Swimming Against the Current, FTW.

A few years ago, when my mother was about to have her mastectomy, I stumbled upon an article about a woman who’d been arrested for swimming topless at her health club pool. The woman in the story had recently had a bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction, and discovered that in the absence of breasts, bathing suits irritated the skin on her chest. She found suits that were made to hold prosthetic breasts, but suits made for women with no breasts whatsoever didn’t exist. And so, in the interest of comfort and with the absence of breasts, the woman decided to buy a pair of swim trunks and skip the pointless suit altogether.

Another woman at her health club called the police, and the swimmer was arrested for indecent exposure.

I remember being floored. What could possibly have been indecent about that? She didn’t even have breasts!

I think that was the first time that I connected breast cancer awareness with feminism. That woman wasn’t arrested because she was exposing anything indecent. There was nothing to expose!

She was arrested because she refused to follow the unspoken rules: as a woman, it is your job to make the people around you comfortable with who you are. And her scars made someone uncomfortable.

We are conditioned to believe that our beauty lies in our ability to bring aesthetic pleasure to others. We’re taught never to leave the house without makeup, just in case we run in to Mr. Right. We spend childhood daydreams imagining our wedding dresses. Come middle age, we spend our hard-earned money on wrinkle creams and Botox. We’re taught to look beautiful. And we’re taught that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

But what if that’s not true? What if the things that make me beautiful are things with which you’re uncomfortable? What if the beholder doesn’t matter, because the things that make me beautiful are an intrinsic part of who I am?

I suspect that it was fear that caused the swimmer’s arrest. Her scars reminded people that they, too, were vulnerable. Their discomfort caused them to miss the most beautiful thing of all: that she had survived a life-threatening illness, and was able to find joy in her new body!

Tonight, I poured myself into the search for that article and came up empty-handed, but I was delighted to stumble on this message board. In it, survivors debate the merits of mowing the lawn topless or sunbathing topless in the yard. It’s funny, and tender, and sweet, and a lovely contrast to the story for which I was looking. As I read, I found myself so proud of women who are able to show themselves as they really are, and not how others think they should be.

I wondered, What if we all lived our lives like that? What if we focused less on what looks beautiful, and more on what is beautiful? How would we be different?

Photo Source

Outtakes: February 1st, 2010

One image from our first Of Scars photo shoot. We'll share more sneak previews as we go along.

I guess my mother was lucky. Cancer never endangered her life. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. For her, recovery was never a question. A few months scattered with some slightly unpleasant procedures (biopsies, surgeries, tubes, needles), a new prescription or two and a couple of gut-wrenching decisions (mastectomy or lumpectomy? reconstruction? when?), and they told us she’d be fine. It was never an easy journey, to be certain, but Mama never had to fight for survival. We all had the blessing of knowing she’d be with us tomorrow.

No, cancer never endangered her life in the traditional sense, but it robbed her of the years when many of us take life for granted in our innocence. Even in the best of circumstances, cancer turns your world upside down. It changes every relationship in your life. You learn to trust strangers in scrubs. You learn to question conventional wisdom. You find out how to tune out the voices of those who think they know best, and to listen to yourself when you do know best. You wrestle with the idea that your body has betrayed you, and struggle to learn to trust it again. You learn to live with the idea that in one unexpected moment, the world as you know it can change completely.

This April, Mom will celebrate three years of cancer-free living. She’s always been a strong lady, but this season of her life has revealed courage and a depth of character I’d never witnessed in a woman before. These days, it’s no big deal for her to undertake adventures of which most people will only dream. She’s climbed Kilimanjaro. She’s made public appearances, sharing her cancer story with various women’s groups. And last Sunday, she became the first model for the Of Scars project.

Model Bonnie Clawson was styled by makeup artist Pamela Cariveau. David Clawson stayed on our "set" to offer support.

Mom, known as Bonnie to the rest of the world, has spoken publically and somewhat extensively on the importance of her support network throughout an experience that made her feel very isolated. So it was touching that she brought her support network with her to the photo shoot. Dad hung out and chatted with her throughout the afternoon, offering comic relief and a ride home for my mother, who brought a bottle of wine to take the edge off of posing topless in a public forum. Wise woman. I nabbed a glass to take the edge off of photographing my mother topless in my living room.

Cheers to surviving!

Pamela Cariveau has graciously offered to do hair and makeup for our photo shoots, and did a magnificent job of making Mom look like a stone-cold fox. Later, Mom commented that Pam’s nurturing spirit made her feel more secure, which is relatively important when you’re about to pose topless.

Meanwhile, elli and I were converting my living room into a photo studio. There’s something magical about building a set in a space that you love. A white backdrop and a few lights, and you know magic is about to happen in your place. It’s kind of indescribable. Compounded with the fact that I was shooting pictures of my mother, with my very dear friend elli, it was a pretty emotional afternoon.

elli rader, shooting in my kitchen.

We took a few test shots, and then went to work doing our best marker graffiti on my mother. See, the morning of her mastectomy, she asked me to write a phrase across her chest: Breasts Are Not For Saving. Women Are.

For Mom, those were the words that served as her mantra during her recovery. It was a reminder that her breasts were not her essence. Surgery might remove tissue, but it could never take her femininity, her beauty or her spirit. “That’s what I think I learned from cancer,” Mom would say later. “My flesh was separate from my spirit. I had to remove the flesh to save the spirit, and that’s a sacrifice worth making.”

Writing on my mother's chest, just as we did the morning of her bilateral mastectomy nearly three years ago

And so our project began. It is our goal to ask ourselves and our culture to re-evaluate our opinion of scars, and I think this photo shoot was a tremendous start. My mother was asked to choose between spirit and flesh, and she chose spirit. The body left behind by that decision is among the most powerful artistic statements I’ve ever seen.

Next time, we shoot photos of a stranger. I’m a little nervous about keeping our next model as candid and comfortable as my mom, but I’m also very excited to discover the wisdom of another beautiful body and the soul that drives it.

If you know any breast cancer survivors who’d like to challenge the way society sees their scars, have them contact us via email at OfScarsProject (at) gmail (dot) com.