You are not required to be pretty


[This meme shows up on my Facebook newsfeed periodically. It’s easy to see why. Although it is attributed to Diana Vreeland, the quote originates from Erin McKean’s blog A Dress a Day. You can read her wonderful post here.]

Jessica Queller’s Pretty is What Changes (2008) takes its title from Stephen Sondheim’s song “Sunday in the Park with George.” Queller uses the relevant verse as an epigraph to her memoir: “Pretty isn’t beautiful, Mother/ Pretty is what changes/ What the eye arranges/ Is what is beautiful.” A lovely sentiment–that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as Queller explains in this NPR segment–especially given the way Queller details her fashion designer mother’s troubling obsession with beauty.

Given this critique of beauty standards and Queller’s attempts to position herself as the nerdy ugly duckling in a family populated by glamorous women, it’s surprising that Queller talks about putting on makeup before her prophylactic bilateral mastectomy and placement of expanders for reconstruction: “I had put on a little blush and lipstick that morning while dressing for the hospital. I was, after all, my mother’s daughter” (201). Before Queller’s surgery, her sister Danielle tells her that a young male doctor is being flirtatious and Queller exclaims “Thank goodness I put on blush this morning!” (201). When she wakes up after the procedure, Danielle says “You’re the only person who could come out of five hours of surgery with her blush and lipstick looking fresh and rosy!” (202).

Before her exchange surgery, Queller says that she feels tired, so “I certainly hadn’t bothered with makeup” (208). However, as she’s waiting in pre-op before the surgery, the same attractive doctor appears to say hello and mentions that he’ll check in on her during recovery.

“Dr. Kutchin left, and Dani and I turned into giggling, frazzled eighth graders.

‘Did you bring my makeup? I need some blush!’ I cried.

‘Yes–it’s in the bag. He likes you!’

‘I look like hell–he said he was going to visit in recovery!”

‘Don’t worry.’ Dani took out a makeup brush and dusted my cheeks until they were rosy. ‘All better.’ (208).

So much for following through on the promises of the book’s title and epigraph. It’s disheartening that these scenes come towards the end of the memoir, when Queller has already detailed the many problems with her mother’s obsession with beauty. In the end, her book shows that BRCA+ women can stay pretty despite the physical and psychological stresses of grueling risk-reducing surgeries. Maintaining dominant white beauty standards is as easy as blush and lipstick.

This obsession with maintaining prettiness during mastectomy isn’t limited to the BRCA+ community, of course. It also pops up in Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s comic Cancer Vixen (2006), a book with so many ideological problems that I’m going to restrain myself and just mention her constant evocation of MAC cosmetics.

And of course, there’s Geralyn Lucas’s Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy. I heard Lucas speak at the Joining FORCEs conference last summer and she made it seem as though wearing red lipstick into her surgery was a performance of the kind of person she wanted to be throughout her experiences with breast cancer: bold, confident, strong, feminine. The book actually treats lipstick in a far more complicated manner than this and I don’t have time to deal with it fully here. Suffice it to say that somestimes she depicts applying lipstick as a confident act and sometimes it seems more like an act of desperation. Still, Lucas not only wore lipstick into surgery, but also named her memoir after this gesture.

Encountering the makeup trope repeatedly in supposedly empowering breast cancer and BRCA+ memoirs, all I can think is “For fuck’s sake, am I the only one who read The Beauty Myth?”

When I told someone I was going to write a blog post on wearing makeup into surgery, he said “Why bother? It’s obviously stupid. It’s not worth your time.” In some ways, he’s right: wearing makeup into surgery is clearly a bad idea–just ask your surgeon. But I think the problem of pretty goes far beyond Queller, Marchetto, and Lucas. It’s symptomatic of larger trends in breast cancer and BRCA+ discourses, which are still dominated by a certain kind of white middle-class femininity. Such conventional beauty standards are especially on display this time of year, as we enter the annual pink orgy that is Breast Cancer Awareness Month (a “month” that now stretches its tentacles into September and November).

To be clear, I’m not talking about body image issues surrounding mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, and/or reconstruction here. I’m talking specifically about beauty standards, the pressure to return to “normal” femininity and behavior as quickly as possible (or preemptively in some cases), and the ways in which conventional femininity is repeatedly presented as a form of empowerment to women grappling with major health issues like BRCA mutations and cancer.

The idea that women can and should be pretty while undergoing mastectomy has a long institutional history in Reach for Recovery programs in the mid-twentieth century. Such programs helped women return to conventional gender roles as quickly as possible. They were given prostheses, wigs, and make up, and taught how to use them despite limited range of movement after disfiguring Halsted mastectomies.

