My Breast Reduction Finally Made Me Feel At Home In My Body

Thoka Maer for BuzzFeed News

I’m not sure my doctor would have recommended watching videos of every breast reduction surgery I could find on YouTube before I underwent my own procedure. But there was something so cathartic about seeing — in vivid, unmistakable detail — the flesh being cauterized and removed from breasts so closely resembling my own. My breasts had plagued much of my teens and twenties with chronic back pain, difficulty exercising, and a desperate yearning to wear the same lacey bras and trendy clothing as my friends and peers. A yearning to close the disconnect between the hypersexualization of breasts I saw all around me, and the disdain I had for my own.

As fate would have it for a bookish, painfully shy child, I developed breasts sometime around the fourth grade and was promptly gifted a no-nonsense underwire bra from my mother, a flesh-colored garment that I hated with a burning passion. I took to dressing in oversize T-shirts with high necklines, painfully aware of the way the eyes of both kids and adults alike would almost instinctively flicker upon my chest before making their way to my face. When my father’s job took us to the Middle East the year I turned 12, I started my period virtually the day our plane touched down in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and spent much of the next year swathed in a black abaya, almost grateful for the way it swallowed my body whole. Even when we returned to the US, I avoided any and all situations in which I’d be required to wear a swimsuit — not that the flimsy, triangular strips of fabric my girlfriends wore would have ever sufficed anyway. By the time I entered high school, I skipped dances entirely, knowing full well that the only dresses large enough to support my chest would be found at the same mall stores our PTA mothers frequented.

I remember one shopping outing with friends my junior year of high school during which we stopped into a Victoria’s Secret, where I tried to explain that, despite the impossibly busty models advertising the eye-popping lingerie, the store simply didn’t carry bras in my size. “So can you donate some to me?” one friend joked when I admitted my bra size — something like a 34 DDD at this point — in a hushed tone, like it was some kind of dirty secret. “How do you not have a boyfriend?” the other asked after I emerged, disappointed but unsurprised, from the fitting room with bedazzled D-cups that my breasts somehow made look like training bras. I laughed ruefully, because — in my idealism, or maybe naïveté — I would have placed my breasts dead last on the checklist of things I had to offer a prospective partner. They’d only ever felt like a burden — grotesque and inappropriate and embarrassingly out of sync with the person I wanted to present to the world, and all the more reason to hide my body away.

And so I was resigned to buying bras at plus-size lingerie retailers that carried specialized sizes, or Macy’s, where my grandmother had been taking me for fittings since I was a mortified middle schooler. There, the sales associates would eye me up and down as they took my measurements and inquired offhandedly about my age, returning with armfuls of beige and white bras with thick straps clearly designed for middle-aged women. Somehow it never got any less humiliating, grappling with these breasts I hadn’t asked for, that made me feel like my body was not my own.

Somehow it never got any less humiliating, grappling with these breasts I hadn’t asked for, that made me feel like my body was not my own.

As I got older, the size of my breasts became more of a physical impediment. Sports bras were just as impossible to find as my everyday ones, and exercise was a nightmare. I self-medicated with ibuprofen — or the occasional stray pill of something stronger, if it was available — to counter the chronic daily back pain that radiated out across the middle of my spine, some days bringing me to tears, attempting to mitigate it with back rollers, chiropractors, yoga. Nothing seemed to keep the pain at bay for very long.

Of course, I was lucky, they said — my parents, friends, doctors. I could on occasion purchase bras off the rack — 34 DDD still being something of a “straight size,” albeit much harder to find — and fit into some of the outfits I wanted to wear if the size and cut fit my chest just right. Someday, they said, I’d surely find a man who loved my body, and I’d want to breastfeed the children I might choose to have. To most people in my life, the risks and aftermath of a breast reduction surgery made it almost impossible to understand why I’d possibly want to put myself through it.

But by 17 — despite being a straight-A student with very little social life — deep down I still wanted to wear candy-colored bras, string bikinis, and strappy dresses like the other girls at school. I wanted to join the tennis team, and change in locker rooms without strategically covering my body, and see photos of myself without zeroing in on my breasts and cringing in disgust. My issues with body image were deeply rooted by then and so invasive that I developed a restrictive eating disorder that plunged my 5-foot-5-inch frame down to about 100 pounds, frightening my parents and stopping my period for a full year. I managed to pull myself out of that nosedive by a sheer force of will that still astounds me to this day, but my body was never quite the same afterward, fat and skin cells seemingly settling into places they hadn’t been before. Ten years later, I am incredibly grateful that I lived to see the other side of that darkness, but it was something quickly filed away as a shameful secret I rarely addressed and did nothing to endear my body to me any further.

