You are not required to be pretty

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.

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Bright Pinkwashing: Fabfest 2014

I’ve posted on my ambivalence towards Bright Pink before, but lately that ambivalence has turned into outright dislike. This video about Fabfest was the tipping point. I am officially on the Bright Pink Hate Wagon.

Bright Pink repeatedly emphasizes the links between “fitness” and health. That sounds fine in theory, but in practice their media presence–advertisements, promotions, Facebook page, twitter account, and various videos–make it clear that being “fit” is really a euphemism for being thin. The Fabfest video above is yet another example of Bright Pink’s penchant for presenting heteronormative femininity as the path to health and wellness. This is obviously galling from a feminist perspective, but it’s also frustrating from a disability studies perspective: they seem at pains to show that genetically aberrant BRCA+ bodies can pass as normative. Such an approach isn’t  particularly unique: mainstream breast cancer nonprofits have long tried to help women obtain the markers of conventionally femininity. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that an organization called Bright Pink would espouse a pinker than pink ideology, but it’s nonetheless disappointing considering that there are so few resources for BRCA+ women.

Note how the video splices in clear views of corporate logos with images of happy thin women as uplifting music plays. Bright Pink isn’t just selling conventional gender norms, they’re also selling products, particularly cosmetics and clothing. From this perspective, BRCA+ women are not an audience that needs to be informed. Instead, they’re an untapped niche market in need of makeovers. Got BRCA+? Now you too can have immaculately flat-ironed hair. Given this investment in cancer consumerism, is it any wonder that Bright Pink has been posting on twitter about working with Myriad Genetics? (Compare all this to the FORCE website and convention, both of which focus on educating high risk women about the latest medical advances, how to be their own advocates, and how to navigate the medical, cancer, and insurance industries)

To a large extent, Bright Pink is taking a page from the Komen play book here, but with one exception: there are no smiling survivors draped in pink, no bald heads signalling women currently undergoing cancer treatment, no photos of female family members taken too soon by cancer. Bright Pink’s media ironically erases any signs of illness or disease from what it means to be BRCA+. There are no signs of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer at Fabfest, because there’s no sense of familial relations or larger social and relational contexts. There’s simply young white women fighting the good fight against cancer with shimmery eyeshadow. In other words, cancer becomes individual, rather systemic, and BRCA mutations become as nonthreatening as a sea of identically hairless svelte pink-clad bodies in downward facing dog.

This message is especially misleading because it suggests that if BRCA+ women simply conform to conventional femininity (eat green! exercise! wear yoga pants! have shiny, shiny hair!), then they will be protected from cancer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Remember: most women with breast cancer don’t have risk factors and we don’t know exactly what causes most sporadic cancers (my bet is on environmental factors). Being “healthy,” bourgeois, and pretty won’t protect women–both the genetically normal and abnormal–from breast cancer.

Scaremongering non-BRCA+ young women

Bright Pink recently posted an article on Facebook about breast cancer risk factors for college-aged women with the following quote and commentary:

“‘Unfortunately, college-age women generally do not consider themselves at risk for breast cancer,’ said Dr. Mercier. ‘However, there are several risk factors that contribute to the development of breast cancer that need to be understood early in life to prevent the development of breast cancer down the road.’

Further support for starting this conversation NOW. Join us in learning what you can do as a young woman to reduce your risk for breast and ovarian cancer. http://www.brightpink.org/awareness-to-action/risk-reduction/’

Huh?

The article ominously notes that breast cancer “can strike at any age.” That’s true, but misleading. Breast cancer can indeed strike at any age. The youngest breast cancer survivor was just 11 years old. However, there’s a difference between what’s possible and what’s probable. Your average 30-year-old woman has just a .44% risk of breast cancer. The vast majority of women in their 20s do not get breast cancer.

You might say that it can’t hurt to make women in their 20s aware of their future risks. After all, 1 in 8 women in the United States will get breast cancer, which means that an American woman has a 12% risk of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. Shouldn’t young women be warned? I’m skeptical of that argument. Most women are already “aware” of breast cancer. They know that they should eat healthy and exercise. They know that they should have annual gynecological visits that include breast exams. They know that they are supposed to perform self breast exams (despite the fact that self exams have not proven beneficial at early detection).

At the same time, American women are at high risk for many different diseases: diabetes, heart disease, lung cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, and many others. In fact, women are greater risk for developing lung cancer and heart disease than breast cancer. Should we be warning them about these diseases too? Are young women supposed to spend their time “preventing” these diseases? That information is already out there, saturating the news, twitter, Facebook, women’s magazines, and so many other venues.

I do think that women in their 20s should be informed about breast cancer, just as they need to be informed about reproductive health in general, sexually transmitted diseases, and birth control. But there’s a difference between being informed and scaremongering.  Note the rhetoric: breast cancer “strike[s]”–it lays in wait like a biological cobra or tumorous lightning bolt; no one is safe. While there is a grain of truth here (insofar as breast cancer cuts across age, class, race, culture, and other vectors of identity), the truth is most women in their 20s do not need to be extra vigilant about breast cancer.

Moreover, it seems odd to me that Bright Pink, an organization for young BRCA+ women, would be advocating this much foreknowledge and vigilance for young women in general. BRCA+ women live in fear of cancer and with good reason. Those who test positive for a mutation at a young age spend most of their lives haunted by the threat and/or experience of cancer, but that doesn’t mean that average women of average risk should as well. There is such a thing as too much awareness, especially when it’s not backed up by good science and common sense. We need to find the line between promoting health and promoting hypochondria.

Bright Pink Fabfest

Bright Pink Fabfest

I have mixed feelings about Bright Pink.

On the one hand, younger BRCA+ women face some different challenges than older BRCA+ women, especially when it comes to preserving fertility, navigating dating/marriage/relationships, and timing surgeries. I appreciate the fact that there is a nonprofit dedicated to helping young BRCA+ women navigate these hurtles. I especially like that their website has really handy downloadable, printable patient guides full of excellent questions that BRCA+ women should ask their many doctors. Their Pink Pal program, which pairs up a newly tested BRCA+ woman with a BRCA+ women who has already been through the surgeries, has the potential to be really great.

On the other hand, the organization is called “Bright Pink” and they really seem to embrace pinkwashing and what Gayle Sulik calls the “she-ro” breast cancer warrior rhetoric. And now, with it being October and all, the website is covered with nods to their corporate sponsors: ebay, tressame, aerie, etc.

And then there’s this picture. Yoga for BRCA+ women is a great idea: it helps you connect to your emotions and your body, it helps you deal with stress and has physical benefits. I’m all about it. But this is not my idea of therapeutic yoga for the BRCA+ masses. There’s no diversity here in color, class, or body type. Most young BRCA+ women are not conventionally beautiful, skinny, white, tanned, affluent, and straight with carefully plucked eyebrows and no body hair. Many BRCA+ women do not look good in skimpy tank tops and snug yoga pants. Where are the BRCA+ women who are disabled, chubby, brown, transgendered, out of shape, tattooed, flat chested, unconventional, or just plain unphotogenic? This picture makes it seem as though Bright Pink wants to make BRCA+ women healthy and happy by transforming them all into SEC conference sorority girls: it looks like rush week at the University of Alabama.

No thank you.