To hear the chorus of adulation that arose from the surgical excise of two celebrity breasts, you’d think we should all have “Jolie Strong” signs in our front yards.
Angelina Jolie’s decision to trade an elevated cancer risk for a double mastectomy has been lauded as brave, admirable, and compassionate, motivated as it was by concern for her six children, who presumably won’t have to suffer the loss of their mother as the actress herself did. Her confidence in the decision, expressed in her revelatory op-ed in The New York Times, recalls the Latin maxim “mater semper certa est” — literally, “the mother is always certain.” Figuratively, it means, the matter is beyond dispute. And Jolie is indeed unlikely to get breast cancer if she has no breasts (although a 5 percent risk remains). She is unlikely to get ovarian cancer if, as has been reported, her ovaries are the next to go.
But let’s put the brakes on the canonization, and on the dubious extrapolation that what one highly visible woman has done is a best practice. Jolie, a person of extraordinary privilege, has exercised an option that’s not available to most women — and that many women wouldn’t choose even if they could.
Actor David Krumholtz, gushing on Twitter that “Now Angelina Jolie truly is the most beautiful woman in the world,” inadvertently makes the point. When you’re already the fairest of them all, you can lose a breast or two and still be quite fetching; Brad Pitt is not going anywhere. Jolie’s decision, while no doubt agonizing, is much different from the decision facing a similarly threatened woman in her 20s who has not yet found a partner or nursed an infant.
Further, the surgery Jolie underwent is an elective surgical procedure — one that, to women who are warier than Jolie is of permanently modifying their bodies, might feel like a form of self-mutilation. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a preventive measure of noble intent to, say, repeatedly puncturing your skin and injecting it with ink. Yet for me, it’s hard to separate the message from the messenger. Long before now, the girl with the tiger tattoo, and many others, made her body less a temple than an exclamation point. Jolie’s surgery, whatever its motivation, is an extreme action performed by a woman prone to extremes.
Jolie is afraid of getting cancer, as we all are, understandably, with cancer the second-leading cause of death in the United States, even though we all Live Strong, swathed in yellow rubber bracelets and pink ribbons. We’re more likely to die of heart disease, but the Big C seems more frightening because it’s so arbitrary, not the product of too many cheeseburgers and too little exercise. And Jesus said to pluck out your right eye if it causes you to sin, so why not remove your right breast if it might give you cancer?
One little thing: It might not.
Jolie herself isn’t exactly recommending double mastectomies; in her piece, she expressed the hope more women can be tested for the same cancer-related genetic mutation she carries. To her credit, she carefully noted “that there are many wonderful holistic doctors working on alternatives to surgery.” And this is a good thing, because as she also noted, “Breast cancer kills 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization, mainly in low- to middle-income countries.”
For poor women dying of breast cancer in dirty huts with no running water, there are no $3,000 tests for genetic mutations, no surgery, no reconstruction, no one to care for their families during procedures that consume most of three months, no monitoring for life-threatening complications, no ongoing therapy for those who feel unbeautiful or disfigured, or who will be punished by unsympathetic partners.
Jolie’s choice was enabled by wealth, a loyal partner, and the truth she has tattooed on her left shoulder blade: “Your beauty will be that of Apsara, Wherever you go, many will attend, serve and protect you, surrounding you on all sides.”
Meanwhile, down here in the real world, I know a woman whose husband left her years ago because, as he put it, he didn’t want to be married to an old woman. And she had both of her breasts.
So, let’s not see Jolie’s choice of surgery as a saintly act that other women should be quick to emulate. Much more courage was demanded of other women who have made this choice before her, and those whose did not make the choice, but had it made for them.
Jennifer Graham is a writer in Hopkinton. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.