Language shapes our reality. Whether spoken with proper enunciation and grammar or bent and twisted in the neighborhoods, it shapes who we are and how we see the world. Do you have an abortion or do you have your pregnancy terminated? Are those kids over there retarded or are they mentally challenged? Do we torture terror suspects or do we use enhanced interrogation?
Our language is governed by a series of rules; we know perfectly well that we are not permitted to say just anything; there are prohibitions on our language that are shaped, largely, by whichever group is in power. The philosopher Michel Foucault, in his address “The Discourse on Language”, theorized that prohibitions on speech reveal links with desire and power. There is a constant struggle with language, who gets to use it and who gets to shape it. In my lifetime individuals with black and brown skin were called “colored” or “negro.” In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement in America and demands by black and brown citizens to claim power and equality, today we say–as a matter of course–African American. Individuals with black and brown skin declared their power by constructing a description that was both respectful and honored their heritage. There was a cultural shift and the language reflected it. And this is where I introduce the breasts.
The entire pink ribbon culture is a glorious exercise in how language is used to shape a conversation in society and who stakes the claim on power. Gayle Sulik, in her book Pink Ribbon Blues, argues that women’s magazines in the 1950s served as a vehicle through which medical terminology, treatments, and prognoses became “normalized.” These magazines were able to present this information in a way that preserved the accepted social order and women’s place in it. “In accord with women’s roles in society,” writes Sulik. “Women’s actions on behalf of their health were defined in terms of [their] compliance to medical protocols and [their] dependence on men, both husbands and doctors.” (115).
Keep in mind, these were not the days of the interwebs, so the information that you received from magazines that perpetuated socially acceptable gender roles was basically what you trusted and believed. You modeled your life on it. Now, let’s take the information you would have read and been told and fold in the idea that language is constructed by those in power.
Prior to the 1950s the removal of breast tissue was largely characterized as an amputation. The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that the first instance of the word mastectomy was used in 1923. I performed a cursory search of newspaper articles and journals in the United States over the first fifty years of the 20th century and saw that amputation was used almost exclusively before the 1950s. Medical journals continued to use the term interchangeably (and still do), but for information that faced the general public, the new term term, mastectomy–defined by a wholly patriarchal medical structure–took hold. Within the construct of language and the authority that it conveyed, a mastectomy–its brutally honest meaning obfuscated by sophisticated medical terminology–was now the procedure offered to women.
Some weeks ago I was chatting with my friend Crystal. She was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) and had a bilateral mastectomy. The pathology report revealed that every milk duct in her left breast had pre-cancerous cells. She made it through surgery and reconstruction, but the impact was still pretty raw. She discussed her feelings of loss, phantom pain, and the feeling that aliens were now inside her body. “I had a mastectomy, Scorchy, which was– let’s face it–an amputation. I had a breast amputation.”
Breast cancer has become almost a right of passage. The incidents so outrageous–one out of eight women–that the pink movement has set you all up for your experience: first you’ll set up your blog, then you’ll have your nipple sparing mastectomy or a lumpectomy, you’ll get chemo and lose your hair–which will automatically make you a part of the sisterhood. You’ll have photographs taken with pink feather boas and pink hair, and pink shirts, and pink shoes. And it’s the good cancer, so you’ll be fine. When the warrior becomes a survivor, they get a pink ribbon tattoo on their person. And, hey, do you want to walk for the cure with me this Pinktober?
This disease has been feminized so completely that I argue the word mastectomy has taken on a similar feminized meaning–all co-opted as part of this twisted pink ribbon culture. If I had been diagnosed with a sarcoma that necessitated the amputation of my right leg, would I be so amenable to having my left leg amputated to prevent a recurrence? What if a history of bone cancer ran in my family? Would I be so willing to agree to have my arms amputated as a preventive measure ? And if I was a man and was diagnosed with cancer in my right testicle, would I have the left testicle removed just in case?
Any woman who has had a mastectomy can speak to the physical and emotional pain and the fear; the impact it has on her family, her friends, and her work; and not to mention a fear of the future. And in writing this essay my intent is not to judge anyone for any decision they have made, but I absolutely want to make you uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough to consider–just for a moment–how the removal of a woman’s breasts has become so universally matter-of-fact and accepted. And how our language and technological advances (which have been dictated within a particular power structure) have played a central role in framing that acceptance.
I have, as you might imagine, so much more to say on this subject. But for the moment I will leave you with a video from Wellcome Film in the UK. Filmed in 1930, the title tells you all you need to know: Radical Amputation of the Breast for Duct Carcinoma. It is in black and white, but it is brutal. Viewer discretion is advised.