WHY YOU DON’T FEEL LIKE A WOMAN
“My biggest frustration is not feeling like a woman . . .”
I hear this a lot from women. And you may have felt it too.
For women who feel insecure about their small breast size, not feeling “womanly” is all too common.
Because we associate breasts with femininity, when we don’t have breasts, our womanhood feels compromised.
It’s not just about feeling frustrated when bras don’t fit, or about wishing for a little bit of cleavage. The issue runs much deeper than that. It has to do with our identity and our sense of self as women.
This topic has been top of mind for me lately, ever since reading last month’s New York Times article, “Going Flat After Breast Cancer.” The article shared the stories of five breast cancer survivors who chose not to have their breasts reconstructed after receiving double mastectomies. It also featured striking topless portraits of the women – the first I’d ever seen of any breastless woman.
Some of the women initially had reconstructive surgery and later had their implants removed. Other women decided straightaway that they didn’t want surgery. Yet while the women come from different perspectives on why they ultimately decided to “go flat,” they share the same mission: to challenge narrow assumptions about femininity and redefine what it means to feel like a woman.
This got me thinking, what is feeling like a woman all about anyway?? And what’s holding us back from embracing that in ourselves? While we can’t begin to imagine or relate to the challenges these women have overcome, their stories offer valuable lessons that can help us on our own body image journeys.
WHAT FEELING LIKE A WOMAN IS NOT
#1) It’s not about the breasts
The message of these women is clear: individual body parts don’t define female identity.
“Breasts don’t make us a woman,” said Paulette Leaphart, a double mastectomy patient who walked topless from Mississippi to Washington to raise awareness for her cause.
Paulette’s statement sounds simple, but it underscores a larger idea: your overall identity is worth much more than the simple sum of your individual parts. In other words, you can’t look at your individual traits (physical or personality) in isolation.
This became clear to me as I read the stories of these women and studied their photos. My initial reaction upon seeing the photos was one of shock (I had never before seen a topless, breastless woman). Yet although I was taken aback by what I saw, my brain had no trouble instantly recognizing the subjects for what they are: female. The photos do a great job of highlighting the subtle nuances of femininity: light reflecting off an elegant collarbone, long flowing hair, high cheekbones, and ivory skin.
My brain didn’t see breasts, but it undeniably saw women.
This serves as an important reminder: womanhood is more complex than we think. Having large, perky breasts doesn’t make you more womanly. And not having breasts doesn’t “un-woman” you.
It’s not about your individual parts, but about how all aspects of you complement each other and work together to form a larger picture. Femininity lies in the nuances, and when we only focus on aspect, we miss the subtleties that make us a woman.
#2) It’s not about convincing others you are a certain way
“It’s not like we’re going to get our breasts back.” – Rebecca Pine, breast cancer survivor and founder of The Breast and the Sea
To Rebecca Pine and the other women in the article: you are who you are. You’re either a woman or you’re not.
In other words, convincing other people that you have a “womanly shape” doesn’t change your reality.
Sure it might help you feel better in the moment, but it won’t do anything to address the root cause of your insecurities.
Looking like you belong and feeling like you belong are two very different things. You don’t look the part to feel the part; that is backwards. Rather, you must feel the part in order to own the part. No one else will believe you are a certain way if you don’t believe it yourself.
If you really want to feel differently about yourself, you must dig deep. You have to get to the root of your feelings and understand the true intention behind your actions.
WHAT FEELING LIKE A WOMAN REALLY MEANS
So if feeling like a woman isn’t about breasts and it isn’t about convincing others, what is it about?
To answer this question for yourself, you have to first understand what really matters to you. What are you seeking? Why is it important for you to feel like a woman? Why does it bother you that you don’t fit the “womanly” stereotype?
This is exactly what the women in the article did. They looked past what their doctors recommended and what society expected, and they asked themselves what it is they really needed to heal emotionally.
And in doing so, they realized that while surgery was a way for them them regain their breasts, it wasn’t going to help them regain their sense of self. This realization led them to seek out other ways to heal and feel whole again.
It’s why Rebecca Pine co-founded “The Breast and the Sea,” an art compilation highlighting the strength and beauty of those who have been affected by breast cancer. It’s why Maryanne Duquette Cuozzo and Debbie Sue stripped down to reveal their scarred, bare chests in an online video (which went viral). It’s why Pamela Leaphart walked topless for thousands of miles to raise awareness about the financial challenges of mastectomy patients. And it’s why support groups like “Flat and Fabulous” are popping up across the country.
The actions of these women indicate that what they’re really looking for is much greater than anything a new pair of breasts can offer. What they’re really after is connection. A way to reconnect with themselves and with society – to not just be accepted as cancer survivors, but as real women.
CONNECTING IT BACK
When we say we want to “feel like a woman,” that’s often just our way of acknowledging a need for acceptance, belonging, and purpose. It’s human nature to want to fit in and belong. And it’s OK to feel this way.
What’s not OK is believing we can achieve this simply by looking the part or playing a role.
To really feel like you belong, you must resist the urge to fixate on individual aspects of yourself, or to convince others you are a certain way. These things don’t work.
Instead try a different approach – one that’s motivated by a desire to connect with yourself and others on a genuine level. You can start by learning from the examples set by these women.
This doesn’t mean you need to walk topless across the country or do anything drastic. It just means taking actions that help you connect and feel understood. This can be as simple as opening up to your friends or boyfriend about how you feel. Or finding other women who feel like you so that you don’t have to be alone with your insecurities. Or surrounding yourself with role models who look like you (see here).
The key is to align your actions with your true motivations: a desire to connect and belong.
And if your experience is anything like that of these women, you’ll start to notice a change in yourself. You’ll no longer seek out connection through external means. You’ll have already found what you’re looking for.
And that is what feeling like a woman is all about.