Getting It Off My Chest
Heather S. Newman
I was fourteen when my obsession with breasts began. School was out for the summer and Cousin Cheryl from Houston was coming north to visit. It had been years since our last visit and I fantasized about our soon-to-be kinship, my new, bosom-buddy with whom I’d share secrets and sundaes. At the time I had a desperate crush on a neighborhood boy, Michael, who had kissed me in a dark closet at a spin-the-bottle party. It was a fluke that I attended any party, since I spent most of middle school writing sad poetry and songs; I was dreamy, not popular. Cheryl would be my social savior. Her letters described tales of mischief and boy-girl parties, and I couldn’t wait for the fun to begin.
Unfortunately, Cheryl’s idea of fun was to bond with my brother and his friends. Word spread like tumbleweed that everything was bigger and better in Texas. A platinum blonde with dairy cream skin and chocolate eyes, Cheryl’s Texas D’s rose high and proud like twin Astrodomes. An extreme opposite to stick-straight me, with earth-brown hair and everyday freckles. Michael, who had ignored me since the closet incident, became our frequent dinner guest. He composed a little ditty in Cheryl’s honor. “New Jersey has hills, but Texas has mountains.” Sure, I could play the piano, but Cheryl’s talent didn’t require practice; just throwing her shoulders back generated applause.
“You’re playin’ is sweet,” she’d say in her southern way, while looking around the corner for my brother. That sugary assessment was the limit of her conversation with me. Gone were her grand stories about sons of Texas oil tycoons. It was clear that Cheryl was the chosen goddess and I lacked both cup size and confidence. Later, I heard Cheryl hooked up with some of those oil men and earned her keep as an extortionist, but that’s a different story.
Eventually, I discovered the plus side of a small bust; I could run long-distance and became a high-school cross country star. My elevated status of varsity athlete gave me the nerve to invite the notorious “Dater” to the Candy Cane Ball, our high school “girl-asks-the-boy” dance. Charismatic and popular, the Dater was part of a crowd of witty, thespian seniors, and I, harboring theatrical aspirations, wanted in. The Dater sang Billy Joel, like I did, was carefree and confident, like I acted, and accepted my bold invitation. We were to double-date with my best friend Ruby, a curvy blonde, who dated a fascinating playwright (actually, a writer for the school paper, but in my world it was big.) Hoping to wow the Dater, I designed a dramatic, satin green gown and in the final fitting the dressmaker sewed thick pads into the bust.
I still remember sashaying down the stairs of our center hall colonial. There he was, the Dater, holding a gardenia wrist corsage just for me.
“Fancy dress,” he noted, while letting me pin a rose boutonniere to his jacket. We joined the Playwright, who was waiting in the Dater’s car, and all drove to pick up Ruby. She answered the door wearing a clingy, silver studded minidress.
“Wow,” the Dater said, whistling and eyeing her cleavage.”Thank God for cute blondes.”
Ruby giggled but I ignored her, certain someone as sophisticated as the Dater would prefer my subtle grace over Ruby’s obvious assets. Miraculously, the Dater became my boyfriend. All winter our foursome was inseparable. Utopia ended one spring day when my friend Jane decided that I needed to know the truth.
“Ruby’s been seeing the Dater behind your back,” Jane said. “We feel so sorry for you.” I was heartbroken, deceived by the Dater and my best friend, pitied by the rest. I shrunk as small as my AA bra.
In time I got over the Dater. College was wonderful and I made real friends. Despite gaining “freshmen ten” pounds from beer-chugging and late-night pizza, my tiny mamms remained just that. Boyfriends never said much about my breasts. I assumed it was because they had nothing nice to say. I resisted the urge to apologize, figuring men who liked me were not breast-men, anyway.
Rather than accept my flaw, I became an expert in camouflage. Clever bra contraptions, gel inserts and high necklines were the remedy to feeling angular and boyish underneath. After graduation, I landed a job in television and an apartment-share on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I wore trendy styles that focused on cool rather than sexy. My obsession was manageable.
Or so I thought.
