Critical Disavowals: a breast cremation photo-essay

Author: Cara Tierney


In the fall of 2013, I had my breast matter cremated. Two months earlier, I had undergone a prophylactic double mastectomy as a result of being found to carry the BRCA1 gene mutation, which signals a predisposition for developing cancer. Without hesitation, I elected to have my breasts removed as it had the dual purpose of mitigating possible cancer while delivering me into a gender-aligned body. As a gender-diverse person, my earlier research into chest surgery proved both cost-prohibitive and difficult to access based on the gatekeeping mechanisms transgender patients face when seeking care. The gene mutation allowed me to avoid this protracted and invasive process, as choosing to have my breasts removed as a cancer-related issue made the process free under the Canadian health care system.

Transgender biomedical rhetoric can be summarized in the axiom “born in the wrong body.” This phrase limits the way gender-diverse people actualize nuanced and affirmative understandings of their identities, foundationally inscribing the word transgender with notions of bodily self-hatred. Genderdiverse folks seeking care are at the mercy of a medical system that requires the rehearsal of a pre-determined, pathologized condition. Far from the performance of a scripted identity, and cast into the space of mourning and tribute, Critical Disavowals is a loving send-off that overturns the way biomedical discourse structures the experience of the body.


Image List:

Hospital Release Form

Left Breast Tub in Plastic Wrap

Right Breast Tub

Self-Portrait with Breasts

Left Breast Matter

Cremation Contract


Author Biography

Cara Tierney is an artist, curator, researcher, consultant, activist, and part-time professor who lives and works in the Kichi Sibi area (so-called Ottawa, Canada). Proudly trans/non-binary, Tierney holds a master’s degree in Canadian art history from Carleton University and a master of fine arts degree from the University of Ottawa, and they are a PhD candidate at the Institute for Comparative Analysis in Literature, Arts and Culture at Carleton University. Their creative practice questions the way meaning is structured in, around, and through the body while their academic work investigates the interrelationships of pedagogy, art, and gender nonconformity.  They teach history and theory of art as well as studio practice (photography and relational sculpture) at the University of Ottawa and are a contract instructor in the Pauline Jewett Women and Gender Studies department at Carleton University. Tierney is the 2019-2020 Artist in Residence in the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine.

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