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?

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  1. Lovely commentary/reflection. In our society we are taught to assume basic “tenets of femininity”- calling them into question via themes such as survival, lack, and “unconventional” apperance/custom is essential. Bravo, Of Scars!

  2. I never did understand why women seeming always think they can’t leave the house without makeup on; usually, I prefer them without.

    There is an alternative dealing with the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” phrase. What if the problem is that women, in general, are attempting to make themselves beautiful to the wrong beholder, specifically, a hypothetical (and therefore nonexistant) beholder called “social norms.”

    BTW, I think that the woman who was arrested (hopefully, she successfully fought any charges brought against her [sometimes prosecutors decline to press charges after an arrest, so she may not have been formally charged with anything]) found herself in a situation similar to mothers breastfeeding in public.

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