Angelina Jolie may be one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen. In real life, she seems almost too perfect: an alien-like presence of unattainable sexuality (ask any geekboy who first ogled her curves in Lara Croft Tomb Raider) whom many women have been quick to hate despite her outstanding work as a UN Ambassador and comittment to feminist causes around the world.
Perhaps this idea of Jolie as an aloof ice-princess being shattered overnight is why her recent reveal of a double mastectomy feels all the more inspiring and important. She had her storied breasts removed, and she wants other women to know that it’s okay to do the same.
In a powerful op-ed for the New York Times, Jolie describes how she recently underwent surgery to combat a “faulty gene” that predisposed her to breast and ovarian cancer:
“My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent chance of ovarian cancer,” Jolie writes, “Once I knew this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much as I could. I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy. I started with the breasts, as my risk of breast cancer is much higher than my risk of ovarian cancer, and the surgery more complex.”
Jolie’s decision was no doubt a difficult one, but the op-ed does not read “woe is me” or at all. In fact, Jolie’s purpose for writing the piece is clear: she wants women in a similar situation to be informed about their options and unafraid to take drastic action if need be.
Of course, Jolie is ridiculously wealthy and can afford the best healthcare imaginable. But rather than glossing over this privilege as if it doesn’t exist, she makes a point of admitting that “the cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.”
Moreover, being rich and famous does not exclude her from the same horrible disease that took her own mother’s life (ovarian cancer) and the lives of myriads more who will never have their names in the papers. Jolie also points out that breast cancer alone kills 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization, mainly in low and middle-income countries.
Then Jolie addresses the big elephant in the room: does she feel like less of a sex symbol now that her famous breasts have been removed? Absolutely not, she says:
“On a personal note, I don’t feel like any less of a woman [for having this surgery]. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”
So whether you like Jolie or not, as an actress or as a human being you’ve only seen in movies and read about in gossip rags, at least she is strong enough to tell you that her womanhood is not defined by her outward appearance. I admire her for this message, as a woman’s decision to remove her breasts and ovaries—which many believe to be the very essence of their sexuality—is often one of the hardest choices that she will ever have to make.
Still, choice is the most important word here. The title of Jolie’s op-ed is “My Medical Choice,” implying that other women should also feel just as free to make their own decisions in regards to their personal health and wellbeing.
Recent studies have shown that most women who undergo double mastectomies don’t really need them. However, shouldn’t the woman be the one to decide, especially if she feels that the risk of succumbing to the same fate as her family members or leaving her children motherless is ultimately too great of a risk to take?
In the end, Jolie is grateful that she can tell children, in all confidence, that “they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.” And for many women, that is more than enough reason to part with their breasts and still be as beautiful, feminine and unbreakable in their inherent womanhood as ever.
Note: Chicago’s own Kartemquin Films produced an amazing Emmy-nominated documentary on this topic, In the Family, that will stream online at PBS.org for an extra two weeks in light of Ms. Jolie’s announcement.