By Abbie Tish
When I was four years old, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Seeing my mother go through a serious health-related misfortune and then recover so gracefully and selflessly taught me at a very young age about body image. This is why I never thought I would begin to question my own appearance and what was thought to be feminine, sexy, attractive or womanly. I was wrong–-better put, I was naïve.
Remembering the day my mom found out about her cancer is still as vivid as yesterday. Almost as if a part of my four-year-old self sensed anguish and an obstacle to overcome on its way. My mom picked me up from preschool like any other day. And like any other day, I whipped my backpack off energized as ever from a morning spent with friends; excited to have a little mother-daughter time before my two older sisters, Deanie and Barie, returned home from school. Although this day was different. As soon as we walked through the back door, the phone rang. My mom put down the grocery bags she had in her hands and rushed over to the phone as if it was a call she was anticipating.
“Hello? Oh my. Please, no. I have three young girls. No, no. This has to be a mistake.”
The next thing I knew my mother took a moment to catch her breath on the kitchen floor after hanging up the phone. She lay there for a moment to process the call that brought much despair; tears streamed down her face. My dad arrived home shortly after to be there for my mother. As soon as Deanie and Barie got home from school and we were all together as a family, my parents sat us girls down to explain what our mother would endure in the coming weeks. The instant we heard the word ‘cancer’ we simply lost it. Beside ourselves, because our grandpa (my dad’s dad) had passed away from colon cancer just months prior to my mom’s diagnosis, we associated cancer with death. Reassuringly our parents elaborated on how Grandpa Ira’s situation was more life-threatening. My dad softly told us, Grandpa Ira had a severe case. Unfortunately, he caught the cancer too late. Your mother, on the other hand, will have saved her own life because she discovered the lump very early-on and insisted the doctors surgically remove any trace of ‘what if’ right away.
We were all still terrified.
Thankfully my mother did save her own life. As a matter of fact she saved her life twice; she experienced a reoccurrence last spring. My mother is brave and strong. She is persistent and she is her own biggest advocate.
Throughout early childhood reflecting on the appearance of my body was rare. Oh so rare. Then came middle school, and with it, puberty. Our bodies were changing and forming into something unfamiliar within our own skin. As my friends started to develop beautiful womanly curves, my body remained what it had been for a while. Having a small chest never bothered me during that time in my life. Even at the time of being in middle school into high school, I embraced my small chest-–as a matter of fact-–I owned it. My friends can vouch for me in saying I was literally ‘that girl’ who went braless (probably more than I should have) but easily got away with it. Since wearing a bra or not was hardly noticeable regardless of what I chose on any given day, I was free to decide.
I loved feeling liberated in matters of my own body. Not just for the sake of not wearing a bra, but for the sake of being incredibly grateful that I was healthy. Why would I care about the size of my boobs when my mom’s life was in danger due to a disease that attacked that part of her body?
Then I entered college.
Second semester sophomore year I arrived back at school after a refreshing long break back home with my friends and family. Before classes had even started, I met a guy at one of the well-known bars in small town Lawrence, Kansas called The Hawk. I was not in any position to meet a guy, be hit on by a guy, let alone get involved with a guy who would later change the way I viewed my body... for the worst. Drinks were involved and phone numbers were exchanged. The next day as I walked up to campus to purchase books for the semester, a texting charade began, which led to dinner that night. We went to the newest sushi restaurant in town and indulged in two bottles of wine over dinner. (One of which was finished before we were even seated at a table.) Oh he was good, real good.
One night, after a few weeks of dating, I went to his house. I remember seeing him in his kitchen extremely intoxicated-–disgustingly intoxicated. But that is no excuse for the exchange that was about to happen. All of a sudden words came out of his mouth along the lines of “you are stunning, and I like you, but you would be perfect if you had bigger boobs. Implants could be an option.”
No, implants will not be an option for me. Not an option at all. As if there needed to be a solution to the way my body is, naturally.
His words reached my ears and shot right to my core and slashed what I viewed as sexy, feminine and womanly. Now vulnerable, naked, hurt and shameful for what could not be changed, my former self- perception was lost. My mind immediately painted a picture in my head of what my mom had been through. She fought for her life not to satisfy some image of how women are ‘supposed’ to look. She fought for her life for her daughters, so they wouldn’t grow up without a mother. She fought for her life because she loves life and she wasn’t ready to end this journey here on earth. She fought for her life because she loves my father and because she loves all of her family and friends.
We women, from the time we are born, are conditioned to believe that feminine women are voluptuous, tender, soft, submissive and pleasing to the eye. We see this everywhere, from the television shows we watch, to the commercials we unwilling view, to the movies we see, to billboards right in front of our eyes and from the words we hear day in and day out. It may seem ridiculous to allow this one circumstance which occurred years ago to alter my perception of my own body, how I feel in my own skin and also how I define femininity as a whole. Though, just as my mom’s words and experiences shaped the foundation of how I viewed my body, those careless words spoken to me during college shook the foundation my mom had helped create.
Words are powerful.