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Scars and Pictures and Losses

Posted 12/13/2013

Posted in

  As you may know, there has been a recent (small) controversy about a picture published in the New York Times. It showed the top of a young Israeli woman's breast with both a tattoo of a Star of David and a lumpectomy scar. The upset was quite surprising to me. As a start, it didn't show much of her breast, none of the nipple complex, really just a swell of tissue. A little of the criticism was about the Star of David as Jews generally do not have tattoos. Most of the negativity was about the display of scar and breast.

  There have surely been other much more revealing pictures published in the mainstream media. Many years ago, a cover of the Sunday Times magazine was of the bare chest of a woman who had a mastectomy without reconstruction. There was plenty of upset about that. This was long before I had a mastectomy, and I remember thinking that the distress really was about the perceived (by some people) unnatural or ugly state of this otherwise beautiful woman's body. They seemed less upset by the diagnosis of a potentially lethal disease and more upset that a woman might be mutilated and choose to make them see her. I thought she was brave and very beautiful.

  In my office, I have a poster of a strong muscled woman, arms outstretched, head thrown back, naked--and with one breast. Where her breast is missing, she has had a beautiful tattoo of a flowering vine. From a distance, it can look like a rather alarming scar, but, up close, it is lovely. Most women who comment upon the poster (and most don't) like it and admire her beauty and spirit. A few women have been very upset about it, and one woman fired me because she so disliked the picture and, apparently, thought badly of my judgment in displaying it.

  This is an essay from Web MD by Heather Milar about the recent picture and resulting discussion. I give you the start and link. Within her essay, there is a link to the picture itself. I am curious what you think.

Why Are We So Afraid To Look?
By Heather Milar

Once again, there’s a kerfuffle in the blogosphere over a picture of the real toll of breast cancer. (See the seemingly endless controversy over Facebook mastectomy photos, here, here, and here, or this controversy about a mastectomy magazine cover in 1993.)
Last Tuesday, The New York Times front page featured a rather large picture of a Jewish woman with a small Star of David tattoo. Her tank top is pulled down from her left breast, revealing a small lumpectomy scar, and another scar near her underarm where docs no doubt removed one or two lymph nodes to make sure the cancer had not spread there. The image accompanied an article that is part of a series called “The Cancer Divide,” an exploration of how culture, economic status and values shape the treatment of breast cancer.
Even though this was just a couple days before Thanksgiving, the article inspired many comments, nearly 300. I’m not exactly sure of the math, but if you consider that something like 1 percent of the people who want to comment actually take the time to do so, that’s a lot of bothered people. Some commenters called the photo “appalling” and “shocking.” Others said the newspaper was just trying to drive traffic to their website by publishing racy pictures of women’s breasts (the picture shows just a hint of the woman’s areola). Still others quibbled about the Star of David tattoo (“inappropriate!”), the fact that men also get breast cancer and may have a BRCA mutation, or whether it’s correct to single out the connection between Jewish woman and the mutation.


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  • Judith A. Ross said:
    12/13/2013 3:28 PM

    I agree with you and Heather. I think it is good that those images are out there. There was a recent series in the NY Times magazine about one of the people who lost his legs in the marathon bombing, with plenty of images. I wanted to know what he was going through. When I wrote a post describing my mastectomies and reconstruction, a few people commented that they had friends who had gone through similar procedures and my piece helped them understand what they were going through. I think this sort of thing helps put a face on breast cancer and is a good antidote to all the pink ribbons. And, by the way, I always loved that poster in your office. Women with breast cancer are strong in so many ways.