patient stories

A Tangent on Beauty

Recently, I had a middle-aged patient with a history of breast cancer. I’ll call her Roxanne. Roxanne had undergone a previous mastectomy (breast removal) and then a breast reconstruction surgery. She was asking me some routine questions about discharge, and the conversation got…strange.

“Why are all the doctors male?” Roxanne asked.

It’s a question I hadn’t heard before, so I stumbled through a response. “Well, your doctors are all surgeons and surgical residents… From my experience, a lot more men than women tend to go into surgery…for whatever reason.”

“Come on. Why are all the breast reconstruction surgeons male?”

I thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” I answered truthfully. “Plastics probably just interested them during rotations in medical school or something.”

“Pshh. You know it’s so they can look at our boobs.”

I snorted in disbelief. “No, they’re medical professionals. They’re not looking at you like that.”

Roxanne gave me a look, a look as if I should have the same thinking as she did. “Oh, please. Men think about sex every 7 seconds. They’re checking out our boobs.”

I was stunned and a little insulted. “No, really, they’re not looking at you like that. Trust me, I see patients naked all the time. We…we don’t…we’re not looking at you like that.”

Roxanne repeated her thinking. I tried to defend the surgeons and surgical residents again to no avail. I felt anger and frustration welling up inside of me. How can she think like this? I asked myself. I quickly finished my task and left, baffled.

The night quieted down as good night shifts do. Roxanne and I did not talk of much else but her health. Around morning labs and X-rays, however, she called me in the room. After assisting her to the bathroom, Roxanne asked “Can you get my bag over there? It’s the paisley one. It’s my makeup bag.”

Makeup? I thought. I guess she’s leaving today, but makeup? Now? I put her bag on the sink and told her to call for help if she needed it. I flitted in and out of other patient rooms.  I returned to hers to empty a surgical drain. As I squeezed it dry, Roxanne was applying foundation.

Foundation? That’s weird, I thought as I left. I charted some assessments and numbers before the doctors rounded. When I returned with the doctors (all male surgery residents, as Roxanne had said) she had a full face of makeup on: foundation, red lipstick, mascara, even eyeliner.

I was baffled further. Very few patients had ever wore makeup under my care, and Roxane was the first to do so for a doctor. Who, of note, were all clearly younger than her by at least a decade, maybe two. 

The interaction stuck with me. Roxanne really thought on some level that these medical professionals, these men, decided on their career to see breasts. That these men, these men who went through 4 years of undergraduate, 4 years of medical school, and an average 4-7 years of post graduate work, did it all to see breasts and fulfill some of their sexual desires?

Are you kidding me? That’s just poor life planning. That’s at least 12 years with little money, tons of debt, horrible hours, just to cut open and apart that very thing you find sexually arousing. Makes no logical sense. When you find something arousing lustfully, the last thing you want to do is see the gross inside of it. Knowledge kills fantasy, which lustful arousal thrives on. The arousal of love, however, actually thrives on complete knowledge, even of one’s darkness.

Ergo, a male surgeon taking 12 years to completely know the inside of a breast to the point where he can operate on it only to lust after a patient’s breasts defies logic.

Though I may joke with friends that I’ve touched more penises than a prostitute, I touch penises to help a man pee or force him to pee by placing a tube into his penis. I do the same thing for women who obviously have different anatomy. Though I see naked people and gonads every shift at work, I do not sexualize my patients.

No medical professional I know would ever touch a patient in a sexual manner. No medical professional I know would ever even purposely look at a patient in a sexual manner. We do not sexualize the human body.

This patient made me think. Is this woman so used to being objectified that she cannot even conceive that a man can look at her without seeing her sexual value? Is this woman so hard on herself that she can only see her worth in her physical beauty? As a culture, do we instantly think nakedness is pornographic? Why as a society do we look at nakedness in such a sexual way to begin with?

Greeks and Romans and other ancient cultures had naked sculptures everywhere. Da Vinci’s David, is that porn? No! All of that is beautiful art, and the naked body is not inherently sexual.

