Angelina Jolie published a piece in the New York Times Tuesday about her decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy last month. As a carrier of a gene mutation called BRCA1, Jolie cut her chances of contracting breast cancer from 87 percent to under 5 percent by undergoing the procedure. I felt so honored to read Jolie’s detailed first-person account of her experience, as well as her advocacy for all the women around the world to gain access to the too-expensive tests and procedures that have empowered her to fight for her own life.
Those warm feelings were soon deflated by some of the unexpectedly nasty commentary that pooled around her story. Commenters snarked that Jolie had received a “boob job.” Some suggested that her medical emergency was just a tabloid ruse to cover up elective breast implants. Others morbidly asked after the whereabouts of the breast tissue removed from her body. “RIP Angelina’s boobs” was a typical ignorant comment. Said one commenter on a Jezebel post about the op-ed, “How many guys stopped reading as soon as they realized Angelina Jolie has no breasts — she’s dead to me!”
I’d like to dismiss these commenters as trolls, but their attitudes are unfortunately pervasive in our culture, and they don’t just represent a personal affront to Angelina Jolie, a veteran of such inappropriate body commentary. These comments affect every woman who has undergone a similar procedure — every woman who has overcome the pain, the fear and the constant and casual reminders that her breasts are more valuable than her life. Really, these comments affect all women who have seen their bodies reduced to mere objects for others to consume. As scholar of the stars Anne Helen Petersen says, “Remember: What we talk about when we talk about celebrities is, as ever, ourselves.” Some of us are not speaking very highly of the women in our lives now.
Jolie, for her part, addressed aesthetic concerns straightforwardly in her op-ed. “There have been many advances in this procedure in the last few years, and the results can be beautiful,” Jolie wrote. “On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.” It’s powerful to hear Jolie own this choice as beautiful.
But I’d go further to say that, regardless of the aesthetic aftermath of breast cancer surgeries — and the individual choices every woman makes in how to deal with them — the results of these procedures are necessarily and breathtakingly beautiful. Not only does this procedure not diminish a woman’s femininity in any way — it highlights her humanity.
As Jolie put it, “Brad was at the Pink Lotus Breast Center, where I was treated, for every minute of the surgeries. We managed to find moments to laugh together. We knew this was the right thing to do for our family and that it would bring us closer. And it has.”
And yet, perversely, some fans feel as if a part of Jolie has been stolen from them. One well-meaning but misguided commenter told me on Twitter this week: “Happy to hear she’s giving herself much better odds. As a guy, I will miss her lovely curves though.” (The reconstructive surgery she described presumably restored her curves.)
I can tell you from experience that when a person you love makes it through that surgery, they have never looked more lovely. I don’t mean that in a strictly emotional sense — it registers physically, too. The way that they look at you when they wake up. The breaths they take. Their smile. The way they move through space. You don’t miss anything: You are reminded of all of the wonderful things that you are not missing. It’s gorgeous.
Amanda Hess is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She blogs for DoubleX on sex, science, and health. Tweet at her @amandahess.