I tasked my students in my Body in American Culture course with examining their thoughts about the body, beauty ideals and body image. The basic guidelines for this Body Genogram are as follows:
Connect your early life experiences with your current understanding of your body and beauty in general. How do they or do they not impact you today? Throughout the paper, ask yourself, “How did my culture, religion, socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity, friends and family affect my own views? How do these factors impact my current attitudes about my body and beauty ideals? What role, if any, did television, magazines, advertisements and social media play in influencing my views?” Your genogram will be graded on a pass/fail basis.
It’s ironic that I’m reading my students’ genograms today of all days. On September 21, 2010, I walked into my oncologist’s office. I was scheduled to begin treatment for breast cancer with a “lighter” form of chemotherapy and only had a 15% of losing my hair.
Once inside my doctor’s office, though, I learned that was no longer the plan. I needed a stronger chemotherapy cocktail because I had an aggressive strain of HER2 positive breast cancer. My hair would likely be all gone by mid-October.
I knew that losing my hair would change me, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much. I also had no way of knowing then how poorly my body would react to chemotherapy. Steroids caused me to gain 23 pounds and develop insomnia and an eye twitch. I forgot conversations and plans. My migraines increased to three times a week. And, after hemorrhaging following my second round of chemo, I was thrown into menopause.
Four years later, my hair has grown back, and although my weight isn’t what I would like, it’s in a healthy range. I’m also proud of all that my body has done from the minute (being able to walk three miles a day) to the miraculous (getting pregnant and giving birth to Roya despite being post-menopausal).
Nonetheless, I’m not the same woman that I was four years ago. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at a time in my life when my body looked its best. My metabolism was stable, and the age of 37, I was able to eat what I wanted, rarely exercise beyond walking and physical therapy, and not worry about the scale moving. (After suffering from an eating disorder in my late teens-early 20s, I was in a much-improved place emotionally and physically.) I looked in the mirror and felt attractive. My priorities at the time were my blog, increasing my experience as a sex educator, charity and social events, and boys. I also was considering taking a local modeling agent up on her offer to book me and had met with an adoption agency to begin the lengthy process to adopt a little girl.
I had waited to submit my adoption application and to schedule the meeting with the agent until after I had my mammogram. The mammogram led to biopsies which in turn led to a diagnosis. My plans to adopt and my chance to do some local modeling were put on hold. Four years later, I doubt that I’ll adopt now and I objectively wouldn’t have a shot at modeling. I look at the photograph above, and I’m no longer that girl anymore.
Most days, I relish the roles I now play and the directions that my life took. I love being a professor, an advocate, and a partner. And, I don’t doubt for a second that God had a plan for me to be Roya’s mom. Cancer forced me to reprioritize my life, my views on women’s bodies in general and my body in particular, and my relationships. That was all meant to happen.
However, there are times like today when I can’t help but wonder, “What if?” Where would my life have taken me if I hadn’t gotten cancer? How would I feel about my body, if I had never gone through chemotherapy and a double mastectomy? What would it be like to watch a movie or read a magazine and not be so uncomfortable with how women are portrayed, and their bodies sexualized and commodified? Will there be a September 21st in the future when I don’t question these things?
I’m left with more questions than answers, but that’s my reality. I’m beyond thankful to be cancer free, but my life isn’t free of cancer.
What factor or experience has played an influential role in your views about your body and beauty ideals?