When Women Talk About Health

Angelina Jolie has been making waves over the past week for her decision to undergo a double mastectomy to substantially reduce the likelihood her having breast cancer.  This is something that strikes close to the bone with me.  Like Jolie, my mother too faced a long and painful battle with cancer that ended when she was 42 and I was 14. The fact that my mother had ovarian cancer significantly increases my risk of contracting the disease. Balancing my potential risks with maintaining the life I want to live is something that frequently weighs on my mind. Preventing cancer in a specific and meaningful (i.e. beyond generic lifestyle changes or think your self healthy type crap) is something I have never really seen discussed openly.

It has interesting for me to see the reactions that people have had to this news. They have ranged from commending Jolie on her brave choice to calling her a stupid bitch for having her tits chopped off for something that only might happen. I have also seen people saying that we could only call Jolie brave if she had decided to not have her breasts reconstructed.  I don’t think categorisations of what and what is not brave should really be a consideration.

While it must be said that the very fact she was able to make these choices in regards to her health and body stem from her immense privilege I am very glad that Angelina Jolie has opened a discussion about these issues. I find it difficult to believe that those who are calling her stupid have ever faced the horror of a loved one slowly and painfully wasting away from a disease like cancer.  At the end of the day she valued her substantially decreased chance of breast cancer more than she valued her natural un-scarred breasts. This is not a stupid choice to make. It is rational and reasonable and based on her individual context.

As women the messages that we receive from society are that fitting into conventionally accepted norms of beauty and femininity are of utmost importance in our lives and definitely more important than our health or welllbeing. Rising rates of non therapeutic plastic surgery are symptomatic of this. As are the significant proportion of women who suffer from disordered eating. It is useful for us to talk about women’s health in a way that actually prioritises health over aesthetic concerns.

The hostility to Jolies personal decision that affects only her own body appears to be part of the general hostility to women making choices about what happens to their own bodies, particularly when it contravenes social norms about womanhood. If the time comes when I have to make difficult decisions about my health, I hope that the people around me will trust me to make a measured decision based on the facts and my context. Angelina Jolie has chosen to make her decision public in order to leverage her position to open a conversation about women’s health.

If you want to read her own thoughts on the matter you can find it here:

My Medical Choice – NYTimes.com.

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