Doreen Mannion: Angelina Jolie, Mom, and Me: Body Image in Our Mixed-Message Culture

I was shocked and saddened by the negative comments on actress Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a preventive double mastectomy. Jolie made this decision after learning she has a mutation in her BRCA1 gene that gave her, according to her doctors, an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer. The fact that Jolie saw her mother fight breast cancer for 10 years before succumbing to it at the age of 56 no doubt also weighed in her decision.

Some of the same people who believe in a woman’s right of body self-determination when it comes to choices such as abortion wasted no time in criticizing Jolie, going as far as calling what she did “self-mutilation.” Others claimed she should have chosen to smoke marijuana or have better nutrition. This woman is a millionaire and has access to the world’s best advice. Do people really believe that if these “treatments” worked she would not have chosen them?

My Mom lost one breast to cancer in 1989 and the second the following year. She chose to not have reconstruction, opting instead for removable prosthetic breasts. There came a time in Mom’s life when she decided she wasn’t going to wear her prostheses anymore. I have never considered her mutilated; her body shows the remnants of numerous accidents and surgeries that have left a trail of scars almost from head to foot.

Mom developed cancer after menopause, so it is unlikely she has a BRCA mutation. If she had known she had the mutation, I have no doubt she would have chosen the preventive double mastectomy as well. If you are not like Jolie or me, and have not seen your Mom pleading to die, writhing in pain, and suffering the ill effects of various treatments, I don’t think you have any right to comment on another person’s decision (particularly someone like Jolie whom you do not even know).

Beauty lies within. Sounds trite, but it is true. People you might think are “self-mutilated” or who otherwise do not fit society’s image of what a person is supposed to look like were also made in the image of the Holy. Some of the most physically beautiful people I’ve known (as our society defines it) were the ugliest inside.

We are too quick in this culture to judge others by outside appearances. Women, in particular, are judged harshly. We are too thin, too fat, too tan, too pale, too dark, not dark enough, too short, too tall. Our hair is too straight, too curly, too boring, too wild. Our breasts are too small, too large, too saggy, and above all, too tempting to men.

I developed young and boldly. Yes, I was a “big girl” after puberty. While very athletic in high school, I was 5’8”, wore a size 14, and wore a size 38 bra. It was not unusual that men of all ages talked to my chest instead of my face. A man in town thought it was fun to shut the lights out during cookouts, find me, and fondle me. My curviness became my enemy.

The (strange to me) fascination that men had with my breasts did not get any better in my 20s. I remember attending a conference cocktail party with family friends who were visiting the area and hearing a much older man say, “My, you certainly are a buxom young thing.” It was very creepy. The weight I had started gaining after no longer being in marching band and playing sports in college continued to pile on. My curviness became my protective blobbiness. At my heaviest, I weighed over 250 and wore a size 24.

I did not realize my blobbiness was born of body shame until I attended the Bold Boundaries: Expanding Friendships between Men and Women conference in Chicago last month. During a terrific presentation, “Modesty: Covering Up is Not the Answer,” by Jonalyn Fincher, I realized the connection between shame and my body. You cannot find the curves when a body is just one big blob! No more groping! (Not true; groping is about power, not attractiveness.) No more harassment! (Not true; the comments just became nastier.)

Instead, I was gifted with diabetes, high cholesterol, and four spinal surgeries, among other ailments. Jonalyn’s words made me realize that if I continued to eat without considering the consequences, I was letting all those dirty young and old men WIN. Wow! What a breakthrough!

I am happy to say I have lost 14 pounds since the conference. I am learning to embrace my curviness. I want my outer self to reflect my inner happiness, joy, and peace. Every one of us needs to feel empowered to do this without judgment from others.

Doreen A. Mannion is a Congrepentabaptist minister currently living in MD. She received her Masters of Divinity from a United Methodist seminary, was raised Roman Catholic, considered herself agnostic for quite some time, dabbled in Unitarian Universalism, was on the ordination track for the United Church of Christ, and is now the minister at religiousrefuse.com. Doreen’s ministry focuses on building bridges between evangelicals and non-evangelicals, and helping heal those who have been wounded by “church,” particularly those in the GLBTQ community.

Cross-posted, by request, from Doreen’s blog, Religious Refuse.

This post is part of Christian Feminism Week at Theoblogy.

  • JoeyS

    Good word. Thanks, Doreen.

    • Doreen A Mannion

      Thanks for reading, Joey.

  • Kimberly Roth

    Thank you for your words, Doreen. “blobbiness born of body shame” – this is a battle I’ve been fighting back & forth for years, born out of my true-love-waits youth group days (it’s not that I didn’t have body awareness & struggles prior to high school, just that youth group gave me words and imagry to highlight and intensify the feeling of shame & need to tuck & cover). I appreciate your honesty & vulnerability here.

    • Doreen A Mannion

      Thanks, Kimberly. I wish you blessings on your journey with this battle. Society, and worse, our churches, can make it easy for forget that we are all beautifully made and wonderfully created.

  • carla rae

    Doreen, thanks so much for offering your story with such honesty. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what your very personal, raw story about beauty and body image and objectification (to the point of groping! how horrible!) says to the larger discussion about Christian feminism. I see it as a valuable part of a recent conversation on many Christian (mostly women) blogs about shame and how the church perpetuates shame among women for our very existence inside the bodies God gave us. But I think that your words appearing on a very different blog like this one are really important because they communicate to a very different audience that this is the experience of many women whose shame and fear of being judged colors how they act and what they say online and off, indeed it often warps their heart. If you want to call yourself a feminist, you must recognize this shared experience among so many sisters.

    There’s a reason other than our sex organs that women often unite to talk about and process through their shame vastly more often than men do. Sure, part of that is that men need to fulfill this masculine ideal of being strong and courageous instead of vulnerable about one’s weaknesses. But we need to pay attention when women who are asked about feminism speak about shame and fear.

    • Doreen A Mannion

      Thank you for your kind words, Carla Rae. It is so liberating to release your truth and find that others share part of it as their own. I will always be thankful that the Bold Boundaries conference gave me the courage to speak about this.

  • matybigfro

    Thanks for the honest sharing Doreen.

    My mom had a double masectomy two years ago and I think there is a huge difference in making a choice to do this to stay health and having no choice but to do it to stay alive. That later situation is still something she battles with to this day.

    • Doreen A Mannion

      Oh yes, huge difference! Worse still, in my Mom’s case, the diagnosing doctor was so sure “it was nothing” that the surgeon said she’d be out of surgery in about an hour after a lumpectomy. No one ever came to the waiting room after the first hour, second hour, or third to tell us what happened, and my Mom woke up after a radical mastectomy. Blessings to your Mom.


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