Now here I am, thirty years later, blessed with a loving husband, healthy children, a beautiful home- and still plagued with body insecurity. Each morning when I step out of the shower, I look in the mirror and hate my flat chest. My husband John, an avid sports fan, appreciates my athletic build. But when his annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue arrives, I vacillate between ripping it to shreds and pouring over the pages of feminine perfection. Splashy island shots of bountiful, bikini-clad breasts remind me of what I lack.
With a secure bank account behind me and the worldwide web at my fingertips, I contemplate my deepest, darkest fantasy…what if I buy them? After the kids go to bed, I log on to Breast Implant chat room and talk the lingo of capsular contracture, fluffing, and bottoming out with a bunch of ladies who exchange naked pictures- a strange but exciting, new world.
I pour my heart out to friends who say my complaint is shallow and trivial. Who cares at this stage? My husband thinks I look fine, but says he’ll support whatever I want. I go to a psychotherapist and within minutes learn that she subscribes to the socially-correct rule of thought: breast size should not matter.
“How do you feel inside?” the therapist asks. She’s in her fifties with long, gray hair, no makeup, wearing Birkenstocks and a leather peace sign necklace.
“Fine, really.” I fear my tangy-tangerine toenails send the wrong message.
“Do you feel beautiful?”
“Attractive enough,” I say.
“Enough for yourself? Or your husband?”
Since I’m paying for this, I get to the point. “I think I’d be more attractive with a proportional bust line. I’m five inches wider on the bottom and I’m tired of clothes not fitting right. Padded bras crinkle up after the wash and I look scrawny in a bathing suit.”
“How we feel defines us. It’s not about exterior beauty.”
“I feel okay.”
“But do you feel beautiful?” The lady is persistent.
“Let’s face it. Aging with grace gets harder with every wrinkle.” The therapist doesn’t crack a smile.
“What kind of day makes you feel not-so-beautiful?”
“When I’m overdue for hair color. Mornings after too much wine. When the dog pees on the rug…”
She cuts me off. “How is your relationship with your children?”
“Great,”” I say. “Fun, lively, exhausting.”
“Tell me more about them.” She picks up her notebook and adjusts her glasses.
“The part about how great they are, or how the little devils sucked the life out of what little boobs I had?”
She frowns and says our time is up. “Before you go, I want you to think about why you came here. If you are exploring self esteem issues, I can help. But if you want to alter your body, I’m the wrong doctor.”
Damn it, I want boobs, even though boob jobs make me cringe. In my world plastic is for Tupperware, not body parts. I know breast augmentation won’t fix my problems, just my flat chest.
Somehow being a middle-aged mom has left me feeling deflated. While the kids depend on me for love, guidance, lunch money, rides, I bury myself in the minivan rush. Success is driving to travel-soccer games without getting lost and completing my family’s to-do list. Suburban gravity tugs as hard on my psyche as it does on my tiny, sagging breasts.
I decide to go for it. I hand over a hefty deposit to an experienced, female plastic surgeon, figuring another middle-aged woman will be sympathetic to my plight. As I sit, shaking my foot in her lavender-scented reception area, I wonder what all these ladies-in-waiting are in for; this one’s tummy, that one’s chin. Are they guessing it’s my breasts? Or would they suggest a nose job instead?
Dr. Lynn’s kind, low-key demeanor puts me at ease. She peruses my chart while her assistant clicks away. I stand half-naked, viewing my image on the mounted digital screen.
Good blood pressure, non-smoker; you’re an excellent candidate for surgery,” Dr. Lynn says.
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“According to records, your health is excellent.” She looks up at me. “Do you have concerns?”
“I mean, do you think I need implants?”
She hesitates. “Plastic surgery is a personal decision.”
“Some people like the flat-chested look. It can be a fashion statement.”
“You need to be sure about this. Are you?” She motions her photographer to stop.
“God knows I should be by now.” I stare at my freeze-framed chest. “But I’m scared.” I step toward the monitor to get a closer look. “They’re awful, aren’t they?”
“Why don’t you get dressed and we’ll meet in my office.” She quietly closes the door.
Dr. Lynn listens while I spend every dollar of our consultation time lamenting.
“I understand your concerns,” she says. “I will tell you that I had an augmentation ten years ago and I’m pleased with the results.”
“Really?” I try not to stare.
“No. But with any surgery, there are risks,” she says.
