In paintings she is the quintessential Madonna:
demure, deferential, her face painted with round features and soft colors,
a delicate oil on canvas,
a woman canonized with an angelic golden halo,
a shining icon of faith and purity.
In some depictions she wears an expression of pained piety on her face,
her eyes lifted pleadingly to the sky
as if searching for a freedom only providence can bring.
In other depictions her eyes look toward the ground in mourning.
She often holds one hand to her reverent heart, in obedience to God,
the other hand clutching a crucifix or a palm frond.
Sometimes she holds a platter.
Her name is Agatha.
In the year 250 C.E., she refused to marry a powerful man
who lusted after her, choosing faith over fortune,
and for her impudence she was arrested and sentenced before a judge—
the very man who desired her.
But she refused to recant; she stood firm in her beliefs.
She sought heaven above
and chose hell on earth.
Vengeful and spurned, the judge imprisoned her
and tortured her for months,
subjecting her to unfathomable horrors, hoping she would break under his will—
finally, in a gross affront to her chastity and her femininity,
cutting off her breasts with pincers.
Agatha’s suffering sanctified her. It immortalized her.
In time, iconography of her became legendary;
paintings over the centuries depict her
holding her own severed breasts on a plate, nipples undeniably the focal point—
the saintly Agatha holding her body aloft, offering her breasts as if to say,
“Look at me, God damn you! see what you’ve done!”
A martyr wearing her heart on her sleeve—or, rather, her tits on a platter—
she waves her own flag of self-determination,
having chosen to die for her beliefs rather than compromise them.
Her breasts were her humility, her strength, her legacy.
They were a symbol.
In photographs she is the quintessential Hollywood star:
sultry, stunning, her face painted up with smoky eyes and red lips,
a woman cast in roles that only women can play: the witch, the mental case, the whore.
She is sex personified, every expression judged as seduction:
the exotic cheekbones contouring her face,
the curve of the sensual lips that embody her sex appeal,
the hypnotic eyes that pierce the lens of the camera that follows her.
A temptress by definition, for her looks alone,
she is a magnet for the male gaze.
Her name is Angelina.
In 2013, she revealed she had undergone a double mastectomy
to reduce her risk of breast cancer and to save her life.
Preventative, practical, medical.
And for this personal choice she was scorned
by a dubiously qualified public—
by the very people who idolized her,
men who desired her, women who envied her.
But she refused to submit to the criticism; she stood by her decision,
one that embodied autonomy and freed her from fear.
Removed and reconstructed, her breasts told the story
of a woman’s life in the public eye,
these breasts that launched a thousand judgments.
Angelina’s resolve justified itself.
What was a personal decision erupted into the sphere of public opinion
as strangers took offense at another woman’s body,
lamenting as though it was their loss,
all the while changing their social media profiles to pink backgrounds
and adorning pink ribbons on their clothes—
drowning themselves in that sacred color of womanhood,
among other ubiquitous feel-good but meaningless gestures.
After all, the life of a woman be damned next to her breasts! —
and Angelina’s were some of the best.
But it was never their body to own.
Her breasts were her power, her choice, her liberty.
They were a symbol.
In real life she is the quintessential contradiction.
At a glance, she carries herself effortlessly,
the epitome of confidence and self-acceptance—
although, she should smile more; that would make her prettier.
But she’s beautiful just the way she is, au naturel,
until she removes the foundation and concealer and eyeshadow and mascara,
and suddenly then it’s all a trick and she’s too high-maintenance—
and besides, she’s an ugly bitch who no one wants to fuck anyway.
Her long hair cascades majestically down her back;
she conditions it until it shines in the sunlight.
But when she raises her arms
there grows more hair: thick, coarse, repulsive;
an abrupt announcement of her somehow surprising mammalian status.
But good on her for making such a bold statement!
She’s allowed to express herself, of course—
but only within a societal comfort zone.
Her entire existence is a paradox, a gendered catch-22:
She is beautiful but homely; confident but humble; assertive but accommodating.
She is what you want her to be, and what she will never attain.
Her name is Rachel.
Her name is Megan. Her name is Therese, B, Tera, and Jess.
She is all of us.
In 2020, she envelops into her body the stories of the women before and after her—
a time capsule from centuries and decades past, a crystal ball into the future—
becoming their experiences as she endures her own.
Today she is the child
who is told for the first time to cover up,
blissfully ignorant of how only her nipples, and not those of her brothers,
The eighth grader
who plays a game with her friends at cross-country practice:
how many catcalls will they rack up today
for wearing running shorts and a t-shirt?
The college student
who spends one hapless spring break on a Mexican beach with her friends
and becomes the unwitting victim of a thousand tired Girls Gone Wild jokes.
who openly breastfeeds her hungry infant in a crowded place
and stares down all the other ogling eyes
that view her as the feast.
The sex worker
who picks up dollar bills from “family values” politicians
who shame her publicly for baring her breasts
but creep back to the strip club every weekend to shower her with more.
who has given up trying to defy gravity and lets it all hang out,
stretch marks and all,
challenging anyone who dares to repress the story of her body.
We contain multitudes.
Like Agatha and Angelina, like any woman who has ever
been judged, ridiculed, assaulted, or murdered because of her body,
we are confined within a projection of our physical selves,
unable to sever what others see from who we are.
From birth to death, as women, we are on display.
We were stolen for inspiration as ancient muses, carved into sculptures and figureheads,
painted into an apotheosis that ignored our social realities, photographed behind cosmetics and air-brushed skin,
always on a pedestal of unattainable status and beauty,
always the goddess in someone else’s fantasy.
We were mythical, symbolic, legendary.
But now we control the narrative.
Cherished as the virgin, now we reject the prevailing belief that our worth is determined by what our bodies have experienced.
Condemned as the whore, now we reclaim our pasts and our presents as autonomous women.
We inhabit our bodies, but we are more than them.
We are powerful and free.