In February, Angelina Jolie had a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy. This week, she wrote an op-ed about it for the New York Times. And here’s all I’m going to say about it:
1. Does it qualify as “brave” or “heroic” to get a preventive mastectomy? I don’t know. Mostly, it sounds like a medical decision made with the aid of her doctor in response to a medical threat, so I suppose that is what it is. What does qualify as brave, in my mind, is to speak about it so openly in a society where women are evaluated on the basis of their breasts, where breast-cancer fundraising comes with the admonition to “save the ta-tas,” and where even now commenters question her choice to “sacrifice” her precious breasts because of a mere 87 percent chance of getting breast cancer. Hopefully, her openness about it will make other women feel more comfortable and less stigmatized discussing their own breast health concerns.
2. Is her choice the right one for every woman? No. It appears to have been the right one for her, but every person’s situation is different. A woman in similar circumstances who chooses not to follow that path is not making an irresponsible choice or failing herself or her family.
3. Mastectomy is not “maiming” or “mutilation.” It’s the removal of body tissue for medical reasons. Her body is not now useless, ugly, or disfigured; it just has different parts than the ones that grew there originally. She is no less a person and no less a woman for having had her breasts removed.
4. That said, her feelings about her post-mastectomy body are hers to feel, just as with any other woman. Some women feel incomplete after a mastectomy, or see their missing breasts as a reminder of what they’ve been through, and choose to get a reconstruction. Some women don’t particularly care, or see their scars as a badge of honor, and choose not to reconstruct. Jolie says she’ll be getting a reconstruction, and her reasons are hers. Our job is not to question; our job is to create a world where a woman isn’t pressured to make medical choices based on society’s expectations of her body, and then leave her to make her choices in that free environment.
5. In her letter, Jolie acknowledges her privilege in having access to exceptional medical care for genetic testing, prophylactic surgery (mastectomy and the oophorectomy she’ll be having in the near future), and breast reconstruction. Some health insurance companies will pay for preventive surgery and reconstruction; others won’t; and many women don’t have health insurance at all. It’s a thing that needs to be fixed. Jolie says, “It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live.” That’s hard to argue with.
6. Every day, women go through what Jolie has gone through and don’t get New York Times op-eds about it. They are no more or less brave, nor more or less important, than she is. But almost all of them are less famous, and that’s what enabled Jolie to do what she’s done: Use her sounding board to demystify a scary medical procedure, shed light on an aspect of breast cancer that often gets hidden amid the pinkification, draw attention to a serious gap in women’s access to health care, and maybe make other women feel less alone as they deal with their own circumstances. And that’s hard to argue with, too.