The rapid weight loss and gain left my skin rippled with stretch marks — on my breasts, around my hips, inside my thighs. My breasts, having finally shrunk to the point where I could buy bras off the rack, ballooned back to their original size once I recovered from my eating disorder, but in a cruel twist were now shaped even more pendulously than before. The first time I had sex, I wore two bras layered atop one another, in an attempt to attain some semblance of the effortlessly buoyant breasts I saw on campus around me. At an annual physical one year, the nurse asked me whether I, mid-twenties and childless, had ever breastfed. Utterly taken aback, I flushed and blinked back tears as I chastised her for the question. I felt like I could’ve crawled beneath the exam table and died.

In moments like those, and near-constantly for the past 10 years, the idea of a breast reduction surgery seemed like an option I could never quite choose. In college, I cried after learning that my school’s health insurance would not cover the surgery, under any circumstances. The out-of-pocket expense was more than I could ever possibly finance on top of the student loans I’d already owe after graduation. Over the next couple of years, I consulted with plastic surgeons who all agreed I was an ideal candidate, but the insurance companies begged to differ, relying on formulas that calculated based on my height and weight just how much breast tissue I would need removed in order for the procedure to be considered “medically necessary.” I was instructed to visit chiropractors for at least six months — more out-of-pocket expenses — try massages, get professionally fitted for bras, better luck next time, kid.

After so many years of being told by insurance companies that surely my breasts were not large enough to cause me any actual physical discomfort, told by family and friends that I should consider myself lucky, told by surgeons that the thing I wanted so desperately would put me thousands more dollars in debt, a reduction seemed impossible. I began to question the validity of my own pain, too; maybe it was my terrible posture, the fact that I worked a desk job and sat hunched over a computer all day. Maybe I wore my bra too often or not enough. Maybe it was all my fault.

Then, 2020 arrived, bringing with it the perfect storm of terrible and unforeseen events that offered a few miraculous silver linings. I began the year by falling elbow-first onto an ice skating rink (in what really should have been an indicator of things to come), breaking my first bone, and undergoing my very first surgery. Happy 2020!

I began to question the validity of my own pain, too; maybe it was my terrible posture, the fact that I worked a desk job and sat hunched over a computer all day. 

Whenever I mulled the idea of reduction surgery, the thought of choosing to be sliced open and left with permanent anchor-shaped scars, of all the potential risks and complications and maybe dying on an operating table and leaving my parents distraught and ashamed of my vanity, was my second-biggest deterrent, after the cost of course (welcome to America!). I envisioned having adverse reactions to anesthesia, of being left with scars that would never quite heal. But my elbow operation — which left me with two pins and a steel plate in an arm I had to carry in a sling like a zombie limb for months afterward — left me no choice but to face my surgery fears head-on. It was a risk I was more than willing to take.

In March, my elbow had only just been freed from its sling, my weekly yoga classes only just resumed, and my ability to drive was mostly back to normal when the pandemic hit. I was fortunate enough to keep my job, my home, and my health. But my life — like everyone’s — still changed. My work would be remote for the next year, my friends scattered to their family homes, and I felt the walls of my Los Angeles studio closing in. I spent four months in lockdown alone before I decided to pack up my life and drive home to my parents in Oregon.

As a journalist, and an American, the past 10 months have been some of the grimmest of my life. It has reshuffled my priorities and made me more grateful than ever for my body and my health. And so, when elective surgeries began to resume in my state over the summer, I consulted with a plastic surgeon about a breast reduction once again. I had no idea whether I’d be successful this time around, but something in my gut told me it was now or never.

The minute I met my surgeon, a middle-aged blonde woman with a wealth of knowledge and warm demeanor, I felt immediately at ease. She assured me I had done nothing wrong, that it was not my fault my breasts had developed the way they did, that she could help me if I chose to go forward with surgery, but there was no pressure to do so. She held a silicone implant in the palm of her hand to help me visualize how much breast tissue my insurance company would require to be removed, and my stomach sank in a familiar way when she explained that I wouldn’t meet those requirements — it simply wasn’t physically possible.

When I left the office, price quote in hand, I called a close friend who had undergone a breast reduction herself to vent. Initially, I felt disappointed, angry, even a little victimized; it was so incredibly unfair that if I ever wanted this procedure it would have to come at a great financial cost. But after I acknowledged those feelings, I flipped my perspective on the situation. I didn’t come from money; I had student loans and a financed car, and I was a journalist with little disposable income. But moving in with my parents had allowed me some newly found financial freedom, and for the first time in my life, the idea of paying for a breast reduction out of pocket became a viable option, not to mention the fact that they’d be able to help me in my recovery. I realized, now more than ever, that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with this hanging over me as a giant, neon what-if. I didn’t want to have regrets.

