Recently I went on quite a tear when it was revealed that Kohl’s and Komen had co-opted METAvivor’s intellectual property for an ad campaign. It really rakes my last nerve when people do this; rather than call up an original idea–which I’m sure their advertising departments could have done–they chose to take an idea already copyrighted and trademarked. And what bothered me most was that the campaign, which had no mention of Stage IV breast cancer, was built on the backs of Stage IV women and men via METAvivor. But now there’s something else that’s got my pantyhose in a bunch.
I came across a project by photographer Charise Isis called Grace. Isis, inspired by Hellenic sculpture, has assembled a collection of photographs of women who have had mastectomies as an “exploration into the grace of their humanity.”
It is a project that speaks about the strength and beauty that women who have survived Breast Cancer possess. . . In photographing the project, I loosely use Hellenic sculpture as a visual reference for the portraits, taking inspiration from such artifacts as the “Venus De Milo” and “Nike of Samathrace”. These dismembered artifacts have survived the trauma of history and are still valued as objects of beauty within our culture.
People start taking photographs of women with mastectomy scars and suddenly it’s pushing the aesthetic envelope. It begs the audience to empathize and then hold these women in high esteem because they have a disease, have gone through treatment, and survived. It must be noted that women and men with breast cancer are no braver, stronger, or aesthetically pleasing than anyone else who goes through the experience of cancer. Then why the imagery?
Women–particularly their breasts–have been objectified for centuries. Now we witness the objectification of mastectomy scars. Indeed, Isis emphasized that sculptures of antiquity, despite their amputations and scars, survived and are “valued as objects of beauty within our culture.” Is the corollary, then, to value women as “objects of beauty” in society? Do mastectomy and further surgery scars become “objects” of beauty and bravery in breast cancer culture?
This project also perpetuates the iconic mythology of breast cancer–that to conquer breast cancer one must be strong and brave. It is the responsibility of the woman to defeat her disease and become a survivor. If she doesn’t survive? Well, she didn’t try hard enough.
Of course, in Grace they’ve all had cancer. We should not be surprised that women living with metastatic disease are absent from yet another pithy piece on breast cancer survivors. The ugly scars hold no interest if they are on a woman who has metastatic disease. Breast cancer isn’t about death. It is about pink ribbons, endurance, and survivorship.
I am not particularly moved by this project. The images try very hard, but they seem forced and largely uninspired. And although some may find inspiration in its images, my view is that as a body of work it objectifies the surgery, the scars, the physical detritus of breast cancer. Although I have only just heard of it, the project has been traveling the United States for the past two years “showcasing the brave subjects who bared their bodies for the camera, in the name of survivor solidarity.” (Source.)
I am an enthusiastic supporter of David Jay’s SCAR Project. And it is largely because of the foundation on which the project has been constructed: “The SCAR Project is an exercise in awareness, hope, reflection and healing. The mission is three-fold: raise public consciousness of early onset breast cancer, raise funds for breast cancer research/outreach programs and help young survivors see their scars, faces, figures and experiences through a new, honest and ultimately empowering lens.” Jay also includes men among his subjects.
The women who pose for the SCAR Project are not representing some existential depiction of disease. They are there to show the pain, the disfigurement, the life changing hell that this is breast cancer. Indeed, as the project proclaims: breast cancer is not a pink ribbon.
I think that it is time to rip to shreds the idea that breast cancer is a rite of passage for women. We need to acknowledge that despite the pink camouflage, those of us with breast cancer withstand the barrage of treatments most other cancer patients undergo: oral drugs/chemotherapy, IV chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery because we have a disease that can kill.
We must stop romanticizing this deadly disease through ideas of bravery and survival skill. Breast cancer patients are no braver, stronger, or aesthetically pleasing than anyone else who must experience this dreadful disease. And remember that many with metastatic disease have no outward signs that they have breast cancer.
And we need to stop putting women on pedestals, for as soon as a woman stands there she loses her identity. She is reduced to her being identified with her body parts or how she appears to the senses. She becomes a scar, an implant, a loss.
I am much more than that. We are much more than that. It is time that we demanded nothing less.