Totally aware of myself as experiencing a second adolescence of sorts, trying on new, out-loud, post mastectomy identities, I soon began to develop a very adult recognition that (unlike the interpersonal learning my adolescent self had to do) it wasn’t my work to fine tune my messaging to the feedback I was getting.
In our culture, confidence and directness in men garners evaluations of good leadership: “forthright,” “inspired,” “courageous.” The same tone, coming from a woman, isn’t received with the same good will. The fact that conscientious objection earns a woman the “nasty” label has become a worn-out joke in the current political climate.
Plainspoken women all over the land have turned the “nasty woman” moniker into a badge of honor – but public enthusiasm for making light of the Donald Trump’s ridiculous assessment of Hillary Clinton has done little to impact the subtle, visceral responses women get when we speak truth to power. (It also, significantly, did nothing to change the election results.)
Regardless, while embracing a new, bolder, me (after my breast amputations), I quickly came to realize I’d have to shrug off a lot of the indignation I encountered when I spoke my mind. It turns out that simply being a woman without nipples arouses skepticism and indignation.
But which indignation to ignore, and which to let guide me to tone down my message?
When teenagers communicate in ways that strike us as unduly confident, we encourage them to notice the responses they’re getting, and consider adjusting their tone accordingly. We teach them that communicating effectively means hearing the feedback you get, and knowing that how you’re heard is more important than whatever you thought you were saying. Learning to regulate communications so that they “land” the way you intend them to is one of the critical tasks of adolescence.
Conversely, it may be one of the most important tasks of later-stage adulthood to persist in making your ethically reasoned point heard, even when you know it will ruffle feathers. The biggest difference between the 20-year-old me and the 50-year-old, post mastectomy, me was the fact that I no longer reliably crafted my message with the primary goal of not making waves.
Whereas in adolescence, I perseverated over dialing in my communications in response to how they were received, now, I intentionally cultivate a willingness (though not an eagerness) to make people feel uncomfortable, because it’s a necessary byproduct of disrupting the status quo.
It’s not so much that I suddenly have a need to make a mark before I die. It’s more that I woke up to the fact that, at the age of 50, I didn’t have a clue what I’d say if I weren’t guided by what others hope to hear.
I didn’t know my own mind.
I have come to recognize, in myself, a genuine love of serving as an affirmer and nurturer of other people’s developing understandings. I find it satisfying, as my work, to help others find their voice and their work.
But now, in addition to that, I feel an urgency to actualize the potentialities that I myself landed in this life with. Those potentialities seem to reside in a critical and an adaptable intelligence. I can almost always see an opposing point of view, and I almost always feel comfortable expressing unorthodox perspectives.
I’m also a person who learns by test driving my thoughts out loud, though they are always subject to debate.
But where’s a woman to turn … with big words, a furrowed brow, and no boobs?
In practice, I’m a nasty woman.
I’m not a reliable follower. I believe we can create a just global society, and I want to help us get there, even if it pisses off the defenders and protectors of the way things are and the way things have always been done.
I’ve known for most of my adulthood that women have a high bar to reach in communicating independent views confidently and effectively without inspiring resentment in their audience.
What I know now is that women without breasts are held to an even higher standard of gentleness. After all, their nurturing organs having been removed.
I can see it in strangers’ eyes as they scan the odd, flattish topography of my chest. Unlike full bosomed women, I don’t get a free pass. It can’t be assumed that a person without breasts or nipples has the nurturance of humanity foremost in her mind.
• The quotation in the illustration has been attributed to half a dozen powerful women. According to one of my favorite sites, Quote Investigator, it actually originated in an academic paper written by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in 1976.)