I burst into tears when she took off her shirt. I was still laughing from her bit about airport security. Despite my laughter, these weren’t tears of joy, and this was not a restrained cry. The waterworks were from the raw emotion of seeing someone who looks like me on TV.
In some ways, the stand-up comic Tig Notaro and I are similar. We are both white with brown hair and a little grey peeking through the darkness. We both have some wrinkles around our eyes. We were even born in Mississippi a few years apart. And, of course, we are both breast cancer survivors who chose to have mastectomies.
Like Tig, I did not have reconstruction after my mastectomies, and I have no regrets. I don’t watch TV or read magazines thinking, “why do all of these women have breasts?” or “why don’t I look like them?” Yet seeing a breastless woman reflected on my television screen was deeply satisfying.
More than half of women who have a mastectomy do not have reconstruction. We forgo tissue expanders that are placed behind the chest muscle to slowly, and sometimes painfully, increase the space for rebuilding a fake breast, or “foob” (fake + boob) as we call them in the breast cancer community. We decline implants or the removal of muscle and fat from other parts of our bellies, backs, or thighs to create a likeness of what was amputated. Some women tried or wanted to reconstruct but could not because of complications. Others had failed reconstruction. Some of us, like Tig and like me, chose to be flat.
In support groups, survivors show their reconstructed breasts and nipple tattoos to one another. Women bond over their reconstruction choices and complications. Plastic surgeons patiently explain the many ways to make a faux breast but do not always mention the option of embracing flatness. When I pass a woman on the street who has had a mastectomy, prosthetics may mask our commonality. Even though those of us who have opted out of reconstruction are in the majority, I have frequently felt like one of a few. In her cancer writings, civil rights activist and feminist, Audre Lorde asked women with mastectomies to make themselves visible to one another. Tig has done just that. She has made herself visible to me and the many other women who look like us.
There are other women with mastectomies making themselves visible. David Jay’s SCAR Project includes portraits of young breast cancer survivors and their scars. The first time I consciously saw a flat woman was at a New York City SCAR Project exhibition; I’d probably seen them before but never noticed. I was in the midst of chemotherapy and had not yet made a decision about what type of surgery or reconstruction I would have. The women in the SCAR Project represent the continuum of surgery choices, no reconstruction, implants, tissue transfer, unilateral and bilateral mastectomies. I spent hours in the small gallery
silently examining the women’s faces, scars, and stories as I held my husband’s hand. I’d already begun to consider not having reconstruction at that point. The portraits of the flat women struck a chord in me. I loved them, the portraits and the women, instantly and began to believe I would be ok without “foobs.”
Since my non-reconstruction, I’ve become aware of other projects that allow women who have had mastectomies to be visible to one another. Charise Isis is a photographer whose Grace Project includes portraits of women who have had mastectomies. Inspired by ancient Greek art, the women pose nude mirroring Greek goddesses. Sara Bartosiewicz-Hamilton and Barbie Ritzco created a support system for women who are living without reconstruction after mastectomy called Flat and Fabulous. The group offers a private space for flat women to support one another, a public Facebook page, and a website with stories, advocacy tools, and educational information. I found this group a few years after my mastectomies and discovered hundreds of like-minded women who consider themselves whole without breasts.
I try to make myself visible. I don’t wear prosthetic breasts. When I’m not at work, I sometimes wear a low cut shirt that allows for a flash of my scars. Sometimes I choose clothes that accentuate my flat chest. Not long after my surgery, I even bared my scars in a documentary. Perhaps, Tig saw it and was inspired by my visibility.
I knew it was coming, the big reveal. It’s why I wanted to watch her HBO comedy special. First, she removed her jacket. The audience erupted in applause. “Don’t tempt me, “ she said. “Of course I’m not going to take my shirt off on my special.” Then she did it; she took off her white, button down. Tig exposed her breastless chest, flat belly, the inward curve of her waist, her shoulders, and arms. The audience cheered for her, and I sobbed. Her scars are healed, much like mine. She has horizontal lines across her chest replacing her breasts and nipples.
I never imagined how much these acts of visibility would mean to me. When the audience cheered for Tig, they cheered for me. They cheered for all the women who lost their breasts to cancer or the threat of cancer. Sara, Melly, Liana, Thedra, Rebecca, Barbie, Laurie…. They cheered for us to move forward with cancer or beyond cancer.