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While I was in New York last week, I saw Love, Loss & What I Wore, an off-Broadway play written by the ever-prolific Ephron sisters. Delia and Nora Ephron have an uncanny way of weaving stories that are universal to all women. The play focuses on five women who reminisce about different articles of clothing they’ve owned such as bathrobes, shoes, purses and bras, and the roles each one has played in their lives. One of my favorites vignettes was about bras that had balloon inserts and came with a plastic straw that allowed you to blow them up. When I was 14, I owned something similar only they were called “falsies.”<PREVIEWEND>
The summer of my 14th birthday, bikinis were all the rage. Everyone was talking about Raquel Welch’s animal skin bikini in the movie, One Million Years B.C. A few years earlier, Ursula Andress had emerged from the sea in a James Bond film, wearing a white bikini and a knife. The sizzle over that bathing suit had made her the quintessential Bond girl. When I asked my mother if I could have a bikini she said, “No. It’ll make you look like a prostitute.” She did, however, let me stuff falsies into a blue Jantzen one piece. Go figure!
The first week of summer vacation I wore my new bathing suit to a public pool. I remember the song Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini was playing through a speaker mounted over the ‘Lifeguard on Duty’ sign. Slowly I slipped into the pool, hoping all the boys, at least the ones over 12, were admiring my shapely new figure. As I settled into the pool, one of my falsies went floating past Greg Duncan, a guy I had a crush on, while my other falsie was being batted about like a volleyball by the older guys in the deep end. Humiliated, I drug myself out of the pool, vowing never to go out in public again.
I’ve more than survived the falsies episode. Now I have little to no modesty when it comes to disrobing or trying on clothes. After 10 breast cancer surgeries and a multitude of sonograms, MRIs and mammograms, plus being the focus of endless probes by doctors and surgeons, I’ve developed an “everyone in town’s already seen them” attitude. Breasts, however, are a big part of who we are. The female quest for beauty and positive self-image dictates what we eat, what we wear and how we feel about ourselves as women. We all know what it’s like to be obsessed with covering up a flaw we think we have, or feeling like we don’t measure up to the models in the magazines. Add the aftereffects of breast cancer to the ongoing conversations in our head, and our self-esteem sometimes gets left on the operating table.
Many of us feel as though our bodies betrayed us, leaving us bald, battle-scarred and shell-shocked. Make no mistake, we’ve been in a war, and what’s worse, the enemy is hiding in our body. No wonder we often emerge from breast cancer with something akin to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Like soldiers who’ve fought in other kinds of wars, we may need counseling, yoga or hypnosis to help us reclaim our self-image and remember the woman we were before we went to war.
As I was leaving the theater in New York, I noticed a young woman in front of me who had a huge Venetian Carnival mask tattooed across her back. You know the kind with the long white nose that looks like an anorexic duckbill? I had to wonder what made her choose that design, and what does it say about her self-image? Did it appeal to her because, on some level, she’s hiding something? I understand why some breast cancer survivors feel the need to hide their figures. I have mismatched mastectomy scars and reconstructed nipples; one has a faded tattoo while the other has no tattoo at all, but I don’t care. I’m still here. We must give ourselves permission to grieve for the things we’ve lost and work at becoming the new person inside us who’s waiting to be freed.
Has your self-image changed with breast cancer or age? Have you stopped wearing clothes you used to wear? Is there something you can do to feel better about your body? Makeovers don’t just pertain to makeup, hair and clothes. Are you ready to makeover the way you think about yourself? While we may not have the same body, hair or skin texture we had before breast cancer, we are alive. Find ways to embrace the new you; cut yourself some slack. We may or may not feel like wearing falsies or teeny bikinis, but then again, who says we can’t?
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