August 20, 2013

Breast Cancer, Mastectomy and Breast Implants: A 20-Year History of Images and Attitudes

CBS Sunday Morning this week aired a segment looking at breast cancer and body image, especially women’s choices around reconstructive surgery and implants.

Artist and former fashion model Matuschka, whose self-portrait on The New York Times Magazine cover 20 years ago (Aug. 15, 1993) created a shock because it displayed her mastectomy scar where her right breast had been removed, describes her reasons for creating the image — wanting to start a conversation about breast cancer — and the backlash she received from readers who thought she brought shame to women.

The moment was compared to the reaction to Angelina Jolie’s recent decision to undergo prophylactic mastectomy, and current public attitudes about women’s breasts.

OBOS Executive Director Judy Norsigian notes how moneyed interests guide what is seen as narrow beauty ideals for women, and how that affects women’s choices about reconstruction after breast cancer surgery.

“We live in a culture in which large breasts are almost universally idealized,” said Norsigian. “We’ve had at the same time a huge industry that has burgeoned to promote the idea that women must have implants.”

(It was great to hear veteran reporter Martha Teichner, in her introduction to the segment, call the ninth edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” “the now iconic guide on women’s sexual and reproductive matters, and a gauge of social attitudes.” )

The segment also includes a clip of  7-year-old girls who are interviewed in “Absolutely Safe,” a documentary that examines the popularity of breast implants among ongoing controversies about implant safety. It’s disturbing to see how thoroughly these young girls have already received the message that bigger breasts are better and attract more attention.

Another resource mentioned is The Scar Project, a series of photographs displaying the bodies and scars of breast cancer survivors. The project generated some controversy earlier this year when Facebook began removing and banning some of the photos for allegedly violating Facebook’s policies on nudity; more details are provided in these posts at the Scar Project blog.


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