About a year and a half ago I had breast reduction surgery. The experience was tremendously interesting, irritating, depressing, enraging, etc., but I’ve yet to write anything about it, which I cannot really explain. I mean, what kind of feminist blogger waits until she’s had a blog for seven months before writing about a personal experience with the wild world of plastic surgery? Weak.
When I was about 21 or 22 my upper back started hurting constantly, and I was always trying to learn new and bizarre stretches in an attempt to alleviate the pain. I went to the doctor, I went to yoga, I went to get acupuncture. The doctor told me I was too stressed out and gave me Ativan (good job, asshole), the yoga just made me feel like a fruitcake, and the acupuncture was just a rather funny experience in which an earnest dude from Zimbabwe practiced an ancient Chinese art on a skeptical American asshole. None of it worked.
This is pretty funny to me now, but at the time I had failed to even consider the possibility that it might be the several pounds of weight I was carrying around on my chest that was causing the problem. I’d taken birth control pills which had caused me to gain two cup sizes, and even after I stopped taking them things never went back to normal (yet another reason I think hormonal birth control sucks). Still, I assumed there was just something amiss with my back, figured I was just doomed, and got used to the serious discomfort and the fact that I couldn’t sit up straight without resting my elbows on a table for support lest I find myself in heinous pain.
I also lost the good posture my parents had gone to great lengths to teach me and got used to slouching and hiding under shirts that were way too big for me in order to avoid unwanted attention and comments like the one I received from a Mexican dude when I was on my way to work one morning: “I want some leche for my coffee.” Uh huh.
After a few years of feeling like I was carrying a papoose around, I had to give serious thought to how to remedy the situation. I’m not going to pretend, however, that physical pain was the only factor involved. I started traveling to Asia regularly in 2002, and the unwanted attention I got there catalyzed things. I decided after returning from a particularly annoying trip to China that the time had come to see whether I could get my insurance to cover a reduction. You see, among women in East Asia, breaking an A-cup is practically a mutation. I was like an anime character come to life, being fair, comparatively tall, and massively enboobened. People in China, especially, all stare at foreigners, but the stares I got all seemed to point in the same direction. Nobody was being particularly gross, but I knew what was up.
I had a serious problem deciding whether the whole thing was kosher. I mean, I’m a radical feminist. I’m opposed to people yielding to social pressure by wearing uncomfortable shoes, for fuck’s sake. Undergoing elective surgery in service of the fucakbility mandate is, like, the worst thing in the world as far as I’m concerned. But I eventually decided that living my entire life with heinous pain wasn’t an acceptable option, and that if I had a knee problem that was causing equivalent pain, I’d have had the surgery years ago. That there was the added discomfort of being stared at did not obviate the pain factor. I decided that if an evil health insurance corporation agreed that the surgery was medically sound, I’d do it. I mean, their desire to save money by avoiding providing what they’re in business to provide is even stronger than my disdain for capitulating to the patriarchy by having surgery, so I figured if they were willing to pay, it must be necessary. I also reminded myself that I wasn’t fucking with nature, but rather restoring it after birth control pills had altered it.
(The best part about the whole thing was telling people about it. I’d say that for every 10 dudes I told, 9 of them asked me if me having the surgery was OK with my then husband! I think I was almost as convinced to have the surgery by their dumbass questions as I was by back pain.)
I made an appointment to see a doctor and ask for a referral for breast reduction surgery. I told her how shitty constant back pain was and got all melodramatic about the pain I endured while wearing the torture devices that some medieval asshole had designed and called bras. She told me I was a perfect candidate because I was clearly “out of proportion.” If it hadn’t been for the fact that the extra flesh had been the result of birth control pills I would have probably been offended, but I was just glad she was going to sign the form. The next step was to find a surgeon and have her (no fucking WAY I was going to a dude) send a proposal to my insurance company, then wait for them to approve the procedure.
I searched high and low for information about the plastic surgeons in San Francisco, and eventually found out about a doctor who was known for her pro bono work for low income women who had undergone mastectomies and wanted reconstructive surgery. Now, I know there are some people who question whether having reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy is cool (be fuckable or die, even if the only reason you aren’t fuckable is because you almost died), but I was glad to find a doctor who, despite being involved in one of the most nefarious industries on Earth, at least made some use of her skills to help people who needed (or wanted) help. Plus, she went to Stanford, she was a big star at school, and she’d worked with some leaders in the plastic surgery field. She also did more breast reduction surgeries than anyone in town.
I knew I wasn’t going to like dealing with a plastic surgeon no matter what, but she was pretty cool. She didn’t give me a bunch of bullshit about how “beautiful” I was going to look or try too hard to convince me to undergo procedures I wasn’t into. I hear that’s the difference between male and female plastic surgeons: female plastic surgeons for the most part listen to their patients, while male plastic surgeons try to sell their patients on procedures they hadn’t even considered, knowing that their duderific opinions will likely create enough self-doubt in the patient that she’ll consider the additional procedure. I suppose the fact that I was in her office to have a procedure done to alleviate pain rather than to make dudes want to pork me might have had something to do with it, but she was business-like and didn’t patronize me or try to get too schmoozy, and I liked her enough, for a plastic surgeon.
Her office was another story. She shared a practice with two other female cosmetic surgeons, and they really played up the fact that they were women doing shit for women and that they conceived of their practice as one big, pink, flowery, sisterly, chocolatey self-esteem-boosting party. As soon as I walked into the place, I knew I was going to have to put on my most impressive poker face to avoid snarling and laughing at everyone and everything in the joint. Seriously, if I hadn’t already committed myself to the surgery (and gotten the referral), that office might have made me reconsider.
