by Lisa Levart
Until recently, Facebook classified nude photographs of women who had undergone mastectomies as pornographic. This standard protocol was reconsidered after Facebook received an angry petition, with more than 20,000 signatures, concerning their censorship of the SCAR Project page. Under pressure, Facebook revised its policy toward these unflinching images of cancer survivors, but a wound still remains.
According to Decision Resources, an industry analysis group, 458,000 women worldwide die annually from breast cancer and more than 100,000 women in the U.S. undergo mastectomies each year. Angelina Jolie put a celebrity face to this crisis and fostered an important dialogue about the painful choices women must make when confronted with the specter of cancer. Unfortunately, most women must also fight this mortal battle while painfully confronting the cultural perception that their bodies are no longer attractive.
Of course, Facebook is not the only arena where women’s bodies are intensely sexualized. The media collectively spreads the message that “a woman’s value and power lie in her youth, beauty, and sexuality” as expertly demonstrated by Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s film Miss Representation. My personal mission for the Goddess on Earth series is to show commanding images of contemporary women in all their diversity and power, and contribute to the much needed shift in our society’s limited portrayal of women. The participants in the series are empowered and validated by letting their deepest selves be truly seen by others. In turn, by observing humanity in all its variety, we the viewers become awakened to our commonality and interconnectedness.
Sherry Lawson was born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains and is now a therapist. I met Sherry at the Where Womyn Gather conference in Pennsylvania this past June. While attending a workshop I led on Goddess archetypes, Sherry found that Lilith most resonated with her life’s path. In Jewish and Christian mythology, Lilith was Adam’s first wife and was created, like Adam, from the earth. She saw herself as his equal and refused to be submissive to him, choosing instead to flee the Garden of Eden. Seventeen years after being diagnosed with stage IV cancer, Sherry connected with Lilith?s struggles, fierce independence and personal conviction.
On choosing to portray Lilith for her Goddess portrait Sherry said:
“In 1996, they told me I had stage IV breast cancer. The doctors and many others including my partner seemed to think I was going to die, but I hadn’t made my mind up yet. I went to the mountaintop and fought for my life, like a mama bear protecting her cubs. I identify with Lilith because against all odds, she stood her ground”.
With the defiance of Lilith, Sherry’s triumphant stance and unapologetic display of her body confront our cultural narrative on what it means to be female and beautiful. I share Sherry’s photograph and story with you in part because she wants her life lessons and scarred body to be heard and yes, seen. Her integrity and dignity in the face of life’s struggles command our full attention. She draws us into a contemplation of strength and vulnerability, beauty and scars and in her image, I hope, we can find deeper insight into what it means to really be whole. So with an open heart, I urge us all to validate her journey together and see where this courageous shero will take us.
Lisa Levart is an award winning photographer whose images have appeared in numerous publications and exhibitions worldwide. Her book of portraits, Goddess on Earth, received the GOLD Nautilus Book Award and features many women from the Rockland area. Goddess on Earth can be purchased at Saffron and Sanctuary in Nyack and online at GoddessOnEarth.com.