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"a real form" (audre lorde)

a black and white photo / xray of a breast implant

[x-ray image of breast implant in a human body  via.]

In the most benign of social circumstances, I recently met a plastic surgeon. We talked. She was candid and unapologetic about her business: mainly in augmentations and reductions for women, of various kinds. She asked about my work—she’s an avid art collector—and lit up when I told her I often work with prosthetics. “You might be interested in some supplies I have,” she said. “There are several dozen unusable breast implants sitting in my office. I should have thrown them out a long time ago, but I just couldn’t. I knew, someday, I’d meet an artist who might want them. Maybe—that’s you?”

I can’t believe my good fortune, especially since I have both saline and silicone gel models to use. I’ve started talking to a friend in biomedical engineering about the story of implant technologies, and I look forward to exploring more here. See below, in order, a gel model, an adjustable saline model, and three saline models with a valve diaphragm each comes with (for the size adjustment, depending on the fill with saline). Contact me if you have some expertise:


Handling these, I immediately recalled reading Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals (1980) last fall, in which Lorde details the process of her breast cancer diagnosis, mastectomy, and process of recovery, both in personal and political terms.

Of course, in 2012 we may well take for granted images of mastectomy scar tattoos or otherwise “out” images of women in their post-surgery bodies. (Here are images from the SCAR project by photographer David Jay; apparently there’s a documentary made from this same effort.)

But you have to read Lorde’s work with the eye of the historian, in several senses, to understand the dynamics behind the prosthetic breast industry. Written in the late 1970s, Lorde confronts her illness and, importantly, the question of a post-surgery breast prosthesis as a topic freighted with power:

After a mastectomy, for many women including myself, there is a feeling of wanting to go back, of not wanting to persevere through this experience to whatever enlightenment might be at the core of it. And it is this feeling, this nostalgia, which is encouraged by most of the post-surgical counseling for women with breast cancer. This regressive tie to the past is emphasized by the concentration upon breast cancer as a cosmetic problem, one which can be solved by a prosthetic pretense. The American Cancer Society’s Reach for Recovery Program, while doing a valuable service in contacting women immediately after surgery and letting them know they are not alone, nonetheless encourages this false and dangerous nostalgia in the mistaken belief that women are too weak to deal directly and courageously with the realities of our lives.

The woman from Reach for Recovery who came to see me in the hospital, while quite admirable and even impressive in her own right, certainly did not speak to my experience nor my concerns. As a 44 year old Black Lesbian Feminist, I knew there were few role models around for me in this situation, but my primary concerns two days after mastectomy were hardly about what man I could capture in the future, whether or not my old boyfriend would still find me attractive enough, and even less about whether my two children would be embarrassed by me around their friends.

My concerns were about my chances for survival, the effects of a possibly shortened life upon my work and my priorities. Could this cancer have been prevented, and what could I do in the future to prevent its re-occurence? Would I be able to maintain the control over my life that I had always taken for granted?

Later, Lorde shows up for her post-procedure exam:

Ten days after having my breast removed, I went to my doctor’s office to have the stitches taken out. This was my first journey out since coming home from the hospital, and I was truly looking forward to it. A friend had washed my washed my hair for me and it was black and shining, with my new grey hairs glistening in the sun. Color was starting to come back into my face and around my eyes. I wore the most opalescent of my moonstones, and a single floating bird dangling from my right ear in the name of grand asymmetry. With an African kente-cloth tunic and new leather boots, I knew I looked fine, with that brave new-born security of a beautiful woman having come through a very hard time and being very glad to be alive.

I felt really good, within the limits of that grey mush that still persisted in my brain from the effects of the anesthesia.

When I walked into the doctor’s office, I was really rather pleased with myself, all things considered, pleased with the way I felt, with my own flair, with my own style. The doctor’s nurse, a charmingly bright and steady woman of about my own age who had always given me a feeling of quiet no-nonsense support on my other visits, called me into the examining room. On the way, she asked how I was feeling.

“Pretty good,” I said, half-expecting her to make some comment about how good I looked.

“You’re not wearing a prosthesis,” she said, a little anxiously, and not at all like a question.

“No,” I said, thrown off my guard for a minute. “It really doesn’t feel right,” referring to the lambswool puff given to me by the Reach for Recovery volunteer in the hospital.

Usually supportive and understanding, the nurse now looked at me urgently and disapprovingly as she told me that even if it didn’t look exactly right it was “better than nothing,” and that as soon as my stitches were out I could be fitted for a “real form.”

“You will feel so much better with it on,” she said. “And besides, we really like you to wear something, at least when you come in. Otherwise it’s bad morale for the office.”

It’s hard to imagine such a thing being said out loud 30 years hence. But the thriving cosmetic surgery industry, I hardly need say, speaks to the vector of appearances among women (post-cancer-surgery, but also post-birthing, post-years-spent-on-the-planet) that still obscures opportunities for personal and political wisdom by its emphasis on restoring bodies so that “you’d never know” the difference. Lorde writes:

I am talking here about the need for every woman to live a considered life. The necessity for that consideration grows and deepens as one faces directly one’s own mortality and death. Self scrutiny and an evaluation of our lives, while painful, can be rewarding and strengthening journeys toward a deeper self. For as we open ourselves more and more to the genuine conditions of our lives, women become less and less willing to tolerate those conditions unaltered, or to passively accept external and destructive controls over our lives and our identities. Any short-circuiting of this quest for self-definition and power, however well-meaning and under whatever guise, must be seen as damaging, for it keeps the post-mastectomy woman in a position of perpetual and secret insufficiency, infantilized and dependent for her identity upon an external definition by appearance.

There’s more to be said on this topic. Send me your ideas—

Audre Lorde in 1980, via. thumbnail via.

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