By Tracy Lynch
There’s a word in our household that is used rather often. I wouldn’t have thought much of this word even a few weeks ago, but for some reason, its presence has buzzed around my ear lately like a fly-by gnat. Not annoying, but just often enough to get my attention.
The word? “Inappropriate.”
Our family unit has used the word for many moons to describe shorts that are too short, dogs doing their business, the phrase “Shut up,” and the kind of dancing performed by the younger, more-Beyoncé-like daughter. My daughters’ friends giggle it from the backseat of the minivan; my husband utters it when one of his girls pretends to wear half-shirts; I whisper it when one of the girls forgets her manners and comments on the girth of the man in line at the grocery store. It’s a one-size-fits-all term.
When my daughters used this word at a younger age, it was endearing and adorable. The word stumbled out of their mouths whenever something simply wasn’t proper or right according to their itty-bitty worldviews. Recently, however, I’ve noticed a difference—a shift in usage—and that’s the buzzing in my ear. Now that the girls are ten and twelve, no longer does That’s inappropriate refer to something forbidden. Its current translation is now something along the lines of I know that’s wrong or feels weird to me, but I don’t know why and I don’t think I want to know. Or maybe I do. Why are the grownups laughing? What’s going on with my understanding of the world around me?!
My response has shifted, too, moving from adoring to slightly unsettled. The weight of the word seems heavier as their definitions of “inappropriate” evolve from childish simplicity to adolescent curiosity. A few years ago, my older daughter giggled with glee as our new puppy “hugged” her leg “over and over and over.” “He must really love me!” she laughed breathlessly. Fast forward to the present, and the same daughter, now awkward in her own beautiful body and entering seventh grade, stops suddenly one morning to chastise the same dog (who is now also old enough to know better): “Fergus! Bad boy! That’s inappropriate!”
A line has been drawn: the line of understanding. True, it’s a thick line, a foggy patch in the cognitive landscape, but it’s there. My daughter, thanks to her growing brain, “family life” courses in health class, and television we probably shouldn’t let her watch, knows now that something is just not right. But she also knows enough to know that she has no idea what that is. Something that was once hilarious is now taboo. My daughters may not know why, but they are on the verge of knowing why. And for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, that makes me a little sad.
Once I became aware of this shift, I found myself listening more intently for the word “inappropriate,” swatting at its buzzing with my own attempts at understanding. Finally, I’ve come to this: “That’s inappropriate” is an off switch. It’s a way to stop the conversation, the image on the screen, the dog humping your leg … and thereby stop yourself from thinking too much about something that just doesn’t feel right. If we label something as inappropriate, we stop ourselves from walking through the thick, foggy patch, through the unpleasantness and toward understanding. “That’s inappropriate” keeps us safe. It keeps us comfortable.
For my daughters, and for kids of all ages, that’s okay. That’s called learning your own boundaries. We give children permission to ease themselves into what is and is not appropriate because they are, after all, kids. They are preparing to travel through the foggy patch. Sometimes what growing kids want to label “inappropriate” really are just parts of growing up, like buying training bras, discussing armpit hair and how to work a razor, or talking with your mother about a boy you like in your math class. This kind of understanding can be uncomfortable, but if all goes well, my daughters will emerge on the other side with understanding as their souvenir. Why do we, as actual grown-ups, use the same off switch, “That’s inappropriate,” for any number of situations and in any number of conversations? What are we so afraid of? For some (like me), political discussions are often inappropriate. So are religious ones. Reflecting on it, I may know why: I get too nervous discussing a point about which I’m not well versed for fear of being called out. Applying the off-switch word—inappropriate—can stop a conversation before it even begins. Of course, perhaps I could benefit from the understanding that broaching these so-called inappropriate topics could bring. Probably. Maybe. After all, turning off conversations has the potential to make us miss out on pretty significant growing up ourselves. If the adults of this world would strive to constantly re-evaluate what we consider inappropriate, we could charge, head-first, right through those foggy patches and toward understanding. Or casually stroll. What’s inappropriate to some is, after all, inspiring to others.
Take the work of David Jay, for example. Jay, a photographer who is slowly gaining respect and world recognition for his The SCAR Project, photographs of women who are on the other side of breast cancer and have the scars to prove it.
I first stumbled on Jay’s photographs on Facebook. They were going viral, and the link was passed around to tens of thousands of members within a matter of weeks. SCAR stands for “Surviving Cancer. Absolute Reality.” The photographs are, at their very basest level, real. It’s difficult to express the effect his photographs had on me, not because I’m quiet about the emotions they brought (and continue to bring) to the surface, but because, for a long time, I wasn’t quite sure what those emotions were or even how to describe them. Here was a man who was putting to print the most secret, private part of me. A part of me that still felt a little too new to share.
