Bodies in Transition
Derailing gender in the liminal space of breast cancer treatment
According to political historian and gender theorist Paul Preciado, we are living in the pharmacapornagraphic era. In this era, claims his book Testo Junkie, gender is produced through the body’s constant interaction with images, imagery, and social norms that represent a naturalized sex ideal, and through technological and pharmeucuetical interventions. There is a decisively biopolitical materiality to the construction of gender in his view: one that is programmed through what he calls a “psycho-political neoliberal modeling of subjectivity.” As an emancipatory project, however, he argues (as Judith Butler has) that if gender is indeed constructed in this way, then we can also dismantle it. Preciado points to drag king devices and hormonal self-experimentation as strategies to derail this construction. Although not a voluntary project, I would like to propose breast cancer treatment as another.
In this paper, drawing from both Butler and Preciado, I will illustrate that the liminal space created by breast cancer treatment can be recast as a derailment strategy to producing gender. Using as a case study my own experience as a survivor, I will point toward some of the physical realities and shifting identities created throughout treatment, and how “doing one’s body ” during this time could potentially open a space that allows us to differently conceive of bodies which we perceive as “natural” and “real.” In conclusion, I will propose that as breast cancer is an increasingly common experience among women, it may provide new opportunities in public discourse around “doing gender” through a shared personal experience.
Breast Cancer: “an adventure in applied deconstruction”
Butler says “one is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body.” She points out that one way in which the “system of compulsory heteterosexuality is reproduced and concealed is through the cultivation of bodies into discrete sexes with ‘natural’ appearances and ‘natural’ heterosexual dispositions.” But how do we define a woman’s body that is natural? Women inject poison into their face to battle the natural phenomenon of aging. They augment their breasts to make them bigger, smaller, perkier. They have doctors cut open their legs and shove tubes inside to suck their fat out. Sometimes they have that same fat injected elsewhere. They pour hot wax on their labia and into their ass crack to rip their hair out. They starve themselves. They gorge themselves. All in the name of creating a body that is natural.
During breast cancer treatment, one’s body and identity is constantly being constructed and deconstructed. Injections, implantations, and amputations redraw the lines between nature and technology, between one’s self and other, not just day-by-day but millisecond-by-millisecond. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called it “ an adventure in applied deconstruction.” Imperceptible battles rage inside while their casualties show up in the material world. Here are a few examples from my own experience: Chemotherapy infusions burned my veins leaving pink scorch marks on the surface. The hairs on my head, that I had cut, dyed, washed and dried for years, abandoned their follicle strongholds en masse. My body hair that had caused me so much pain being ripped out, lasered off, and electrified at the root since puberty, surrendered to a soft stream of water in the shower. My pectoral muscle was stretched, along with my skin, to accommodate the man-made manufactured silicone blob that was to be embedded in my chest. The device used to stretch my muscle had a self-opening/closing port that doctors and nurses accessed with a magnet. It had metal in it for this purpose and I carried a card in my wallet for seven months explaining why my body would set off a metal detector. This card was oddly less strange than the card I carried to explain why I may set off bomb detectors when my body was radioactive due to microscopic isotopes floating around inside. Throughout these many months, a tension was created: holding on the one hand the reality of one’s radioactive, scorched, hairless, breastless body, and on the other, an imaginary space held by a soft, baby pink surgical bra for the promise of one’s future body. A body which promised to be once again back to that of a natural woman.
Feeling Like a Natural Woman: holding space for a shifting gender identity
As Butler notes, from the point of view of established categories “one may want to claim, but oh, this is really a girl or a woman, or this is really a boy or a man, and further that the appearance contradicts the reality of the gender, that the discrete and familiar reality must be there, nascent, temporarily unrealized, perhaps realized at other times or other places.” During breast cancer treatment there is an understanding that although one’s body is no longer adhering to gender norms (i.e. breasts surgically removed, hair on your head chemically removed, estrogen hormones blocked, etc.), that a dual reality is somehow sanctioned because you were “really a normal woman” before and will be again. These bodies in transition are quite literally given a wig to hold the place for their hair, taught makeup techniques to hold the place for their eyebrows and eyelashes, and given a temporary implant to hold the space in their chest where a new breast will be. This understanding seems to only be afforded to cisgender women undergoing treatment. Transgender bodies also get breast cancer but due to the dominant gendered narrative of the disease, one may assume they are not granted such a gracious liminal space. Cisgender men also get breast cancer and are confronted with different questions around their gender construction throughout treatment.
According to Preciado, a result of a technology of gender is “the production of inner knowledge about oneself, with a sense of a sexual self that appears to be an emotional reality that is evident to consciousness. ‘I am a man,’ ‘I am a woman,’ ‘I am heterosexual,’ ‘I am homosexual,’ ‘I am transsexual.’” There is an imaginary space held for breast cancer patients that allows them to keep the knowledge of “I am woman” not only for themselves, but for those who perceive them, no matter what changes their bodies may be undergoing or have gone through. This is a view too often not equally extended to other bodies in transition. I have had discussions with people who tell me there is no limit to the number of physical changes I can undergo and they will still acknowledge me as a woman. Without breasts? Yes. Without ovaries or estrogen? Yes. Just a disembodied head? Yes. And these same people will often refuse to acknowledge a trans woman as a woman without the disclaimer that she is “really” a man.
It is my belief that a fear of women’s bodies that are not natural is one of the main drivers opening this liminal space for certain bodies during breast cancer treatment. In all of the Think Pink narratives, and pink ribbon mania, there is an agreed upon portrait of a survivor that maps onto dominant gender norms. Young mothers who run marathons get breast cancer. Grandmothers who have famous recipes for the holidays get breast cancer. School teachers that do arts and crafts get breast cancer. A social contract is created, allowing certain bodies to go through all sorts of physical changes, while still distancing natural, real bodies from bodies that do not conform.
Today, one in eight women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. Though the dominant gendered narrative keeps an almost impenetrable line between bodies that are/were/will-once-again-be normal and those that are not, it is my hope that understanding the liminal space of breast cancer treatment has the potential to open up and hold a place in public discourse that can derail some of the ways in which we perceive “doing one’s body” and how we produce gender.
Tara Mastrelli is an MA student in philosophy and gender studies at The New School who believes that philosophy has the power to shift our perspectives and develop new strategies for how we relate to one another.