In high school, I began to consider getting a breast reduction. For years, I had struggled with back pain and ill-fitting clothes, and, with no end in sight, I knew it was time to take action. Surgery felt like the best option, but the prospect terrified me. It was so foreign and scary – I didn’t know anyone who had had the surgery. As I researched the procedure, I came across people who had not only had the surgery, but were also proud to share their story: Queen Latifah and Wanda Sykes, to name a few. Knowing that these actresses, whose work I admired, had made the same tough decision I was making was all the support I needed. I no longer felt so alone.
A few weeks ago, a friend sent me an interview with the message: “Of interest for your blog.” It was a New York Times piece about Debora Spar, President of Barnard College and author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. In the interview, Spar discusses her decision to get a breast reduction, a story which she shares in her new book about the ridiculous expectations many women face today. I knew I had to get in touch with this inspiring woman and against all odds, she agreed to meet with me.
Spar started considering the surgery as a junior or senior in college. She had struggled with anorexia since high school, a battle which she discusses at great length in her book. In college, she finally began to recover, and thus started to fill out. As Spar told me, she “blossomed in some areas more than [she] expected.” She isn’t sure if her size was affected by her “screwed up” metabolism, or if this was in fact her natural size. Nevertheless, Spar was sick of the countless lewd comments and job interviewers with wandering eyes. So she decided that surgery was the best option. But she finalized her decision once her doctor told her that the surgery would make it easier to screen for breast cancer. Spar told me that her family had a history of breast cancer: her grandmother died of it, and her mother got it very young. “The decision was made easier by the medical complications,” Spar said, sharing that this also helped her mother support the decision. While medical issues often make the choice easier, breast reductions also deal with today’s social issues of body image.
Spar recognized this tension when she asked: “Should women be rushing to have what is a major surgery just to stop men from making comments that they shouldn’t be making in the first place?” While women should never be disrespected, objectification is unfortunately hard to avoid. As Spar said, “When you are young and large-breasted, you are just gonna get all kinds of comments.” However, certain things such as looking slightly southward is often innocent and best ignored. Instead, Spar finds it best to fight for the acknowledgement of physiological differences in the work place. This can easily be done with tampons in ladies’ restrooms, easily accessible lactation rooms, and comprehensive sexual harassment policies. Spar considers these policies to be crucial, but within reason. There have been issues where many men have been so afraid of sexual harassment suits that they actually avoid women in the work place. Spar also wants to fight against this, arguing, “Otherwise, women’s careers are compromised.” She believes that it is often up to older men in positions of power to set good examples and “normalize those relationships” by making an effort to include women as much as they do men.
Throughout our interview, Spar told me about the evolution of her book, how it started out with the title “Confessions of a Reluctant Feminist” and ended up centering around the image of Wonder Woman. While the book doesn’t concentrate on this super heroine, it does deal with the conflict she presents. Spar showed me a card she recently received with an image of Wonder Woman fighting some sort of reptilian monster. “This part of her is fabulous – she’s strong, she’s fearless.” But unfortunately, Wonder Woman still enforces unrealistic expectations about body image. Spar laughed, “At least she’s strong and saving the world from evil.” In Wonder Women, Spar challenges the idea that women can, and should, “have it all.” This expectation is unrealistic for anyone, and yet it still exists in our culture subconsciously. Reflecting on this idea, I was curious how Spar felt her breast reduction story related to the rest of the book. After I asked her this question, Spar took a few moments to think. Finally, she responded, “[This story] acknowledges that all of us, once you reach a certain age, there’s gonna be baggage in your life. And I’m hoping it’s useful to put that baggage out there and say, ‘Look, we all deal with issues of lookism, we all deal with the physicality of being female. None of us have bodies that are perfect.’”
As I left Spar’s office, I kept thinking about her intention behind including this story. How she wanted to share her own troubles in order to show solidarity with other women. Thinking back to when I myself had to make the same decision and how much I had relied on role models, I realized that Wonder Women is more than an account of our society’s issues. It is Debora Spar’s way of standing with other women, supporting the tough choices they have to make, and fighting for a future where these decisions might just be a tiny bit easier.