Angelina Jolie’s body parts, from her famous “Oscars legs” to her full lips, are all deemed symbols of her sexual prowess. So when she decided to lose the part most closely associated with femininity and female sexuality – her breasts – and acknowledged this publicly, I think it’s fair to assume that Jolie was well aware of the sort of praise and criticism she would be copping from the public domain.
A lot has already been said about Jolie’s double mastectomy, so I’m not going to attempt arguing about whether preventative surgery before diagnosis is a good idea, or whether it’s fair to say that Jolie is pulling another media stint to vie for attention.
Her powerful op-ed for The New York Times explained her decision to undergo a double prophylactic mastectomy: her choice was made after she was tested positive for the BRCA1 gene, with an 87% chance of developing breast cancer. She wrote that losing her own mother to cancer and caring for her six children were the main reasons behind her decision. She even acknowledged the links between her body and her feelings on womanhood: “On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”
And for everything involved in this process, she has been called a hero, a role model, and an advocate for breast cancer who will save many women’s lives. I think Jolie is that and more, but I don’t think that just because she decided to lose her breasts.
Here’s why: the decision to have a mastectomy is not a new breakthrough. A study dating all the way back to 1976 shows that when researchers started tracking breast-cancer patients to find the best surgical treatment, half the patients underwent a mastectomy whilst the rest were treated with radiation. 20 years later, the survival rate for both groups was the same, and that’s still the case.
Of course, Jolie’s family history of breast cancer means that she is at higher risk and may be better off with a mastectomy, but in any case, the decision of treatment is never the surgeon’s and always the patient’s and, there is no right answer.
But Jolie exerted something that, often in the media, is much easier to scrutinise but much harder to accept – a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body.
The media is so spectacular at telling women what to do. Look at the daily reports in Hollywood: who wore it best, who’s put on weight, who’s anorexic, who needs plastic surgery and who is ‘maybe’ pregnant; the buck stops over there somewhere.
There’s fear that Jolie’s decision will influence other women to have radical operations that they don’t need. But really, how patronising is this? Are women really going to be so star-struck by Jolie’s call that they will run off to the nearest clinic and undergo a mastectomy? Can women not make their own responsible decisions?
Let’s not disempower the basic level of common sense granted to both men and women by turning education into fear and health into vanity.
Jolie is far from naïve; she is constantly and consciously in the public eye. She made a public statement about her decision knowing she would get media pushback. But these choices would not even be deemed so difficult if we could place the value of women on their intellect and reason rather than their boobs.
I’m tempted to think that Jolie is well aware that the media and the public feel a sense of ownership over her body, but I don’t think she cares. It’s her choice, after all.