I want you to do something. I want you to look at a photo. And I want you to tell me what you see.
I’ll give you a heads up before you scroll down. The photo is of a naked woman. Yep, naked. Still willing to look?
Let me tell you something else about the naked woman you are about to see: she’s a breast cancer warrior. The body you are about to look at has a tapestry of scars. You see, there is a story to be told underneath that red dress.
This week Brisbane woman, mother of four, Beth Whaanga, took a deep breath and did something daring. God, more than daring. “Daring” doesn’t do this justice. What Beth did was allow herself to be completely vulnerable. What she did was extraordinarily, breathtakingly brave and generous and courageous and if I had a bloody thesaurus I would insert 1000 more words.
Because Beth took off her clothes and allowed herself to be photographed by her long-time friend and photographer Nadia Mascot for a project they are calling “Under The Red Dress”. In a bid to educate women about breast cancer. In a bid to start a conversation about how cancer surgeries change your body and the way you feel about yourself. In a bid to say – that woman you see at the school gate, that co-worker in the department near you – it’s entirely possible her body looks like this. It’s entirely possible their bodies tell a story that belies their outward appearance.
What’s Beth’s story? Well she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year on her 32nd birthday. She was later told she carries the BRCA2 gene. So in November she went through a double mastectomy and a total hysterectomy. And now her body tells the tale …
Here’s what Beth had to say on Facebook when she uploaded the images for her friends to see:
“WARNING. These images are confronting and contain topless material. They are not in anyway meant to be sexual. The aim of this project is to raise awareness for breast cancer. If you find these images offensive please hide them from your feed.
Each day we walk past people. These individuals appear normal but under their clothing sometimes their bodies tell a different story. Nadia Masot and I aim to find others who are willing to participate in our project so that we might show others that cancer effects everyone. The old and the young, age does not matter, self-examination is vital. It can happen to you.”
And this from Nadia:
“In my own work as a photographer, I became thirsty to share imagery with more meaning and purpose. This was sparked by a private health battle of my own. I want to be able to help people through my talents. Beth’s journey through her diagnosis and surgery touched me and I felt like I had something to say. As we were doing the shoot, I felt inspired that this should not stop here. We pass people in the street every day and only see their veneer. What they feel comfortable showing to the world often tells a different story to their private battles. ‘Under the Red Dress’ is a project which attempts to tell those silent stories that people are not only wanting to tell, but that people want to hear. Everybody likes to be reminded that the person next door is only human, as they are.”
So these photos – they’re what I’ve been staring at for the past hour. Photographs of a body that has endured a total bilateral mastectomy. A breast reconstruction. A naval reconstruction. A total hysterectomy. The ravages of rapid weight loss on her skin. On-going hair loss.
That’s what I’m staring at and yet – that’s not what I’m seeing.
What I see in each of those images is a woman who is strong. Gutsy. Determined. A fighter. I see a mother. A sister-in-law. A wife. A daughter. A best-friend. I see a woman who is beautiful not despite of her scars but because of them. A woman who is prepared to step into her own vulnerability in a bid to help other women. To remind them to do self-exams, to be breast-aware, to help start a conversation about the insidiousness of breast cancer.
That’s what I see when I look at those naked photos of Beth Whaanga. But not everyone sees that. Some of Beth’s friends didn’t see that.
In fact, when Beth posted these images on Facebook, 103 of them UNFRIENDED her immediately. Some felt the images were inappropriate or even pornographic.
When I first heard this I was baffled. Then angry. But actually I get it. I do. It’s frightening. Unsettling. Disconcerting. And maybe some of you reading this now feel the same. Maybe you know someone who has had similar cancer surgeries. Maybe breast cancer runs in your family. Maybe you’re overdue to have a breast exam. Or felt a lump recently and don’t’ want to have to think about. Maybe you just don’t want to be damn well reminded about breast cancer. And the easiest thing right now is to look away. Turn your head. Unfriend the woman who posted those confronting images. I get it.
But I’m asking you to look back at Beth.
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer for women in Australia.
I’m asking you to look back at Beth.
One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.
I’m asking you to look back.
Because Beth needs our support. She doesn’t need to feel in any way ashamed for doing something so gusty and brave. For doing something intended to help save lives.
And Beth, I have a message for you: if by doing these photos and sharing them on Facebook means that one life is saved, if just one woman does a breast exam or goes to have her mammogram or decides to go to the doctor to talk about a small lump they noticed last month because you had the courage to have these photos taken and to share them with the world … well, then you’re more than just brave. You’re a hero in my books.
If you’d like to get involved in the Under The Red Dress project, check out their Facebook page here.
In the meantime, here’s another amazing awareness campaign from the US featuring images of breast cancer survivors. According to its creators, it’s an exercise in awareness, hope, reflection and healing.
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