“Oh, I just died from embarrassment,” we tell our friends with a laugh when relating a story about an awkward social moment.
We don’t mean it literally, but sometimes it is all too true. When embarrassment keeps us from seeing the doctor about an issue of sexual or breast health, we court death.
There has been controversy over whether Breast Self Exams (BSE) really make a difference in survival rates for women with breast cancer. In my mind there is no doubt that the introduction of the concept in the 1950’s saved women’s lives by making it OK to touch their breasts.
Before that some women found it easier to die from breast cancer than to tell their doctors that they found a suspicious spot while examining their breasts in a mirror. Ladies didn’t touch their breasts Once it became a woman’s duty to do BSE, she didn’t have to admit that a lover found a lump; she could just say that she found it when she did her monthly exam.
Too many of us know two kinds of breasts, our own and the air-brushed ones in slick magazines. Real breasts don’t compare to the fantasy ones in movies and “art” photos.
We live in a different world today. Nancy Redd in her book Body Drama, a book on puberty for teen girls, has included color photos of teens and their body parts to show the wide variations. She wants girls to stop being embarrassed or worried that they aren’t normal.
On the morning news recently I saw a piece about Jordan Matter’s book Uncovered. Matter has photographed bare-breasted women of every age and size on the streets of New York City and published their pictures in a book along with their commentary on the experience. Matter’s website says of the women, “Every one was a volunteer. Every subject faced reactions to her decision to defy convention, and many confronted feelings of shame and inadequacy. But after the shoots, the women were unexpectedly euphoric.”
The legal right to be topless in New York State was won because seven women in Rochester held a picnic sans shirts to protest the fact that men are allowed to be bare chested in situations where women are not. In 1992 the New York Supreme Court sided with the women. As a resident of Rochester at that time, I remember the controversy. The New York police did not, so Matter had to have all the information about the decision handy to keep his subjects from being arrested. Ironically, the news show about the book “ribboned” over the breasts in the pictures.
Another indication of changing times is an email I received to an on-line support group I belong to. Dikla Benzeevi, a young Stage IV cancer survivor, wrote about a body painting/photography project she will be participating in to raise money for breast cancer research. Dikla writes, “Michael D. Colanero, a photographer in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida is putting together a body painting project of breast cancer survivors with amazing art work and imagery drawn by an established female body painter in Florida. The images are very tasteful and meaningful, include some digital artistry and any retouching the model and photographer agree on.” The pictures will be published in a calendar and maybe a book.
Is it a matter of privacy, modesty, or shame that makes most of us embarrassed to show our breasts? I’d whip mine out in public to feed my children, but only under the cover of a blanket. I’ve had occasions in the grocery store where I wished the woman leaning over the meat counter had chosen a top that showed a little less cleavage. Sometimes it’s sexier to be covered up and leave a little to the imagination. Even if laws in every state change, I doubt many of us will choose to go topless. Clothing keeps us warm and protects us from sunburn.
But I’m pleased that books and projects like these offer us a different view of breasts and may reduce that embarrassment factor of going to the doctor. Our bodies are a beautiful gift from our Creator, and we need to take care of them without shame.
Phyllis Johnson is an inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) survivor diagnosed in 1998. She has written about cancer for HealthCentral since 2007. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the oldest 501(3)© organization focused on research for IBC. She is a list monitor for an online support group at www.ibcsupport.org. Phyllis attends conferences such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD® Institute. She tweets at @mrsphjohnson.