When I walked in I thought I had entered an Enya video. I imagined the thought behind the decor in the waiting area, and I kept seeing a gay dude nodding knowingly at my doctor, who had just told him, “What I want is a special little world where women can feel good about capitulating to the patriarchy in the most egregious of ways. Make it feminine as fuck. Is there any way it can be candlelit?” The end result: a reception desk covered in artsy, tremendously expensive flower arrangements, boxes of some kind of luxury brand of tea for us ladies (all ladies love tea), and boxes of chocolates and other sweets, manned by a woman so gracious and accommodating she didn’t even seem to notice the retina-searingly tacky relief in white faux marble of a naked, 36-24-36, recumbent woman adorning the wall behind her. The seating area was inundated with throw pillows, copies of that fucking awful magazine Oprah puts out, and brochures telling you why you “deserve” to “indulge” in Botox and other forms of self-mutilation, not to mention even more flowers. I felt like those cats on Halloween decorations look, all bristly and alarmed and shit. It was just so fucking gay (think about what I mean by that before you get mad at me).
The examination room walls were all covered in framed articles about my doctor and her colleagues, articles clipped from various “women’s” magazines on how great it was that more and more female plastic surgeons were cropping up each day because these female doctors were much more likely to be compassionate, to pay attention to what their patients really wanted, and to create more “natural” results. I felt like someone had dosed the herbal tea I drank in the waiting room with 8 drops of acid, like I’d entered some alternate universe where customer demand had supplanted patient health (har har, I mean health insurance company profit) as the central concern of the medical profession, where people needed to cut up, remove, and rearrange nature to achieve a “natural” look, where it didn’t strike anyone as strange that we should allow ourselves to be cut open and have our flesh removed and objects inserted into us and risk death and disfigurement in order to meet a beauty standard set by the fickle minds behind the advertising and entertainment media.
I was jittery as fuck. I didn’t ask any questions, I just put on the plushy bathrobe and followed the nurse into the room where they’d take photos of me, topless, to send to my insurance company to prove that my boobs were big enough to warrant being made smaller. Yep. I then went in to discuss the whole thing with my doctor, who told me that she might have to suck fat from the space between my armpit and my chest to add to the flesh she’d be removing from my breasts, because the insurance company required that she remove a certain weight in grams. Besides, she told me, most women don’t like having that little bit of fat there, and I’d probably like the result. Ugh. I told her that I had somehow managed to avoid worrying about that little bit of flesh and wasn’t going to start, and that if that was going to be the deciding factor I didn’t need to do the surgery. Like I said, I was basing my justification of the whole thing to myself on my insurance company’s agreement that it was medically necessary, because I figured they’d be loathe to grant the approval unless it was.
After submitting to the humiliation of my first ever topless photo shoot and of being scrutinized, poked at, fondled, and discussed as if I were not there, I left the office and returned to the streets of Pacific Heights, where only 60 — rather than 100 — percent of the women around me thought injecting botulism into one’s face was cool. You know, back to reality.
I waited a few weeks, found out I’d been approved, and made an appointment to have the surgery. The day of the surgery things were a little less nauseating since we were at a regular medical facility rather than the beauty salon environment of my doctor’s own office. I don’t remember much about the whole thing except asking for my underwear the second I came to. I spent the entire day and night in the hospital in a morphine nod, intermittently noticing some show on television about lemurs and complaining that the stupid nurses kept coming in and messing with me too much.
I don’t think I’d realized beforehand how serious this surgery was. I couldn’t walk, couldn’t move my arms, couldn’t do shit for a whole day, and then had to spend two weeks at home on drugs with my mom and then-husband doing pretty much everything for me since my entire torso and both of my arms were useless unless I wanted to rip my internal stitches and suffer excruciating pain. The doctor wouldn’t let me shower for three goddamn days, which would have kept me from having the surgery in the first place had I known about it. (Seriously, I hang out in the shower all day. That was the worst torture I’ve ever endured.) But even when I could get in the shower, I needed help doing the simplest things. I was so incapacitated that I had to have people hand me things that were sitting a foot away from me, and I even had to have my mom wash my hair for me. Ridiculous.
I kept reminding myself the whole time that, once I had endured this nonsense, I’d be done with being in pain all day every day, but I still felt like I’d betrayed myself somehow, like I’d invited physiological injury on myself out of psychological weakness. I think that had something to do with the fact that I had two weeks to lie there and think about the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of women who endure exactly what I was enduring without the excuse of back pain, and I had plenty of time to doubt the decision I’d made once I was actually suffering the consequences of it. My doctor had given me a packet of papers, one of which discussed the psychological after-effects of cosmetic surgery. An all-purpose sheet, it lumped me in with everyone else, and helped me feel like I’d capitulated to fascistic beauty standards rather than chronic pain. It warned that pain, painkillers, and something called “post-op letdown” might make me doubt my decision, that unsupportive family members might bum my party out, but not to worry! Once I was up and about it’d all be good and everyone would see how awesome I looked! Party!
I really wish she’d made a separate sheet for people like me, maybe with some information about how our back pain would end once we’d recovered, because after I got off the Percoset and out of the house, and once I could pick up a book without crying from the pain, I decided I really had done the right thing, and that my mind had been playing tricks on me. My back doesn’t hurt anymore, my posture has returned to normal, and I can find cheap bras and clothes that actually fit me. But I told her to go with the least invasive surgery option, which meant I didn’t go that small, and that I still get stared at all the time. Oh well. At least now I really know I did it for the right reason and that I wasn’t just bullshitting myself.
So, I suppose all this means I’m qualified to discuss the ethical issues involved in the plastic surgery industry, which I’ll get to shortly.