[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.