By Becky Zuckweiler, MS, RN, CNS
Being comfortable with the body we live in seems to be such a struggle for many women. Our culture prepares us to have set ideas about what our bodies should look like and teaches us that if we do not meet those standards, we have failed at being a woman. Trying to shape our body isn’t unique to the American culture; if you were about to be married in an African village, you would be sent to the fat farm where you would be plumped. In Africa, robust women are viewed as strong, and healthy enough to produce thriving children. Many of us remember the worshipped, anorexic Twiggy from England. The Italians have believed that the powerful sound of an opera singer can only come from a large person; hence the expression, “it’s not over until the fat lady sings.” Trying to keep up with these cultural ideals is hard enough before breast cancer strikes, let alone after breast cancer strikes. I had my breasts removed and had implants put in at age thirty. When my implants ruptured at age 43, I had them permanently removed. Except for the purchased version, I have lived without breasts for the last nine years. Through my grieving process I shed many tears over the loss of my breasts. I felt like my body had betrayed me. But now, I can honestly say that I really like my body and that my acceptance came about by changing my thoughts, not my body.
“I am not my body, just like I am not my car”
First, it is important to understand the difference, yet the connection, between self-esteem and body image. Self-esteem is how we think and feel about ourself as a whole person. Body image has to do with how we relate to our body. The lower our self-esteem, the more we are likely to generalize that low self esteem to our body image. Body image means the picture of our body that we hold in our mind. The actual picture we see may be very accurate or quite distorted. Some people who have gained a lot of weight are shocked to see themselves in a store window because the picture they have in their mind is really that of the body they had when they were thinner. When an obese person loses a lot of weight, she can still visualize herself as very large. To see how you view your own body image, close your eyes, see your body, and then ask yourself what you think and feel about the image you see.
We relate to our body on both a public level and on a private level. Our public body image is how we feel and think about how we look to the outside world. Our private body image is the body we bring to the shower or to bed to make love with. Our private body image is usually the level that makes us feel the most vulnerable and insecure after having a lumpectomy or mastectomy. Sex is one of the most intimate, vulnerable activities of life. We often attribute our sense of vulnerability to our naked body, when it may really stem from the intensity of the intimacy we are experiencing.
When I was trying to accept my changed body, I found the way I think about myself as a whole person made all the difference in the world. I realized, “I am not my body, just like I am not my car”. Lots of people define themselves and their worth by their bodies, just like some people, especially young males, get themselves and their worth confused with their car. For each of us, our mere existence is proof that we are worthy and loveable. For me personally, I think of myself as a child of God. I am a spiritual being and my body, where I am housed, is what makes me a “human being.” My birth defined my worth before I ever produced or accomplished anything. This is true for all of us regardless of our beliefs. We can have a rich, full human experience on this earth because we were given the precious instrument of a body that also comes with a mind and emotions. When I think of my body as a gift, I am no longer angry at it or ashamed of it. Instead, I feel grateful to have it. In fact, I feel a lot of compassion for what my poor body has been through. This has made me want to take better care of my body, to be kind to it, so I can get the most out of it. I try to eat well, exercise, rest, comfort and nurture it.
All of us will have failing bodies at some point. The younger we can adopt the attitude that our body is a precious instrument, the easier the aging process will be. Having a mastectomy provides us with the opportunity to be ready for all the inevitable body changes that we will go through before we die. Swimming a mile once a week is my most recent accomplishment and joyful experience with my body. I feel strong, graceful and whole as my muscles work in unison to glide me through the water. It is also a peaceful fifty minutes I have all to myself. It allows me time to think.
My husband and I have found a sense of humor carries us a long way. We joke that it would be hilarious for me to walk into a strip joint and apply for a job as a topless dancer. The thought of the reaction of the interviewer when I whip off my shirt and he sees that I am truly topless makes us laugh. It takes time to work past the superficial, American body ideal we have all grown up with, and come to appreciate and enjoy all that our bodies still have to offer. This is a difficult process and you will cry many tears, but you will get there. You are not your body, just like you are not your car.
Becky Zuckweiler, MS, RN, CNS, is the author of Living in the Postmastectomy Body: Learning to Live In and Love Your Body Again, published by Hartley & Marks, 1998.