When I was a young adolescent of about 12 or 13,  I felt ugly and undesirable. And as I aged into an objectively beautiful girl I still felt less than. I didn’t feel desired at a time when it felt like there was so much riding on that question. Did boys like me? Would I ever get a boyfriend? Was I pretty? Would I ever get married?

When I was 19, my first college boyfriend, who was only my second ever boyfriend, actually broke up with me for being “too sexy.” He was very religious and eventually became a fundamentalist Christian minister. By the way, we did not have sex. Not. Even. Close. But the power of my sexuality was apparently threatening to him. He apologized for being a bad boyfriend, for desiring me in that way. This was a bit confusing to me because even as much of a good Catholic girl as I was at the time, I thought that young people who were dating were supposed to have lustful feelings, whether they acted on them or not.

To be honest, I was not initially remotely interested in dating him. He and I were almost entirely incompatible. He told me that I was so open-minded that my “brain might fall out.” But he was one of the most charming and charismatic young people I’ve ever encountered. And he was very good hearted. I knew that he’d wanted to be a minister and he seemed so perfectly suited to it. So I actually found him a few years ago by Googling “Pastor John Doe” and his hometown. I emailed him and he responded to me by apologizing to me again for being a bad boyfriend, offering the same rationale. It was still bothering him over 25 years later! (Again, did I mention that we didn’t even have sex?)

So this is one of the many ways I learned that being a sexually desirable female can have definite drawbacks in addition to the wildly sexist catcalls, groping, and other unwelcome, sometimes even scary behavior I’ve endured in my life simply for being female. There’s the rejection for not being sexy enough, the rejection for being too sexy, and the aggression for being “sexy enough”.  Sometimes there’s just aggression for being any of those things. If I could choose the category of attractiveness vibes that I would like to put out there in the world, I would choose, “Helen Mirren in her 60’s”. She is a sexy woman, who knows it, but she also knows that she is oh so much more. Helen Mirren is smart, talented, and funny. She is a 68 year-old actress who still works regularly in film.

After having gone through multiple surgeries, body rearrangement, chemically induced menopause, and being scared out of my mind at the prospect of having cancer, I can tell you that it is very difficult to set my set my sex appeal to “Helen Mirren”. It has been a confusing time, reminiscent of adolescence and early adulthood. I find that as I gain confidence in myself as an attractive woman, I am now remembering the pitfalls of it. Male attention is not all positive and even when it is “positive” it is not always comfortable. It was much more comfortable to flirt when I felt unattractive and frumpy. I actually remember periods of time in my early adulthood when it was just a lot easier to not dress stylishly. I was already with my husband, he’s always thought I was beautiful, so what was the point in potentially attracting attention to my looks? During one of these times, I worked as a secretary for the Seattle VA Hospital. It was the year between college and graduate school. John and I worked to save money, get married, and apply to graduate school.

I didn’t really like the job at the VA much. I was good at it and got good feedback from managers. I enjoyed a few of the people with whom I worked but it was a pretty stressful work environment and a ind of boring job. I dressed neatly but fairly casually. Frankly, I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on clothes. I got married during the year I worked there and brought my wedding photos to work. One of the other secretaries, Cathy’s way of showing “approval” for how I looked as a bride said, “Well, look at that!  There is SOMETHING underneath ALL OF THAT NOTHING.” So apparently, I was not pulling off Helen Mirren for Cathy.

There are aspects of being a woman that feel like a nearly no win situation. This is one of them. I try to navigate my own appearance according to what I LIKE and how I WANT TO LOOK but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t unforeseen negative consequences. Even as a 47 year-old woman, I find this enough confusing to occupy more than 5% of my time.  As a wife, a mother, a professional, and a middle aged breast cancer patient, it seems like much more time than I can spare. When I was younger, it was all so much more in my face. Now, there are daily small reminders. When I wear a dress with a v-neck opening, I have to make sure that it doesn’t gap too much or that the safety pins I use to keep my dresses from being “too sexy for work” are not showing on the outside of my clothes. I have to think about how short my dresses will get once I’m seated in a chair in front of my patients and their families. I make sure that my make up is neither too heavy nor too light, whatever that really means. It is all kind of subjective. And as a woman I know that ultimately, it doesn’t matter how I dress or behave; there will be times that I am unfairly judged or treated based on my perceived attractiveness and sex appeal. It’s a hard path to navigate, one with ever changing and conflicting internal and external road signs.

I don’t think I am alone in this no-win dance. And is it any wonder that so many of us breast cancer patients do not feel supported by ad campaigns that use sexuality to draw attention to breast cancer causes? And is it any surprise to anyone in a culture where women’s sexuality is used to sell ALMOST ANYTHING, that we feel like we are the ones who are being sold out so that companies can sell all kinds of products under the guise of helping women with cancer? In fact, by wrapping advertising in pink ribbons, which are associated with campaigns that use all kinds of sexual images of women, one might argue that the door is opened to use sex to sell EVEN more products, bottled water, yoghurt, pink pumpkins, you name it.

It is said that “sex sells” and certainly it can be argued that it sells a variety of THINGS. But does it sell respect, commitment, or compassion? Those are qualities that cannot be sold. Those are qualities that we need.