Something that I’ve noticed in a few debates lately is a lot of extreme thinking on the part of those who I believe to be right, and that makes me sad. For example people will say things like “If anyone is sad over the loss of Angelina Jolie’s breasts, then I’m unfriending them!” or “Women shouldn’t have to think at all about an abortion!”. Wowzers. Those are some pretty sweeping statements. Now I realize that oftentimes these are meant to be rhetorical, and that when I pipe in with “but shouldn’t women think about an abortion cause ya know…it’s a medical procedure?” are kind of missing the point because the point is that rhetoric about the loss of breasts or about the tragic difficulties of deciding to get an abortion is harmful and should stop. It’s a little bit like when someone says “I hate it when white people ___” and you proceed to say “But hey, I’m a white person and I don’t ____”. Great, then they’re not talking to you, shut up.
But I think that in these cases we may need to be a little more nuanced in our thinking. In general, feminists get painted with fairly broad brushstrokes, and are often caricatured as extreme. If we are going to bring feminism into the mainstream, it’s important to combat those stereotypes. While there is of course a place for radicalism, when we’re talking about extremely polarized issues it’s probably not the best method. So for example in the abortion debate, the pro-choice side is often caricatured as wanting abortions for all, as part of the giant abortion plex, free with your mani/pedi! People on the opposite side tend to think of us as not taking abortion seriously. They tend to think that we’re just treating it like fluffy nothingness that doesn’t matter. Now the general response to that on the liberal side is to use the ‘abortion is a tragic decision’ rhetoric, which also doesn’t help for reasons Elyse laid out here.
But the idea of living up to the caricature that pro-lifers paint us as just rubs me the wrong way. We’re NOT advocating getting abortions as lightly as you get a haircut. We’re talking about getting abortions in the exact same way that you get ANY OTHER medical procedure. We need to take a middle ground when we’re talking about it because swinging far to the extreme just as a reaction doesn’t help anyone. OF COURSE people think about abortions before they get them. When we get upset and angrily say things like “I won’t think at all if I get pregnant again, I’ll just get an abortion”, we are providing easy fodder for our opponents. And we’re being untruthful. Because ya know what? You’ve already thought about it and weighed the risks and benefits and come to your conclusion. It wasn’t tragic or heartbreaking, but it was a thought process.
In the same way with the Angelina Jolie case, I am sad that she lost her breasts. In exactly the same way I would be sad if she had to lose her fingers or her toes or her ears. Any time someone has to lose a body part in order to protect their health it’s a little bit sad. And I think it’s great to acknowledge that. We seem inhumane if we simply yell that we’re SO HAPPY she got a mastectomy. Well what does she say about it? “I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made.” This is not the same kind of overflowing joy that other people seem to be pouring out on her. It’s the relief and joy of someone who took a difficult measure but had to sacrifice something. When you read her op-ed, you can see that the procedures were hard on her, and that she didn’t enjoy anything about them. You can see that she probably isn’t excited about losing her breasts, although she does feel empowered that she could take control over her health. But at a guess, I would suggest that like the loss of any body part, she feels a bit confused or unhappy to have part of her body gone.
I think it’s important for us to recognize that when we are talking about women’s health, we shouldn’t just jump to the far opposite end of what our opponents are saying. We should speak about the ways that women take care of their bodies in the same way that we talk about the way men take care of their bodies (while also taking into account the political ramifications). But if a man had to get an amputation as a way to stave off cancer, we wouldn’t be prancing around yelling for joy. We’d be a little sad for him, while also relieved. If a man got a relatively uneventful medical procedure done, we wouldn’t be yelling to the high heavens that he hadn’t thought about it at all, we might ask about the doctor he had, or about whether he had researched different hospitals, etc. We are thoughtful in almost every other area of health, but when health begins to circulate around a woman’s body we somehow lose all sight of the idea that health is a serious and often sad business and we move into “A WOMAN DID WHAT SHE WANTED WITH HER BODY PARTY PARTY PARTY!”
I am all for applauding when a woman exercises her rights over her body, but having some empathy for the fact that it might have been a hard or confusing or thought-filled decision is probably a good idea. Having empathy about the experiences that women go through while they are exercising their right to bodily autonomy allows us to hear the individual experiences: that it might be great that they could diminish their risk of cancer, but they might not have wanted to go through a shitty surgery, or that they’re glad they don’t have a kid but they would have preferred not to have to deal with a medical procedure. We can both applaud someone for the fact that they have done something bold in their personal choices, while also recognizing that most health decisions and procedures come with some price and that we should be aware of that. We should recognize and celebrate that women go through complex thought processes surrounding their mental health. We should make it HARD for conservatives to view us as stupid little womens who don’t know anything about their own health and who just frivolously run around cutting pieces of ourselves off. We should respect each other enough to make thoughtfulness (without tragedy) part of the dialogue about women’s health.