It would be impossible for me to ignore this entire Komen fiasco over the halted funds to Planned Parenthood, even though I would really like to ignore it. So rather than talk about Komen directly, or Planned Parenthood, or abortion or politics or pink, I want to talk about one specific topic:
It has to be said—every aspect of women’s health, and often of women’s lives, is often reduced to this. We are sex objects at the same time that we aren’t supposed to actually like sex, or want sex, or make decisions about sex. Someone decides that an organization that provides a wide range of health services for women should no longer be given money, and the underlying reason (regardless of Komen’s overall goal to not give funds to groups under Congressional investigation) is that sometimes—after they have sex—women get pregnant when they don’t want to. If an organization that might save women’s lives is willing to accept this, it apparently does not deserve to exist.
And how does this happen? How do we get marginalized into talking about sex or sexuality when we should be talking about living or dying? Well, here’s an example of how that happens. We find out that we have breast cancer, and it is terrifying, and sad, and unbelievable. And then the world wants to save our breasts. Not US—our breasts. Our tatas. Friends joke about how they would definitely get them both cut off so they could get bigger and better ones for free. Doctors try to lead us to believe that deciding between a lumpectomy or a mastectomy is a “personal choice” that should be based on what will make us feel “more comfortable.” Nurses counsel us on dealing with our body image—or our husbands’ or boyfriends’ reaction to our new bodies—as if following the operation, we will be somewhat less than whole. Because something has happened to those beautiful breasts.
Or, the world wants to save our hair, to protect the world from the vision of a bald woman, through a relentless marketing blitz for wigs and hair coverings. Men cry when they find out our long beautiful red hair will fall out. Women tell us we are beautiful “anyway.” Everyone and their mother tells us “it’s just hair, it will grow back,” as if to say dear God it’s really not just hair, you strange bald freak, and boy I cannot wait until it grows back so I can look you in the eye again.
The world even wants to save our faces. We are offered “beauty” classes to show us how to hide the discoloration in our skin left by chemo, how to draw on eyebrows where there are none, how to stop looking tired, how to stop—STOP IT GODDAMN IT! Stop looking sick!
And so often no one thinks, wow, she just lost a body part—she just had an amputation. That must feel different, that must be strange when you move your arm and notice something’s missing. No one says, I wonder if her head is just cold, perhaps I could knit her a hat? No one asks if it hurts, if you’re scared, if you’re still attracted to your husband.
Perhaps it’s too easy for me to say these things. I am sitting here now with a normal head of hair, a remarkably well-functioning body, the same face I’ve always had, and by God a decent looking pair of perky breasts of my own. A little scarred and tattooed maybe, a little dented in one place, but still perky, still mine. But I lost so many things myself, so many things—and none of it felt the way other people thought it would feel.
I didn’t feel unattractive. I didn’t worry that Gabe wouldn’t want me. I didn’t think that being bald and scarred eroded my femininity.
I thought I might feel those things, I anticipated those losses before they happened, but once I was in it, I didn’t feel that way at all. Because I really didn’t give a shit.
Because I had cancer. And I thought I might die. And I didn’t like being reduced to a perky set of tits, a beautiful head of hair, and a pretty face. I wanted to live and be healthy and know that my body could do the things it could do before I had cancer.
I wanted doctors to listen to me. When I said that chemo-induced menopause was the second most depressing thing that ever happened to me from cancer (after fear of death), when I said that my “impotence” (we don’t have a word for it for women, do we?) made me feel like someone else, when I said that having somewhat painful sex three times a week was unacceptable to someone who had been used to having wonderful fun sex every day, I wanted the doctors to look me in the eye and HELP ME. Not look away embarrassed, make sly comments about my husband, tell me he was a lucky guy, say just wait, tell me well now you know how it is for many women, or shrug and say at least you’re still alive. But Doctor this is crazy! I’m sure your husband understands. Excuse me, is he even here? Has anyone ever told a man dealing with impotence for any reason that it is irrelevant, unimportant, or the least of his problems? (For that matter, has anyone ever told a man with testicular cancer, well, you only have it in the one, but we’re going to take the other one too—you don’t need them to live? Has anyone ever proposed halting funding to clinics like Planned Parenthood because they provide vasectomies? Or pulled ads from NFL or NBA games because one of the players commits a rape?)
I wanted to think that if it is common for women with lumpectomies to have recurrent mastitis due to “mouth to nipple contact” (these MDs apparently can’t say “kissing or sucking your breasts”), someone could have told me that rather than treat me like I was 11 years old. I’m sure that husband everyone always seemed so worried about would have liked that too; he would’ve appreciated the opportunity to NOT pass on to his wife an infection that gave her a 103 degree fever, almost sent her to the hospital, required a 10 day course of strong antibiotics, and made her believe she had inflammatory breast cancer.
What’s more important in the medical field—infantalizing women by doing things like asking their husbands of 20 years to leave the room during breast exams because the staff is too embarrassed, or actually giving us good information and access to care? What person in the world, man or woman, thinks a mammogram is sexual? Why are men—often our closest confidants, the ones who shaved our heads, held our hands while we vomited, changed our bloody post-surgery dressings, and swabbed our hips with alcohol before they gave us painful shots to stop our white blood cell count from plummeting—not allowed in mammogram waiting rooms? Who really thinks that women will feel embarrassed to be around men in their hospital gowns when waiting for an exam that is excruciatingly painful and might tell you that you have a life-threatening illness?
Why is it always about sex?
Or never about sex, when you need it to be?
Women have breasts, and uteruses, and we are the only ones who get pregnant and we are generally the ones who get breast cancer. But as a society we have this need to see women as simultaneously over sexed (pole dancing for fitness, anyone?) and sexually naïve or incompetent (good girls don’t talk about those things!) We hammer information about pregnancy into teenage girls heads, push the pill on every 18 year old in the country, and don’t seem to care what the effects of such decisions are. We don’t care about the side effects, the link to triple negative breast cancer, the insane 80% rate of HPV infection among American women. (Can I get an Amen for being in the 20%? Yeah I was that kid in high school whose keys hung on a chain that said “No condom no way.” And yes, there was a condom inside that keychain). That’s why there are outcries against the only cancer vaccine that has ever been developed, because rather than focus on the amazing lifesaving potential, we are wrapped up inside someone else’s panties, worried she’ll do the wrong thing. I’ll say it again: Lenny, you can decide never to have sex in your life, or start having sex when you’re 13, and I will still love you and want you to live. I will not deny you access to Gardasil in order to protect you from your own hormones, your own desire, or your own life. I won’t do it.
Women are sexual beings, with sexual bodies. So are men. But men get to be just that most of the time—men. They are allowed to be fathers, husbands, friends, co-workers. And on the other side, so often, we get to be wombs, tits, hair, battlegrounds for other people’s repression or cluelessness or bullshit.
That’s what I see when I read an article about Komen and Planned Parenthood. I see myself, bald, tired, scarred up and tattooed, with no eyebrows, suffering from sexual dysfunction, walking around the streets of Chicago in my fashionable clothes, ignoring all the assholes staring at me.
Walking around. Still alive. Still worth saving.