Angelina Jolie's double mastectomy

Emma Teitel on the only thing that matters

In 1991, the New York Times published a story called Women Who Lost Breasts Define Their Own Femininity. The piece was mostly positive; its message—that losing one breast, or both, does not extinguish one’s femininity or sexuality. Beyond their courage in the face of disease, the women seemed ordinary.

Angelina Jolie is not. She is a diplomat, an Oscar winner, a humanitarian and an eternal thorn in the side of Jennifer Aniston. She is Lara Croft.

And she’s just had a double mastectomy.

Jolie’s confession appeared in Tuesday’s New York Times, sandwiched between two columns about Benghazi. “The truth is,” she wrote, “I carry a ‘faulty’ gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much I could. I made a decision to have a preventative double mastectomy.”

Jolie made another decision, too: she decided to tell the world. Why? So other women “who might be living under the shadow of cancer” will think to get tested for BRCA1—so other women will know that they have “strong options” if, in fact, they test positive.

Celebrity endorsements of things that are scary and morbid (albeit in this case potentially life-saving) are rare. People who are universally talked about generally avoid taboo topics unless they involve a $30,000-a-plate dinner — or a marathon. Pink ribbons are safe and friendly. A double mastectomy is not.

Jolie is not the first woman to undergo a harrowing procedure or to share the details to the world. But she may be the first sex symbol to matter-of-factly expose a truth that could strip her of that status. Her body of work is to a very large extent—her body—yet her New York Times column makes no mention of the fact. If it is a non-issue (at least publicly) for Jolie, a formidable Hollywood sex symbol, than perhaps it lessens the loss for the average woman.

We like to think celebrity influence does not extend beyond footwear or mascara, but it does. In this case, it should. Jolie’s essay is after all, more practical than personal — a rundown of what to expect in a dismal and dangerous situation. Jolie’s body may be her work, but her survival—and yours—is the only thing that matters.