Something and Nothing: On the Psychopolitics of Breasts and Breastlessness

Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Vol. 17, Issue 1, 2016. 34-56.


This article explores the social pressure to reconstruct the postmastectomy body. Relying on psychoanalytic and social theory, as well as personal experience, I observe that fetishism characterizes the prevailing discourse of breast reconstruction. I consider whether the urge to reconstruct the breast can be traced to a regressive desire to restore the first object. I also propose that breast reconstruction is recruited to resolve the gender anxiety that a postmastectomy woman’s absent breast(s) provoke. Although the recipient of breast augmentation is frequently pathologized, it is the woman who “refuses” reconstructive surgery who is often viewed as abnormal. Following Louise Kaplan’s (2000) definition of fetishistic strategy as the use of a vivid foreground to obscure a threatening background, reconstructed breasts can supply a vivid foreground that serves not only to attenuate the threat to life that cancer poses but also to obscure the challenge to normative gender constructions that visibly breast-free women prompt. Drawing on Winnicott’s (1953) concept of the transitional object and Helene Moglen’s (2008) formulation of transageing, I conclude by reflecting on how a breast lost to cancer can be creatively mourned.