Barbie Gets Breast Cancer


Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Annotated by:
Wear, Delese
  • Date of entry: Nov-18-2001


At the age of 37, artist/photographer (and former model), Matuschka, was diagnosed with breast cancer. While her most famous response to the disease was her startling photograph on the cover of The New York Times Magazine revealing the results of mastectomy, her political activism surrounding breast cancer took many forms. (The photograph can be viewed at a Web site, Matuschka Archives )

Not only did she have a disease to confront, she felt she had the responsibility to "take on the establishment." She wrote, "My extensive research and understanding of how cancer works and how breast cancer therapies don’t--in addition to my medical nightmare with my doctor (I was first underdiagnosed, then overtreated)--I felt I had other messages to convey."

Thus, her essay describes her ongoing project: not hiding or concealing the condition, but becoming sexy and strong as a result; and reaching middle America with her images to promote breast cancer awareness, education, treatment, and prevention. Artistically and politically, she was determined to project images of women after surgery as whole people with a scar, not the decapitated torsos of medical illustration and other media that give "too much weight to the ’deformity’ that accompanies breast cancer surgery."

The essay chronicles the difficulties she had in finding sites for publication of her work, including her photo/biography, Beauty Out of Damage, and the continuing harsh criticism that she receives, much of it from "mastectomy women." In turn, she continues her harsh criticism against what she calls "backlash in the breast cancer movement," such as mixing political action with consumerism (e.g. Ralph Lauren’s "Target Breast Cancer" t-shirts that put targets on women), or mixing modeling with breast cancer activism (Cindy Crawford modeling the t-shirt rather than women who have had breast cancer modeling the shirt), among many other examples.

Her closing lines summarize the intent of her activism: "to inspire others to become involved in revolutionizing the medical profession, particularly in regard to women’s cancers. After seeing the film of my mastectomy operation, my only reply was, ’No one should ever have to go through this.’"


This essay is stunning in its evocative energy, anger, intelligence, and commitment to women everywhere. It would work well with Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, Sandra Butler and Barbara Rosenblum’s Cancer in Two Voices (see this database for both), then followed by a plastic surgeon who does breast reconstruction. See also in our art database the annotation of the Matuschka Web site, Matuschka Archive which includes a link to the site.


Address (URL) of the multi-mediaWeb site that includes photographs, biosketch, and commentary by and about Matuschka and her mastectomy:

Primary Source

Bad Girls/"Good Girls": Women, Sex, and Power in the Nineties


Rutgers Univ. Press

Place Published

New Brunswick, N.J.




Nan Bauer Maglin & Donna Perry

Page Count