Your Scars Are What Make You Beautiful: Angelina Jolie's Double Mastectomy Defines Femininity, Empowerment

The New York Times editorial popped up on my Twitter feed, and I had to read the headline a few times before I believed it.
Publish date:
May 14, 2013
mastectomy, angelina jolie

When I think of cancer, I think of things that are not real.

When I think of Angelina Jolie, I think of things that are not real.

Both of these things are far removed from my world.

Neither of these things directly affect me.

Early this morning, I clicked on a new story in my newsfeed. It was to an editorial in The New York Times, which was about both of these topics, so incredibly far removed from my every day life. The article was titled: "My Medical Choice" by Angelina Jolie. The biggest celebrity on the planet -- writing about the biggest disease on the planet:

Nine weeks later, the final surgery is completed with the reconstruction of the breasts with an implant. There have been many advances in this procedure in the last few years, and the results can be beautiful.

I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made. My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 percent to under 5 percent. I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.

I felt it immediately. I was not reading this as a "story."

I don't know how it is for you, but everything I read online is with a distance.

Because if you don't have a distance, then you are too open, and you can feel things, you can let yourself feel things as you might really feel them -- as a young child might feel them -- with sadness and excitement and hope and devastation, and with the amount of information we consume daily on May 14, 2013, it would just be too overwhelming.

See, over there: Terrifying. Look at that: Sad. Watch this: Funny.

It is all kept up with a distance. Sometimes snide, sometimes protective, and always, always unacknowledged.

Angelina Jolie's revelation that she underwent for the past three months a secret preventative double mastectomy to dramatically reduce her chances of dying from breast cancer moved me deeply. Her boldness knocked me off my feet, and before I knew it, I had lost my grip on my separation, my detachment from my emotions.

Jolie writes:

Two weeks later I had the major surgery, where the breast tissue is removed and temporary fillers are put in place. The operation can take eight hours. You wake up with drain tubes and expanders in your breasts. It does feel like a scene out of a science-fiction film. But days after surgery you can be back to a normal life.

Nine weeks later, the final surgery is completed with the reconstruction of the breasts with an implant. There have been many advances in this procedure in the last few years, and the results can be beautiful.

It's rare that a piece of writing -- like, say a button or a T-shirt -- actually succeeds in that simplistic, bizarre little category of "raising awareness." The two words together have become so meaningless and so trite because they are used so often and so falsely, often in regards to some reality TV show as the punchline at the end of a cheap sentiment. "Oh, I'm just doing incredibly damaging things to other people who are weaker than me to raise awareness." "Oh, I'm just contributing to the dissolution of basic human decency to raise awareness." "Oh, I'm just raising you with awareness to raise awareness."

Seriously. Fuck raising awareness. This piece did something far more meaningful for me.

It reduced the distance.

I read and reread every word she wrote. The cancer was real. Close. The celebrity was real. Vulnerable.

And her children touching and watching and seeing her recovery was very, very real. Jolie writes of her kids:

It is reassuring that they see nothing that makes them uncomfortable. They can see my small scars and that’s it. Everything else is just Mommy, the same as she always was. And they know that I love them and will do anything to be with them as long as I can. 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 can be sensory-overwhelming to acknowledge that cancer is a reality. Or even that celebrities are a reality (and not just a humanity-drained punching bag).

It probably explains the public's acute fascination over celebrity deaths -- and why everyone loses their minds over them on Twitter nowadays. It is this near-preposterous tidal wave of grief over celebrities who most people have not thought of or acknowledged in years.

Because, in a way, it is this perfect co-mingling of these two great intangibles, these two mighty impossibles: celebrity -- and death.

Except in Angelina Jolie's case, as we can so exuberantly celebrate, it was not a Hollywood death that came across the wires early this morning, but, instead quite the opposite: An explosive moment of life itself.


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