is peppered with these moments; most are smaller, more personal, and less public than my Oscar experience. Red carpet or not, breastless is now my reality.
I was at the Oscars for a film in which I bared my post-op chest – scarred, flat, and breastless, and I was surrounded by cleavage and “side boob.” I was representing other young women who had cancer, other amputees, other people who do not look like red carpet walkers. I wanted people to see my flat chest and understand what it means, to see all of me, and what I have been through, to recognize the process, the journey from cancer diagnosis all the way to the red carpet. Not everyone has a celebrity like Seth McFarlane make them feel self conscious, but these moments of acute awareness pull us all up and down.