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

Doreen Mannion: Angelina Jolie, Mom, and Me: Body Image in Our Mixed-Message Culture June 10, 2013

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.

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