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.


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.

On Not Being Thankful

simpsons thanksgiving19

I know what BRCA+ women are supposed to say on Thanksgiving. They’re supposed to say how thankful they are for genetic testing, which allows them to avoid the fates of their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. They’re thankful to have options that previous generations did not have. They are thankful to avoid chemotherapy and radiation. They’re thankful for the gift of knowledge, because being forewarned is forearmed. They are thankful for their doctors’ attentive care. They are thankful for the wonderful BRCA+ community, which provides unflagging support through the toughest times. They are thankful to be alive and cancer-free.

I cannot bring myself to say these things. Today, as I watch other BRCA+ women post about the things they feel thankful for, I simply feel alienated. Testing positive for a BRCA mutation has undermined my relationships with family, friends, and coworkers. It has interfered with my work. It has destroyed my peace of mind and sense of self. It has stolen all my waking moments and haunted my dreams. It has changed who I am. It has ruined my life. I am not thankful.

Maybe I should be thankful to be alive and cancer-free, but I’m not. The threat of cancer has decimated my quality of life. In the best of times, I am resigned. Most of the time, I am a confounding amalgamation of sad, anxious, angry, frustrated, confused, or miserable. I hope that some day I will find relief. I hope that eventually this BRCA mutation will not define who I am, what I think, and what I do. But for the moment, I refuse to pretend to be okay or to pretend that I am grateful. I know that makes people uncomfortable, but I’ve always preferred hard truths to comforting lies, even if it’s socially awkward.

But in writing this, I realized that there is one group of people that takes me as I am, along with all my angry, sobbing, pissy BRCA+ baggage: my feminist friends. They have been there through every messy twist and turn that has marked my BRCA+ experiences, and they have offered unqualified support every step of the way. Without them, I would be very lost indeed. For them, I am thankful.

Lululemon founder’s wisdom on breast cancer

Lululemon founder and notorious asshole Chip Wilson thinks that ball busting businesswomen created the breast cancer epidemic:

“Breast cancer also came into prominence in the 1990’s. I suggest this was due to the number of cigarette-smoking Power Women who were on the pill (initial concentrations of hormones in the pill were very high) and taking on the stress previously left to men in the working world.”

You heard it here folks: all those entrepreneurial women gave themselves breast cancer by working in the big bad world. They should’ve stayed home and done some yoga instead, then they’d be happy, skinny, and cancer free.

Seriously, why are women still buying from this company? I don’t care how good their overpriced pants make your ass look. Wilson has declared that he named the company Lululemon because he thought it was funny that Japanese people couldn’t pronounce it. They carry sizes 2-12, when the average American woman is a size 14. They’re famously fatphobic. They plaster their bags with crazy Ayn Rand slogans. And their merchandise is shotty.

On a related note, there’s a great post on pinkwashing in the yoga community over at It’s All Yoga Baby. I have to admit my heart sank when I saw Manduka pushing pink yoga mats in October.

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.

Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Week

This week is Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Week (or HBOC Week) and last Wednesday was “Previvor” day. I did nothing to mark either HBOC Week or Previvor day. I am reluctant to do so and deeply suspicious of attempts to raise “awareness” about either HBOC, previvorship, and breast cancer in general.  As with many things BRCA+ related, my thoughts on this are messy and I wish there was a more explicit feminist dialogue on it to guide my thinking.

Awareness campaigns rarely have tangible results. What do we want people to do once we’ve raised their awareness? Perhaps we want to raise awareness so that more women will get tested. 1 in 400 people have a BRCA mutation. That’s less than a fourth of a percent. Honestly, hereditary breast cancer is irrelevant to most women. But what about those 1 in 400: we might argue that reaching that one woman out of four hundred is worth it if she gets tested. But I don’t know if I want to encourage women to get tested.

In the past I’ve tended to agree with the idea that knowledge is power, but with BRCA mutations I’m not so sure. After all, BRCA+ women have three options: 1. surveillance, which does nothing to prevent cancer in general and often fails to detect ovarian cancer in particular 2. chemoprevention, which has serious side effects and isn’t available to many women 3. surgical removal of the breasts and ovaries, which is a potentially disfiguring, emotionally horrifying choice. Testing positive for a BRCA mutation is a life changing, potentially life-ruining, and typically utterly devastating experience.

The ethics of genetic testing are highly muddled and the questions it raises aren’t merely theoretical for women like me who get handed “deleterious” test results. Sometimes I think that women who choose not to be tested have the right idea. It’s not that I think women should be uninformed. Far from it. I strive to make well-informed decisions about my health, but I wouldn’t say knowledge has been empowering in my BRCA+ experiences with the medical industry. There’s nothing about being BRCA+ that I would characterize as “empowering.”

Perhaps we want to raise awareness so that we can raise more money for desperately needed BRCA+ research. But in so doing, we run the same risks as larger breast cancer awareness campaigns: that pink ribbons will be slapped onto products that make profits for corporations or go towards administrating bloated nonprofits like the Komen Foundation, rather than actually funding research. Every October I’m bombarded with pink cupcakes and yoga mats and football jerseys. Do we really need to add the pink and teal HBOC ribbon to the mix?

At the same time, I am incredibly wary of the “previvor” label. I understand that many women want a word to name their experiences. That there can be relief in putting a name to those experiences. I want these things as much as anyone else. “Survivor”–another term I’m wary of–does not characterize what BRCA+ women who have yet to develop cancer actually go through. And yet previvorship makes me uncomfortable because it feels like a prescriptive identity that puts the onus to not develop cancer on individual women at the same time it downplays the sheer horror of being BRCA+.

Furthermore, you’re a previvor until you’re diagnosed with cancer: what then? By promoting a cancer warrior mentality, previvorship suggests that if you were a true cancer warrior you could have prevented your own cancer. If you were really hardcore, you wouldn’t have chose surveillance. Or maybe you had multiple surgeries, and should have been more rigorous in your screening. Or exercised more. Eaten better. Been a better advocate for yourself. If you get cancer, you didn’t previve, you failed. The term “previvor” tries to emphasize the agency of BRCA+ women, and I’m not so sure we have a lot of agency. False optimism is not helpful, it’s harmful. Pretending BRCA+ women have more agency than we actually do seems really dangerous to me.

I guess the gist of this is that I’m not hopeful. I’m a realist to the core, always have been. I don’t think we are winning the “war” on breast cancer. The rhetoric of hope and its happy pink iconography alienates me. At the same time, nebulous “awareness” campaigns hail women like me into getting the word out in ways that often feel exploitative and contradict the horror of my lived experiences as a BRCA+ woman. So I watched HBOC Week arrive with a sense of foreboding and held my tongue while other BRCA+ women talked about celebrating being a previvor and posted inspirational quotes online. They have a right to “celebrate” their experiences if they want to, just as I have the right to my “bah humbug.”