As a nurse, I’ve got to tell you, the naked human body is beautiful. Old, young, fat, skinny, black, white, whatever and whoever you are, your body is beautiful. The inner workings of your body is even more intricate and beautiful in how everything harmoniously unites. Even though some of the things it excretes can gross me out, the human body, inside and out, is beautiful.

But what is beauty?

Makeup commercials tell me I need their product to have it. Advertisements tell me I need to lose at least 30 pounds to be it. Society tells me I need to have a man in order to prove I have it.  But that’s not real beauty.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Beauty is God’s handwriting.”

Anything that God creates is beautiful. Beauty is a sunset. Beauty is nature. Beauty is a way the sunlight hits the mountain ridge with perfectly white clouds in a blue sky. Beauty is the way a couple in love looks at each other. Beauty is the way a mother and father look at their baby child. Beauty is love. Beauty is goodness. Beauty is the human person, mind, body, and soul. Beauty is even in some things that we create, such as art, music, theater, etc.

But beauty tends to be reduced to appearance, especially for women. I’ve struggled with my self-image and self-worth for years. To this day, it is so hard for me to believe when someone tells me I’m beautiful when I feel and look anything but.

But beauty, true beauty, is not dependent on appearance.

The most beautiful woman I’ve ever met would never be listed in a magazine’s top 10, 25, 50, whatever most beautiful women. Jan was over 70 for starters. She was plump. Her pale skin was wrinkly and bruised. Her eyes were a plain brown. Her hair was white and not styled in the most attractive way.

But Jan had a smile that could melt a frozen soul and a kindness in her eyes that no beauty product could manufacture. She was beautiful, captivating, utterly magnificent.

Jan was recovering in the hospital from a car accident that took the life of her husband of 50+ years.. She lost vision in an eye, broke some ribs, and struggled with her pain, both emotional and physical, but you’d never know it just talking to her. She was grateful for everything: her care, her years with her husband, even her difficulties.

I took care of Jan the day before her discharge. She was working hard to ensure she could leave the hospital in time for her husband’s funeral. She smiled at me constantly, even when I had to inflict pain.

The most beautiful thing about Jan was her ability to see the good in others. She told me that when she met her future husband at a dance, all of her friends thought he was a “fuddydud.” They all laughed at him and refused his offers to dance. Jan, however, accepted, “He was the best dancer of them all,” she said with a sly, wistful smile.

I look at pictures of Mother Teresa. Though she is old, wrinkled, frail, and barely visible under her robes, she is breathtakingly beautiful. I cannot imagine what she would have been like to meet in person.

But I should never aim for Mother Teresa’s beauty, or Jan’s beauty, or or Roxanne’s beauty, or a celebrity’s beauty, or  any other woman’s beauty. I am me, no one else, just as only you are you, no one else. Beauty is unique to each individual. I think as women, we spend too much time comparing our beauty to others instead of comparing our beauty to Our Creator. Each one of us is a unique reflection of His Beauty and Love.

St. Therese of Lisieux speaks of the uniqueness of souls beautifully in her first chapter of her autobiography, The Story of a Soul. She writes:

“…I saw that all the flowers He has created are lovely. The splendour of the rose and whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. I realised that if every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness and there would be no wild flowers to make the meadows gay.

It is just the same in the world of souls — which is the garden of Jesus. He has created the great saints who are like the lilies and the roses, but He has also created much lesser saints and they must be content to be the daisies or the violets which rejoice His eyes whenever He glances down. Perfection consists in doing His will, in being that which He wants us to be.

– Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul

I would say that beauty, true beauty, consists in doing the Lord’s will, in being who He wants us to be. You are you, and I am me. We both have a beauty and goodness this world needs.

Instead of asking, “How does my hair/clothes/makeup/body/appearance look today?” we ought to be asking, “How does my soul look today?” Am I treating others with love and respect? Am I growing closer to Christ? Am I trying to become the best version of myself? Am I seeking the goodness of others?

When we seek love, when we seek goodness, when we seek to affirm the dignity of others and ourselves, when we seek the Lord’s Will, we will find our true beauty.

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