We Are Not the Sum Total of Our Parts

Angelina Jolie is no less a woman without her natural breasts than the Boston victims are less than human without their legs.
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(PHOTO: GWOLTERS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: GWOLTERS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

America is obsessed with beauty and perfection. Most Americans emerge into adulthood only after surviving a childhood packed full of skin-deep assumptions about one another. Once we’re adults, many of us seek to find situations in life that allow us to keep these shallow attitudes at bay. But this “normal” life is not an option for the American actor. While the cool kids and the nerds join up and work together (and see tables turned) in most workplaces and communities, the national popular culture we share is often as immature as our sixth-grade selves.

Like many American stars, Angelina Jolie’s beautiful body was critical to her career. When choosing a star for the film version of a video game beloved by teen boys for featuring a comically endowed female, Tomb Raider, it’s no wonder producers settled on Jolie. Esquire, which named Jolie the “Sexiest Woman Alive” in 2004, has described Jolie’s figure as iconic for its “voluptuousness.” Her profile is second only to her easily recognized lips which “glisten like wet roads in a car commercial,” according to the men’s magazine.

When Jolie encourages women at risk for breast cancer to get genetically tested, she’s no Suzanne Somers eschewing water fluoridation and chemotherapy.

Looks alone won’t transform any actress into a star of Jolie’s caliber, but for most female actresses in particular, looks are an entry-level requirement. If an actress succeeds, her looks become part of her brand. That’s why Jolie’s decision to announce to the world that she has surgically removed and reconstructed her breast tissue is such a big evolutionary moment in our perfection-obsessed American culture.

Angelina Jolie has long been her own woman, to the consternation of critics who fret about her bountiful adoptions and the proper place of celebrity humanitarians. She values family first, which is an American virtue as much as our demands for physical perfection are an American vice. In her New York Times op-ed Jolie explains that her children “know that I love them and will do anything to be with them as long as I can.” No one can argue with her reasons, and, perhaps surprisingly for a medical appeal from a famous American, there’s little for doctors like me to question either. When Jolie encourages women at risk for breast cancer to get genetically tested, she’s no Suzanne Somers eschewing water fluoridation and chemotherapy. Preventive mastectomy is based on real science that works with success rates higher than many standard treatments.

Jolie’s op-ed is commendable in its accuracy and its notable lack of a one-size-fits all prescription. While she’s allowing the Pink Lotus Breast Center to post more details of her case and treatment on its website, she encourages women to seek out their own best treatment options in consultation with their doctors. Jolie accurately portrays the highly elevated risk of breast cancer faced by women with a family history like hers and genetic testing positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. It’s important the conversation stay focused on those well-understood mutations, however, as preventive mastectomy is sometimes chosen by women who’ve markedly misunderstood their risk of developing cancer. This phenomenon was demonstrated in a 2002 Canadian study that showed women who had undergone the procedure and didn’t carry those genes had greatly overestimated their risk, even if close relatives had breast cancer. It’s vitally important all women considering such a radical procedure undergo professional genetic counseling.

Jolie’s choice is profound, of course, because it is so serious, and so well and bravely played against the background of our shallow celebrity culture. That she had a choice is wonderful, no matter how painful. I moved from Boston last summer, before one of its worst winters in recent history and a worse spring. I am not there helping to rehabilitate the amputee victims of the marathon bombings, but I now work with people who’ve lost body parts, damaged organs, and suffered disfigurement at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta every day. We are not the sum total of our parts. Jolie is no less a woman without her natural breasts than the Boston victims are less than human without their legs. The story of Angelina Jolie’s medical choice, based on science, love, and hope—values not strongly associated with Hollywood, is now part of the dialogue of American popular culture. I think we will all be better for that. So many of us need to stop staring and grow up.

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