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.


Emotional Labor of the BRCA+ Closet

Recently I was reminded of just how profoundly alienating it can be to deal with ostensibly normal people when you’re BRCA+. (I say “ostensibly” because I suspect a lot of people have health issues that they simply don’t share, because of various privacy issues or attempts to avoid stigmatization) Most of us aren’t 100% out about our BRCA mutations. Even if you post it on Facebook or host a website about your HBOC experiences that includes your real name, there will still be people who didn’t get the memo. Consequently,  running into acquaintances and reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances is fraught territory: do you tell them you’re BRCA+? Do you tell them about your prophylactic mastectomy or the recent surveillance appointments that have swallowed your calendar? When they ask “how are you?” or “what’s been going on?”, do you answer honestly, redirect, or simply lie? Even if you’re upfront about your BRCA+ status, you continually face a choice about who, what, when, and how to tell people about it.

Adding to this social minefield is the fact that it is really hard to predict how any one person will react to the news. Occasionally, people are wonderful about it–they strike the right mix of empathy, concern, support, and/or humor. But many people react badly. Some get stricken looks of their faces. Some avoid eye contact. Some change the topic.  Some launch into trite “knowledge is power” speeches. Some want details that you don’t want to divulge. A lot of people glance anxiously at your chest and then hurriedly look away. Many people react as though the entire topic is just unseemly. Then, there are the people who develop support fatigue: they’re supportive at first, but then grow sick of your continuing problems–because a BRCA mutation doesn’t simply disappear after a convenient interval, it lasts a lifetime.

In her smart-as-hell book, The Biopolitics of Breast Cancer, Maren Klawiter talks about “the architecture of the breast cancer closet” (37). The breast cancer closet–like the GLBTQ closet–once forced women to hide their disfiguring and traumatizing Halsted mastectomies from their own families; now, it requires that women with breast cancer (and I would add, with BRCA mutations) assume optimistic attitudes and pinkwash their experiences. Klawiter notes that the architecture of the closet allows “stigmatizing discourses to continue circulating freely” (121).

There are many problems that women can encounter that relate to the BRCA+/HBOC closet (a sub-closet of the larger breast cancer closet, which at this point needs to be upgraded to a walk-in closet or maybe that gargantuan one Mr. Big builds for Carrie in the Sex and the City movie, metaphorically speaking). However, the issue I’m interested in here is the way that so many of us are half-in, half-out of that closet and that, no matter how “out” or “in” you are, it requires a lot of emotional labor to navigate it. This emotional labor adds up; it can be simply exhausting. And yet hiding deleterious test results and a BRCA+ status can be a burden as well. After all, discretion is its own kind of labor requiring indirection or subterfuge.

Work exacerbates these issues. Many of us work in environments that don’t acknowledge the body and may do so in the name of gender equity (i.e. we all know shouldn’t be talking about ladyparts at work). It’s hard to explain how discomfiting it is to be thrown into professional situations where other people feel free to talk about personal matters that are deemed “appropriate” because they fall within the range of normative, but which basically oblige you to closet your BRCA+ status–especially when your brain is running “BRCA+BRCA+BRCA+BRCA+” in anticipation of an upcoming biopsy or waiting for your daughter to get her genetic test results.

And what of actual labor–the kind we get paid for? Most women with BRCA mutations, just like people with breast cancer or other diseases, still need to work and face expectations of continued production. Even if you are transparent about your health issues, coworkers and supervisors expect you to work exactly the way you did before, despite the fact that you’re now tackling major emotional, psychological, and medical obstacles. It’s hard to focus on work while carrying the practical and psychological burdens that come with being in a cancer family distinguished by continuous disease and death. It’s equally hard to focus on work when you’re jumping through the endless hoops of surveillance, grappling with the debilitating side effects of chemoprevention, or recovering from risk-reducing surgery.

Women are often told to take on this kind of emotional labor: to downplay our own needs to make others comfortable or happy. In this way, the comfort of other people–family, friends, coworkers, etc.–is prioritized over the emotional and physical needs of BRCA+ women, often under the guise of propriety. I’m not sure what can be done to fix these problems, but I’m pretty damn sick of them.