Reach for Recovery not only helped women look their best more quickly, but also helped women hide the fact that they were undergoing treatment for breast cancer at all. To put it in Maren Klawiter’s terms, such programs upheld the “architecture of the breast cancer closet.” It’s a familiar sentiment to anyone who has paid any attention to Bright Pink’s annual corporate-sponsored tribute to heteronormative white middle-class beauty standards, Fabfest.

So for the record: you are not required to be pretty, ever, but you are especially not required to be pretty before, during, or after fucking surgery. Wearing makeup into surgery isn’t empowerment. It’s a displacement at best, pure patriarchy at worst.


11 thoughts on “You are not required to be pretty

  1. Thank you for this! I’ve been contemplating a post along similar lines: Being Ugly While Having Breast Cancer–in reaction to all those comments and posts–you are bald & beautiful and such crap. (Take a gander at things written about Joan Lunden today.) Sure I can understand wanting to “look good, feel better” during cancer, but the truth was, I felt like crap most of the time and cared not what I looked like!
    Amazing how looking good, wearing girlie shoes and so forth, and lots of make-up of course, has become synonymous with “kicking cancer butt” and “surviving” and so forth.

  2. I really appreciate this post. Sometimes I think breast cancer in general involves a whole lot of covering up and not just with makeup, but in lots of areas. Of course, who doesn’t want to look good, but there is a lot of pressure to get back to your old self looks-wise and in other areas as well. It’s almost like the faster you get back to work, or back to your old smiling self the better job you’ve done of handling cancer, which is total BS. And all the glamorous celebrities and their stories don’t really help with this. I’m not making a lot of sense here, but your post sure made sense to me. Thanks for writing this.

    1. I think you’re making perfect sense. I almost wrote about Angelina Jolie here. Her article did so much to raise the profile of BRCA mutations, but she also made risk-reducing surgery sound easy. She worked on movies as she recovered from a mastectomy and came out looking as glamorous as ever. That’s not realistic–or desirable, I’d argue–for most BRCA+ women.

      And you’re right that being pretty is one of the ways that women are trained to hide the physical and emotional marks of cancer, because it’s not supposed to change you when you “triumph” over it as a survivor.

      If I’m seeing this among women who’ve never had cancer, then I imagine women with breast cancer are under even more pressure.

  3. Is it just the hospital where I’ve had my surgeries? I was told quite clearly to wash with antibacterial soap and then not to put on make-up, moisturizers, or lotions before my surgeries.

  4. Queller’s book “Pretty Is What Changes” was the first and only resource I found on BRCA back in 2009. I ordered 10 copies and sent it to my family and best friends. Pretty is What Changes helped start the BRCA conversation with my family. For that, I will forever be thankful to Jessica Queller.

    I met Jessica Queller a few years ago. She is lovely and yes, when I met her she was wearing lipstick.

    I see Queller’s commentary you describe on beauty in the book very differently. It makes complete sense to me. There is an underlying theme/subtext of “We can’t escape where we come from, who we are, it’s our genes”; besides inheriting a BRCA mutation from her mother Queller may have inherited a small dose of her mom’s need to “feel pretty” too, hence, the sections of her book you mention above.

    Empowered, not empowered, makeup, no makeup. Ultimately, it’s like everything else with BRCA–highly patient specific. Meaning–if a little gloss is helpful to someone in their BRCA journey then so be it–they should pucker up and apply.


  5. Everything about this post is spot on. If only more people knew that while breast cancer seems to be the “pretty cancer” with all the pink that surrounds it, it leaves such ugly reminders to its victims. Beyond the fears, scars and asymmetry are a host of other nasty remnants. Thank you for your honesty.

  6. Thanks so much for articulating many of the same thoughts I’ve been having since testing BRCA+ (not just in this post, but your entire blog).Every time I see a pink ribbon tied around anything relating to cancer and women- I wanna puke. It’s so disheartening to see that even within the depths of real life and depth struggles, there’s always an opportunity for another barbie doll circus.

  7. You said it straight! Amen to everything you said. I think there is an expectation for women to be pretty in general — and you’re right, it’s the white-person standard that matters unfortunately for society — and that expectation bleeds into the whole breast cancer hoopla. I read Lucas’ book a long time ago, but I remember thinking that whole lipstick-to-surgery thing was strange.

    I personally enjoy make-up and wear it, but I also don’t wear it and feel equally attractive. And surgery is not something to look pretty for.

    Great post!

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