Hope for Post-Mastectomy Beauty

We live in the era of the hyper-perfect. We want to get it right, do it right, be right and probably have perfect hair too.

Materially, if the things we own aren't quite right, we either get them repaired to look 'as good as new' or, more likely, throw them away and get new ones! We all do it. Who puts up with shabby furniture, 'worn out' clothes, or last year's gadgets when you could have the latest versions? If you were to break a piece of pottery at home, would you most likely repair it, or throw it out? I know what I'd do.

However, I'm reading an excellent book about true happiness and Buddhism at the moment, and it seems this quest for perfection is not sustainable if you want to deal with life's inevitable knocks and keep a spring in your step. You need to see the perfect in the imperfect; the value of the shadow. There's a section in which the author David Hare mentions the subject of Kintsukuroi. This, he explains, is the idea of a thing or a person being more beautiful for having been broken. It comes from the Japanese art of repairing pottery with gold or silver laquer and understanding that the piece is not just repaired, but has gained a whole new level of value from the process.

I recalled a video by philosopher Alain de Botton on Wabi-sabi, a similar Japanese concept about the aesthetic of imperfection (which, interestingly, we do not have an exact translation for). It means more than just "shabby chic", because it involves an acceptance of the passing of time, decay and the beauty of good and prolonged wear. Wabi-sabi is not an unmade bed, or broken cups, but rather the appreciation of things for the way they look having been used over time. These things have acquired subtle beauty, and we can imbue them with a specific value because their appearance encorporates their story.

I'm drawn to these concepts because I link them to the female form after mastectomy surgery. Not 'perfect', but scarred. Not like the sexualised images we most often see of breasts, but different, often assymetric. The images I've seen, initially on Facebook, look simultaneously vulnerable and resilient - two qualities of human experience rarely so obviously united. The women photographed are not as they once were; they've been broken, torn, bruised, and in terms of Kintsukoroi and Wabi-sabi have gained aesthetic value as a result. These bodies possess a strength of experience that many of us can only guess at. The photos below are taken from The Scar Project by David Jay....an exercise in awareness-raising and art.

Many post-mastectomy breast cancer survivors find it difficult to see themselves as beautiful anymore. After amputative surgery it can be hard to feel attractive and glamorous in the same way you once did. Can Kintsunokori include a new level of experiencing that runs contrary to accepted notions of attractiveness and what it means to be a woman? Looking at these photographs I see personal beauty plus experience; attractiveness and resilience.  

It's not surprising that some survivors feel physically unattractive given the weight we place on hyper-perfection. Think of the widespread acceptance of both airbrushing and plastic surgery. It's not surprising at all. Maybe if our cultural wallpaper were different, and Wabi-sabi and Kinkutsuroi were brought into the mainstream Western world as everyday concepts, a women who has had breast cancer would find her body image survives along with her body.

The aforementioned and ongoing Scar Project, with its a series of large scale portraits of young breast cancer survivors, was started in 2005 by fashion photographer David Jay. One of Jay's aims was to "to help young survivors see their scars, faces, figures and experiences through a new, honest, and ultimately empowering lens".

I would hazard that seeing beautifully shot images of yourself as you now are is an ideal way to support a new self-perception. More than that, the images give much needed visual representation to a body form so often ignored by mainstream media, and so often needed by women pre-surgery who need to make radical decisions about how their body is going to look in the future*.

Fashion designer Stella McCartney gave a similar platform to mastectomy pictures when she shared a project called Bare Reality by Laura Dodsworth whilst launching her post-mastectomy bra last September. Photographer Dodsworth wanted to "burst the 'fantasy bubble' of perfect media breasts" by presenting un-airbrushed images of post-surgery women and interviewing them about their breasts and lives. 

"The loss of a breast, gaining scars, the diagnosis, treatment and recovery will mean different things to different women – we are individual, complex, nuanced," says Dodsworth in an interview. "I wanted to tell these womens' stories and share the un-airbrushed truth. This isn’t about a pink-washed sugar coating. We need to tell the truth. This is how they look. This is how they feel."

In The Buddha In Me, The Buddha In You David Hare talks of his own "Kintsukuroi experience", whereby he turned a long bout of depression, following the loss of a perfect life, into a cause for self-development. He sees the illness as a positive part of his life which has consequently made him much stronger.

"I feel now that I went through that eighteen month morass of despair because nothing less powerful could have made me understand the dignity of life and the depths of suffering to which people can sink. I am a wiser, less arrogant, more compassionate person because of the experience".

It may take more Stella McCartneys, more David Jays, more Laura Dodsworths, before we reach a tipping point in society, whereby women who have undergone mastectomy will be congratulated on their naked beauty. But I want to envision the day, and encourage its advent, by sharing photos of women with mastectomies*. Looking forward to the Kintsukuroi of post-surgery breast cancer survivors with great hope.


Karen Dobres, Chief Freedom Fighter

*Please consider signing this petition drawn up by women who have had mastectomy/ies, and would like not to be continuously reported by the same FB users for posts that actually do NOT contravene FB's censorship policy. Note that many of the women who post these sometimes vulnerable pics of themselves already have terminal cancers. They are posting out of pure compassion to help those who come behind. It is often a great help to women faced with mastectomy decisions to see pictures of others who have chests like theirs may be. Let's make life as easy for all these wonderful women as we possibly can. Thanks for signing - we are helping change perception. At the time of writing only 161 more signatures needed. This petition was started by the Founder of Flattopper Pride and is supported by the Founder of Flat and Fabulous.