Women Who Bare Their Breasts

Women Who Bare Their Breasts

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

Women Who Bare Their Breasts

Ising the body electric.

Walt Whitman

I am a member of a secret society of women that has no name, never meets in public and performs a ritual that would get us arrested on any street corner in America: we take our clothes off and stare at each other’s bodies.

An elderly woman first invited me into this strange-seeming group at my church. In the bathroom one Sunday, she offered to let me see the flat chest that resulted from her double mastectomy. I had just been told that I had to have a mastectomy, and the image of losing a body part was haunting my days and nights. Yet here this kindly woman stood, offering this intimate reassurance. I said yes. She unbuttoned her blouse, took off her lacy bra and showed me the strong, hard lines of her little boy’s chest. I thought she was beautiful, and I thought her generosity was overwhelming.

During the three weeks that followed, I had two similar offers and found that I was no longer shocked. A nurse at a doctor’s office offered to let me see her rebuilt breasts. She led me into an examining room and showed me how perky silicone implants can make your breasts. Another young woman called me on the phone and invited me—a person connected to her only through the accident of our having the same surgeon—to her one-bedroom apartment by the beach to see what a Tram-flap reconstruction looked like. She was tall, with red ringlet hair, and her breast looked so real that before I even knew what I was doing, I blurted out, “Can I touch it?” She was as unfazed by the request as she was by standing in front of me half naked.

Influenced in large part by what I saw and touched that day, I chose the same surgery and became part of the secret society that had reached out, welcomed me and educated me. I have the choice to keep my mouth closed and my blouse buttoned, but for what I might gain in privacy or discretion, I would lose in the chance to see women turn from ashen-faced strangers into friends, who feel the hope that only seeing a survivor in the flesh can bring. I’m now four years past my own reconstructive surgery, and I’ve shown countless women my breasts. I invite them into my home; I take them into the bathroom at school; I once showed a woman my breast in the Port-a-Potty at my husband’s company picnic—and she went to get the same surgery I did.

Not long ago, I was asked to show my breast on a national TV show and for a national woman’s magazine because I wrote a book about breast cancer with a chapter titled “Modesty Is Irrelevant,” and editors suspected I’d be willing. My initial reaction to these invitations was, “No way.” This public grandstanding seemed to be a violation of the rules and the spirit of the secret society of women who bare their breasts. But the red-haired woman who showed me her breast had died from her cancer, and here I could do for millions of women in one fell swoop the same thing she had done for me in one afternoon by the beach. It seemed a fitting tribute. So with cameras humming, I took off my clothes, smiled and said, See, here’s the scar. See, this is fake. See, I am alive!

I was proud to show off my rebuilt breasts, to show off my scars, to let other women see what it means to be alive and changed. It may be a strange-sounding ritual to people outside the tribe, but to those of us inside, it’s something we hold sacred.

Jennie Nash

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