March 21, 2022 by The Citron Review
by Shifra Sharlin
In the first nine months of 2020 when I was being treated for breast cancer, through surgery and chemotherapy and radiation and the long recovery period, I discovered something about America that I had never fully grasped: Americans are obsessed with breasts. They love them. They think about them. They care about them. Call me innocent. Call me clueless. Wonder at my obliviousness. Call me the last person in America to learn this truth about my native land. Guilty or better to say – busted.
I wasn’t surprised that my surgeon had something to say about my breasts. After all, he was the one who was going to lop one of them off. When he swiftly turned the subject to my need for fake breasts, permanent, that is, reconstruction or temporary, that is, prosthetics, I took in the fact that he was an old, white guy and didn’t take his recommendations seriously. His nurse who confided in me that she had had reconstruction? I thought that was like dental hygienists having very white teeth.
I wasn’t surprised that the nice woman who worked at the so-called boutique for cancer patients gave me advice about prosthetics. That was her job. She meant well. She lamented that my insurance would only pay for one prosthetic. Apparently they wear out. I asked her how long she had done this work and she told me about all the women in her family who had died of breast cancer. She wasn’t an old, white guy, but she didn’t dress the way I do, and I put her archaic views down to some kind of cultural difference between us.
But then I found out that my friends had opinions about my breasts. They had an opinion about how small they were. Some assumed that breast cancer was a great excuse to get big breasts. Some were sure I’d be happy to get permanently perky breasts. Those people did not really surprise me. The people who shocked me were the ones who accepted my decision not to replace my breast for reasons that showed they had also thought about my breasts. All of these people got me talking about my breasts more than I ever had before. They’re not that small! Or I was speechless. What could I say to the nice people who wanted to comfort me by listing all the reasons why being half-breasted didn’t matter: my age, my long marriage, my profession. Nobody will notice! Nobody? Don’t I count?
I’ve always thought I was a poor excuse for a second-wave feminist because I was a stay-at-home mom with four children. But I’ve begun to think I was a much better feminist than I thought. Was I the only one who was paying attention when women burned their bras? Didn’t anybody else read Nora Ephron? Subscribe to Ms Magazine? Am I the only one with a tattered copy of Our Bodies, Our Selves on my bookshelf? I thought the whole idea was that our bodies belonged to ourselves.
I thought we weren’t supposed to care about what other people thought about our bodies. We don’t have to please anybody else. We shouldn’t have to worry about what the other women in the locker room are thinking about our bodies. Our partners should love us no matter what. And the rest of the world should be able to cope with the fact that I am like hundreds of thousands of other women who have had a breast removed.
Maybe I even feel a little proud of having one breast. What better defiance of conventional notions of femininity? What better proof that my body is my own? What better evidence of pride than my accepting the fact that I have one breast.
If only I did accept the fact that I have one breast. I’m miserable about it. I feel unpleasantly self-conscious when dressed. I still cannot look at my naked torso in the mirror. When I come out of the shower, I still turn my back on myself.
Shifra Sharlin has essays forthcoming in Flypaper Lit, The Normal School, and Action, Spectacle. Her essay on marriage and the Marquis de Sade is in the 2021 anthology, The Contemporary American Essay (Random House). Her work has appeared in Bomb, Salmagundi, Raritan, Southwest Review (a Notable), Hotel Amerika, and elsewhere. She is retired as Senior Lecturer from Yale where she taught and co-directed a course on reading and writing the modern essay. “Busted!” is an excerpt from her unpublished memoir, Lopsided.