Two years ago, on June 12, 2009, I had a bilateral mastectomy to begin my seven-month treatment of Stage III breast cancer. Walking around without breasts has become only a part of who I am, but it’s always a reminder of what I’ve been through: my own absolute reality. I may not know one woman in the series, but everything about them, their bodies, their eyes, reflected me. Reflected what was left of my cancer. Jay’s photographs tore off the clothes I had been wearing to cover my scars and invited others to click “like” at what they saw. To share these photographs with people, as I felt compelled to do, was in a sense to show them myself naked. My family and friends could now see, on the chests of these women, what breast cancer had done to my body and, through their eyes, to my spirit. SCAR is what happens after the chemo, the surgeries, the hair loss. People who view the works have the chance to be informed.
Or to be confused. Or surprised. Or, even, afraid.
After my surgery and subsequent healing, my own daughters were no longer comfortable being with me when I undressed. A nudist by nature, I was profoundly altered by their response to my naked body. Nights spent putting our PJs on together were no more. Instead, if they saw it was time for me to change, they practically ran to their room, often shutting my door behind them lest I forget to do so myself. They were little and could not be casual about their aversion. My younger daughter, nestling with me in my chair one night, once I was healed enough to snuggle, rested her head on my chest and told me she missed my breasts, that I was too boney and not comfy anymore. The same daughter, with her trademark full-disclosure policy, instructed me once to change clothes in our hotel room bathroom, alone, away from them. She waved her hand in my chest’s general direction and explained, “That’s just creepy.”
This was almost a year after my surgery. Time and again, I was crushed by my well-meaning and brutally honest girls. I was less of a woman. I was a mystery. And, the most difficult pill to swallow, I scared them. My body was, to my daughters, inappropriate.
* * *
What my girls couldn’t handle in the flesh, many adults were uncomfortable with even just on paper. Jay’s photos, I learned, were deemed to be too real, too honest, and to show too much. There are nipples. There are lack-of-nipples. There are the curves of a woman’s shape. There are the glaring absences where a woman’s shape should be.
This winter, I worked on a writing project about SCAR and I had a chance to discuss this with Jay himself. He told me that only online publications ever included images of his work. Not one print outlet had ever shown a photograph. None would. One Italian journalist told me that her editor would not include his images in their publication because “he says the images are too much strong, that he makes feel bad.”
The editor’s statement, even in its broken English, says a great deal about what we, as grownups, see as inappropriate in the world. Why are the images so jarring? Are they too painful? Is the “absolute reality” a combination of nudity and illness (or the aftermath of illness) that causes a deep confusion—or simply hurts too much? Is it pushing us too far, too fast toward what we don’t understand?
For kids, facing the inappropriate is scary because they’re learning something that they didn’t know before. Is it the same for adults? Was the Italian editor—merely one of dozens made uncomfortable by the prospect of printing the photos—also afraid of that foggy area, the one that would allow him to cross to the other side, to understanding? Did he turn the switch off? I believe he did. And I believe that he and dozens and dozens of other print journalists missed out in the process. Unfortunately, so did their readers.
One evening in November 2010, a few months after I discovered Jay’s photographs, I was re-examining his extensive collection online. One by one, I clicked through the pictures, sucked into their honesty, until I slowly became aware that someone was looking over my shoulder. It was my younger daughter.
“What are you doing, Mama?” she asked, quietly.
“Looking at these amazing photographs.” Long silence. “Do you want me to stop?”
“No,” she said softly, and I continued on. Eventually, we reached a photograph of a beautiful woman, arms stretched high over her head, that revealed penetrating eyes and double-mastectomy scars.
“That looks like you!” my little girl practically gasped. I agreed, and we sat there in silence until my other daughter slowly came over, timidly, ready to see, too. They were safe there with me, computer screen in my lap, and they saw something new in that woman who looked like their mother.
A few days later, getting in my comfy clothes for the night, I gave my usual precaution to my little girl: “I’m getting ready to change, honey.” Our unspoken agreement had, over time, become Yes, it’s okay for you to leave now.
“That’s okay, Mama. I don’t need to go.” So she stayed. And we talked, and we giggled. One night soon after, my older daughter, typically more timid, joined us.
Neither of my girls has looked away since. I can try on clothes in cramped dressing rooms with them by my side again. They are comfortable whispering to me when my shirt is askew and showing a bit too much of my scars. I have been given the gift of time back with them.
Two years later, and we’ve turned the switch to on.
Author’s Note: My husband and I were overwhelmed by the love that came our way during my breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. We used to talk about how we could actually feel it. I continue to be grateful for it to this day, and whenever I need to slow down, relax, or remind myself what I’m on this planet for, I just have to remember all those gifts, actual and emotional, from those who love us. It still strikes me as nothing short of miraculous that a stranger gave me the biggest gift of all. David Jay’s work changed how I viewed myself, absolutely; he’s gotten that kind of moving feedback from women all over the world and is still humbled and surprised by it. What I don’t write about in this piece is how much SCAR helped me to accept my body, to view it as more than just “appropriate.” Beautiful, even.
Brain, Child (Fall 2011)