Nearly seven years ago, Nell Boeschenstein decided to undergo a prophylactic mastectomy after learning that a genetic mutation running in her family significantly increased her odds of getting breast and ovarian cancer. Her recent Granta essay is a (bracing) personal and medical history of the years since her surgery. It’s also a cultural history of breasts in their various ontological states — real and symbolic, natural, fake, and enhanced — and highlights the difficulty of talking about bodies (even, if not especially, one’s own) without getting entangled in layers of mediation through language, visual representation, and social norms. You start with skin, flesh, and blood and end with celebrity profiles, podcasts, and long lists of synonyms and euphemisms.

The essay devotes considerable space to unpacking the cultural ambivalence surrounding breast implants, which double as markers of both tackiness and empowerment, which makes the decision whether to get them at all especially fraught:

You also talk about not getting them at all. Years ago, whenever the vague meditation of what-would-you-do-if passed through your head en route to never-me, you liked to imagine yourself as a woman who would reject the idea of implants and instead proudly claim, like a warrior princess, some scars and a misshapen torso. Reality bites. Since never-me has become yes-you, you’ve grown hyper-aware of the clickbait that appears periodically in your Twitter feed, lauding brave breast cancer soldiers and promising a gallery of artistic photographs featuring survivors who’ve decided against implants in favor of staring out at the world and daring it to tell them they’re not beautiful.

In these photographs, sometimes their chests are unadorned. Sometimes they are decorated in elaborate tattoos of briar rose patches or rising phoenixes or blooming cherry trees. Inevitably, the writers of these articles fawn over the aesthetic qualities of this body art and the moral courage and rejection of a patriarchal culture such a choice implies. Maybe you’re reading too much into it, but it seems that, while all women who’ve had their biological goodyears taken off are placed on some sort of pedestal, those who’ve opted out of implants are — mirror, mirror — the most ballsy, the most badass, the most empowered of them all.

Are you supposed to be this kind of woman? You honestly do not know. But if you are, you aren’t. Messages have been mixed. Messages are mixed.

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