I closed my eyes and nervously shifted in my paper hospital gown as my doctor began taking “before” pictures of my chest. I was in the office because I had decided to get a breast reduction. I turned away from the screen where my body was projected across the room with each snap and flash. It was undoubtedly an uncomfortable situation, but I didn’t care.
I was 20 years old and a month and change away from embarking on the most exciting trip of my life—six months living in Paris. I had felt uncomfortable in my skin for a long time; it was years of minimizing bras, oversize clothing, and wishing my curves away. My breasts felt like foreign objects—like a weight I had to carry around that wasn’t my own. One day I decided I had had enough: I was unhappy with the way I looked, and I was going to do something about it. I began researching my options, and a breast-reduction surgery sounded like freedom.
At first, my parents were really against it. I had conversations with my father where he expressed concern that I was thoughtlessly “giving into a misogynistic view of the ideal female form,” and that I was masochistically willing to “deface my body,” in the interest of accepted beauty standards. All of which are good arguments—but they weren’t the ones guiding my decision. This choice was all mine.
I made perhaps my first “adult” decision and told them I was going to do it, with or without their blessing. If I can get it covered by insurance, I asserted, there’s no reason I can’t do this myself. So I did a ton of research: I needed to get photographs taken, procure a note from my regular doctor as well as a chiropractor, and run a few tests to make sure my body could handle it.
During the first semester of my junior year, boobs were all I thought about. After months of preparing and paperwork, my mother looked at me and said, “I understand why you have to do this.” By that point, she had seen the pictures, listened—like, really listened—to my concerns, and finally understood the way my life had been burdened and entangled in this far longer than I had spoken about it out loud. Shortly after, our insurance company accepted the claim, and we were able to move forward.
I had the surgery over winter break, and I woke up feeling like a new person. I swear the differences were immediately palpable. I went in on a Thursday and was out at brunch by Tuesday. It wasn’t an easy process—by any means—but I was shocked at how little time off I ultimately needed. I wore a postsurgical bra that zipped up the front for the next month, but had to go back in for a follow-up appointment two weeks later (I had refused to look at my chest until then).
My body was in a fragile state, and I didn’t want to freak myself out about the results before I was healed. That morning, the doctor checked everything was going smoothly and asked if I would consent to be a part of his “before” and “after” book (it’s the pictures he shows to patients at their first consultation.) For me, there was no greater compliment. I excitedly agreed and looked at my new body for the first time. Naturally, there were scars and bruises, but I barely even noticed them. I was proud, happy, relieved, and beautiful.
And, it’s not just me. Brian Labow, director of the Adolescent Breast Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital, found that adolescents (defined as girls ages 12 to 21) with macromastia (breast weight that exceeds approximately 3% of the total body weight) have “decreased quality of life, lower self-esteem, more breast-related pain, and increased risk for eating disorders compared to their peers.” Moreover, breast reduction surgery produces measurable improvements in psychosocial, sexual, and physical well-being, as well as satisfaction with your overall physical appearance, reports a study in the August issue of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the official medical journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
Everything was healed and looking good by the time I arrived in Paris—which was my plan all along. I went on to have the most transformative months of my life. Not only was I in a new city (arguably the most beautiful city in the world), but when I passed my reflection, I felt like I finally recognized the person looking back at me. I was confident in a way I hadn’t ever been before. It didn’t have as much to do with the way I looked, but more about the way I felt from minute to minute. I didn’t have back pain or annoying marks from my bra straps.
I didn’t feel like I had to cover up my body—which was something I had gotten very good at during the years prior.
I hadn’t thought about the scars in years until recently when a boy I was seeing mentioned them. He practically yelled, “Did you get a breast reduction?” I was shocked. And quickly that feeling turned into intense humiliation, and, without thinking, I answered, “No!” and tried to forget about it. That wasn’t the end of it, though, as he continued to press the issue. “Did you get a boob job?” he accused. I felt uncomfortable and had him leave shortly after that. It was the first time in a long time I’d felt distressed about my naked body—which for me, was a feat.
It was also the first time I thought I should write about my experience with the surgery.
The seven years since my reduction have been so positive. Everything about my life has changed for the better, with the exception of a few scars on the side and underneath each breast. Truthfully, they’re barely visible (I switch off between La Mer The Concentrate, $340, and Bio-Oil, $13, on a daily basis), which is why I think of them so rarely. But once I felt the confusion and shame that came along with his line of questioning—even if only for a split second—I realized a piece like this may make someone in a similar position feel better.
Leandra Medine of Man Repeller recently wrote, “Writers or storytellers often do the brave thing by sharing their stories to touch the people around them. Not always deliberately, but that’s what happens. Rarely, however, do storytellers and writers share this stuff until they’ve stowed it away, compartmentalized it using the brackets of time.”
It’s an interesting point—that it’s too difficult for us to share our stories while we’re living them—before we’ve learned, survived, and grown from whatever pain our situation may have caused. I think that’s why it’s taken me so long to sort through my feelings enough to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be). In order to outline this piece, I had to have a beginning, middle, and an end. I had to explore my feelings about my body in the past, the present, and what I might feel in the future.
I'll always be a work in progress, constantly vacillating between feels of contentment and distain. But I find comfort in my ability to parse through my feelings, identifying where they come from and whether or not worth ruminating on. The conclusion? I feel good.
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so... welcome to The Flipside (as in the flipside of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society's definition of "beauty." Here, you'll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we'd love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation, too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here, on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.