So the next day, I called my plastic surgeon and scheduled my surgery for a week after my 27th birthday. I was able to finance the procedure for a year interest-free through CareCredit, placed my down payment, and got my COVID nasal swab. When I told my closest family and friends about my plans, the outpouring of love and support I received was overwhelming. I couldn’t believe it was finally happening after 10 years of waiting and hoping, that one of the hardest years of my life would also bring about something so beneficial, so momentous.

The day of my surgery, my mom and I woke at 4 a.m. to a darkness that felt like the beginning of a new world. I showered with antibacterial wash, stared at my body in my bedroom mirror one last time, put on clean clothes, and we started the hourlong drive to the hospital. After checking into my room, my surgeon came by to discuss the plan, circling my breasts with black marker and explaining what she’d be doing during the next few hours.

As I was wheeled into the operating room, I felt positively giddy, making small talk with the anesthesiologist about where I went to high school until the drugs in my IV knocked me out. Unlike my first surgery earlier in the year, for which I’d been alone and worked myself into a ball of anxiety catastrophizing that I might somehow actually die on the operating table, this day felt like Christmas and my birthday rolled into one. I felt confident that on the other side of this pain, there would be the body and the life I’d always wanted waiting for me.

When I awoke a few hours later, gray afternoon light streaming through the hospital windows, it took a minute to orient myself, to remember where I was and what had finally happened, and then I started beaming, realizing the hard part was over (well, until the pain kicked in, anyway.)

Courtesy Olivia Niland

The author before (left) and after surgery.

At my first post-op appointment, I almost didn’t recognize my own body, my breasts half the size and lifted impossibly high. For the first time in my adult life, I could see my rib cage when I wasn’t wearing a bra. Even more astonishingly, I could not wear a bra — it was an absolute revelation. Of course, it wasn’t all rosy; there was some bleeding and bruising, and beneath my armpits were embedded drains for surgical fluids, and when they were removed I nearly passed out on my surgeon’s tiled floor. For a few days after the surgery, I was woozy and in some pain as I moved, but within a matter of days, I was showering on my own, and I had weaned myself off painkillers within the week. To my complete shock, my elbow surgery and recovery had proven far more painful and cumbersome than my reduction.

For the first few weeks of recovery, my breasts were bruised purple and yellow, and I wore a compression bandage to help ease the swelling. I anticipated complications, but save for a couple of stitches breaking open and eventually closing on their own, there were none. As my skin rejoined itself like tectonic plates meeting and making mountains, some of the scars grew spindly and — as my friend had mercifully warned me — I did feel ugly for some time. I jokingly referred to my breasts as Franken-boobs and wondered whether I’d just traded one physical insecurity for another.

For the first time in my adult life, I could see my rib cage when I wasn’t wearing a bra. Even more astonishingly, I could not wear a bra — it was an absolute revelation.

But my lollipop-shaped scars faded rapidly, the skin piecing itself back together as if by magic. Most miraculously, for the first time in my adult life, I didn’t have daily back pain, and I felt vindicated in my suffering and only a little angry at the gaslighting I’d received about it. Six weeks after my surgery, I discovered I could exercise so much more freely. I could buy and wear clothing without having to plan my outfits around my bras and my breasts. I bought swimsuits and lingerie that fit right off the rack and made me feel sexy and confident in my own skin. I felt utterly, blissfully free.

In retrospect, I wish my pain had been taken more seriously, and my surgery considered medically necessary. But I feel grateful that I had the financial means to act when I did, and that paying for my surgery out of pocket enabled me to choose exactly the doctor, date, and surgery plan that I wanted. With a family history of breast cancer — my mother having entered remission only a few years prior — I felt that time was of the essence in prioritizing my health. And when one hospital staff member after another, upon seeing that I was choosing to undergo a reduction at 27, congratulated me on my decision, recounting stories of women twice my age who lamented waiting so long, I knew the timing was exactly right.

It still feels a bit surreal that one of the biggest hurdles in my life to date has finally been overcome. I have to pinch myself sometimes when I remember that I’m only a few months out from surgery, because the truth is I hardly think about my breasts anymore — and that’s all I ever could’ve asked for. ●

This story is part of our Body Week series. To read more, click here.

Source link