Topless in the Times


Photo © Béatrice de Géa for the NY Times

The evening before the article “Going Flat After Breast Cancer” was featured in the NY Times, I received an email from writer Roni Rabin, informing me that it would appear in the paper the following day. She let me know that my image would be on the cover. I wrote back, asking if she meant the cover of the Science and Health section, where she had previously indicated the article might appear. She replied, “No. The cover of the paper.”

My portrait, along with the portraits of four other breast cancer survivors without breast reconstruction, had recently been taken by photographer Béatrice de Géa. De Géa felt that images of survivors revealing our scars would strongly compliment the piece. While I was willing, I wanted to be certain we would be portrayed as women of strength. Before we began, we talked over tea in my kitchen. Putting me at ease, de Géa listened to my concerns, and wanted to understand my perspective.

What was it like to be topless on the cover of the NY Times? After getting over the initial shock of what-will-my-mother-in-law-and-my-husband’s-boss-think, I carefully combed over my list of Facebook friends, planning on leaving a handful out when I posted the article. Shortly thereafter, friends began tagging me and sharing the article, and I soon realized that every one of my Facebook friends would be able to see those posts in their newsfeed. As I adjusted to the magnitude of that reality, I was struck with the realization that after all, this was the NY Times… likely, everyone was going to see it anyway. There was an incredible feeling of vulnerability. How would this be received?

Writer Roni Rabin spent considerable time speaking with me in preparation for the article. It was imperative to me that the Times readers understand that we bare our scars to help other survivors, not to make the world-at-large uncomfortable. I would take off my top to help normalize how breast cancer alters the landscape of the feminine body; but not for shock value.  I feel that she and de Géa portrayed us with dignity and got our message across.  The follow up article The Women Who Showed Their Scars was published a few days later, and conveyed our perspectives well.

My daughter and I went to the park. I tried to go about life as usual. When we returned, my inbox was overflowing with emails. While some were from people I knew, most were from those who had read the article and reached out via the link to my project with collaborator Miana Jun, The Breast and the Sea.

Several doctors and other health professionals thanked me for sharing my experience and willingness to be photographed, saying how helpful it is for those touched by breast cancer to see images such as ours. A friend from high school wrote to congratulate me and said that I inspired her to finally go for a mammogram. Not everyone realizes that diagnosis can occur at a young age. A woman who lost her mother to breast cancer was moved by the article and our project, and told her story. There were many heartfelt emails from survivors opening up about their history, wanting to connect and offer gratitude for the article and the message of hope within our project. They told me of their mutual love for the sea, of the things that had helped them through their experience with illness, or their feelings of despair and wish for deep-set healing. Some confided about their issues with reconstruction, or about how they had chosen to go flat but didn’t know anyone else who had made the same choices they had made.

My aunt told me over the phone that she really liked the picture she saw of me on Facebook, “You know, the one where you’re not wearing your glasses?” We had a good laugh when I said it was more than my glasses that I wasn’t wearing.

The emails and Facebook comments continue to pour in. This is why I chose to bare my scars for the NY Times. Because I knew it would help others who had been affected by breast cancer. I had no idea, though, how many people would be impacted.

It’s been an incredible feeling, to be a part of something that has gotten so many views and given valuable information, inspiration and courage to those in the breast cancer community. As I answered everyone who contacted me, I felt—and continue to feel—incredibly blessed.

It was several days after the article had been out before I looked at the physical newspaper. There were political photos and articles about the upcoming election, followed by the beginning of the “Going Flat” article and my photograph. I looked at the image, not as one of myself so much, but as a photo of “every woman.” I saw a picture of one who had been through difficulties in life but stands tall, determined to carry on. This is no extraordinary thing; this is what women have been doing since the dawning of time. It is what women will keep on doing until our final days. While we cannot control every circumstance in our lives, we always have a choice about our responses to our difficulties. That is what this photograph represents to me.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of “Going Flat After Breast Cancer,” bringing awareness to the benefits of not reconstructing, alongside the other brave and beautiful survivors on the pages of the Times. This piece continues to deliver thought and introspection to a topic that does not normally receive a tremendous amount of attention.

From a willingness to be vulnerable comes tremendous fortitude. This capacity is available to everyone, each day. It is not an end result, but a journey—one I’m proud to be a part of. I honor the aspect of ourselves that chooses courage in the face of fear, stretching outside of our comfort zones in whatever way we can to help others on journeys of their own. While we seldom see the impact that this courage has in the lives of those around us, I believe it often makes a difference. Of course, we don’t always have to take off our glasses – or our tops- to do so!  May we recognize the simple ways we support and encourage one another.

© Rebecca Pine


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