At around age ten I wanted to be a stripper. I remember this because I got told off at school when I did a strip routine on the climbing frame for the boys. This was around the same time that I beat Nigel Lane in the school talent competition – I was Elvis to his Harold Wilson.
Or did I come second? Memory plays tricks on us all.
Shortly after my mastectomy my ex-husband popped round and barged into the bedroom while I was changing. Yes, yes, I know, I should have changed that stupid lock, I should have made him leave that key. He caught me with my top off. Of course, I complained and told him to get out. His reply took me by surprise. He said it was no longer rude to see me topless. I think the comment hurt most of all because I kind of agreed. I’m squeamish, I hate scars. I could barely look at my own body in the mirror – I didn’t feel very sexy, one tit looks kind of odd rather than rude. And this was the man who on an early date punting along the river in Cambridge, announced to a group of tourists that the thing he loved most about English women were their fabulous breasts. Can a single breast be fabulous, not so much? I know what you’re thinking. With the benefit of hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have married him.
It’s breast cancer awareness month. A month in the year when I try to limit time spent on social media. While I understand that money gets raised for vital research, I find the pink fluffy campaigns a little hard to stomach. The only thing pink about my treatment were my radiotherapy burns.
I often post pictures of my prosthesis on social media, but how comfortable would I be sharing pictures of my single-breasted body? Now that I only have one nipple, might Facebook with all its fancy algorithms also deem my body to no longer be rude. Does my naked chest no longer offend?
Signing off from a Facetime call with my Mum recently to join a Zoom meeting for work she commented: “I hope you’re not going to sit like that in your meeting? I can see your scar”. A comment reminiscent of those teenage years when a parent says, “You don’t think for one minute you are going out dressed like that young lady” or more recently when a mate on spotting my daffodil yellow jacket remarked, “oh my, it needs a brave woman to carry THAT off”. Would a glimpse of my scar be so outrageous?
I have a photographer friend who is still going through the many operations that a breast reconstruction can require. She planned a photo shoot as a record of her own body before the next stage in her “surgical journey” and offered to take some portraits of me and my body. The studio would be set up so why not?
I confess to feeling nervous about seeing her body. I am quite certain of my decision not to have a reconstruction but I still mourn the loss of my left breast. It was my favourite breast too – distinctive in that it was the site of my third nipple. If conversation ever ran dry with a new partner my third nipple was a good fall back until he’d gathered his clothes and ran for the hills, my Doris Day records ringing in his ears. Whip crack away. In days of yore this third nipple might have got me burnt as a witch.
I imagine that if I had been offered a reconstruction at the point of sale – I mean point of surgery – I would probably have jumped at the chance. Ignorance is bliss right? Post-surgery however, I often have the sense that a tight rubber band is wrapped around my body. At times I experience a dull pain where my scar is, never mind the un-scratchable itch. Ask anyone with a missing body part, there is nothing quite like the frustration of an itch in a body part that is actually no longer there. This leaves me nervous about extra surgery.
So here we are in her studio, semi naked drinking tea. She looks good. She is close on ten years younger than me so naturally I am wishing I’d done press ups every night for the last 10 years so my belly might be a little flatter, more defined. Truth is I like my food more than I like exercise. I’m a little nervous about looking at her scars. I don’t want to flinch. I don’t want to make her feel self-conscious. But there’s a small part of me that hopes to be appalled. I want to feel reassured that I made the right “choice”, if choice can ever be the word for finding myself in possession of a body I don’t recognise. It feels normal to be a little envious of young flesh, but how will I cope if I find myself green with envy of another woman’s breast reconstruction? But I was neither shocked nor jealous. We compared scars; her surgeon has done a mighty neat job. I respect and understand her decision but I don’t feel that I want to go through more surgery on my own body.
My friend didn’t flinch when she saw my body either, and you know what, my scars aren’t all that bad. To be honest, all I see is an empty space.
Photo by Jane Sharp.