“I’m worried about what people will say.”
“Augmentation is one of the most popular elective surgeries. It’s more common than you think.”
“Really?” I look down at the packet she has given me, brimming with brochures, diagrams and consent waivers.
I wonder how my mother will react. “Am I too old to do this?”
“Absolutely not.” She stands and walks me to the door. “Look over the material carefully. We’ll hold the deposit until we hear from you.”
I read late into the night. The risks are low and according to statistics, I should be another happy customer. I jump out of bed the next morning and book the surgery.
But soon my elation spins to dizziness. Elective surgery. Have I lost my mind? I’m healthy and nothing’s wrong except that I covet every breast that bounces by. How can I justify surgery for vanity? Is this worth any risk? One night I wake up screaming, having dreamt that my new, left breast looks odd colored, long and thin; it turns out to be a zucchini. After an exhausting few weeks I cancel, saying it’s the best money I ever lost.
Punishment begins with twenty-five push-ups, fifty sit-ups, relentless kickboxing. Followed by road races, mountain biking, triathlons. Pilates to relax. In a community where being thin is worshipped, I am a success. Two years worth of trophies and ribbons pay homage to my decision.
Ironically, the sit-ups cause an umbilical hernia, outing my innie. My belly button combined with a benign biopsy scar and a protruding breastbone from childbirth makes my chassis resemble the runway at JFK. I begin to consider implants not a vanity, but a necessity.
This time I’m ready. I’m uncomfortable calling Dr. Lynn given my cancelation history, so I start fresh and chose a surgeon my girlfriends from the gym call the Boob Fairy. Word is he’s the best around. Dr. Andrews’ elegant office boasts marble floors, plush upholstery and huge wall murals of glistening, tanned bodies.
“Dr. Andrews will see you now.” I trail behind the chic receptionist’s
stilettos to an office plastered with diplomas, black and white glossies and fashion magazine covers. I look at the models and wonder if he did their breasts. “Can I get you a Pellegrino, or a latte?”asks the receptionist.
“Nothing, thanks.” I clutch my notebook and make a mental note to ask about the surgeon’s malpractice record. I intend to be thorough.
Dr. Andrews enters and, as he grasps my hand, I turn away from his intense, sky-blue gaze. The gym girls failed to mention the Boob Fairy is handsome, uncomfortably handsome. The thought of disrobing for him is nauseating.
He talks, but I miss what he’s saying. I consider bolting, feigning a stomachache- not a stretch, given my nerves- but I remember that this man can give me what I want. His smooth, baritone covers everything and by the time he asks if I have questions, my mind is a blank. All I know is that this man, surrounded by so much beauty, can do no wrong.
“Terrific. Let’s take photos.” Like a Hollywood idol, he exits on cue. Brianna, an Irish nurse, leads me to the private photo room. She jokes and laughs and I am grateful for her disarming charm in the Boob Fairy’s absence.
“Oh, you’re built like me,” she says, as I turn left, then right, arms spread like a cross. “You’re going to look amazing. I wish I could afford it myself.”
I am embarrassed by her confession, yet I feel the urge to explain. “I’ve struggled with this for so long. It seems selfish.”
“You’re not alone. Many women feel that way.” I look closely at her and see it’s not rhetoric. She cares.
“You’re from Ireland,” I say.
“Dublin,” she says.
“I’m half Irish,” I say.
Her green eyes register delight. “All the better then.”
We spend an hour talking religion, marriage, philosophy. We agree that guilt and fear keep women from making smart choices. We agree that marriage is hard work and happiness is earned. We agree that kids are over scheduled, yet we’re the ones to blame. We believe in fate, which seems to have delivered the nurturer I seek.
The pre-surgery month whirls with preparation: follow-up appointments, organizing carpools and household help for post-surgery, adapting a homeopathic vitamin regime. Brianna talks me through the process and becomes not just my nurse, but a friend.
The night before surgery a mean, red rash rages on my torso. It can’t be stress because, for once, I am calm. I call Brianna. She tells me to get some rest and go to the hospital in the morning as planned. The hospital will determine the safety.
I believe in signs and this one is glaring. I am disappointed, yet oddly relieved, when the hospital cancels the surgery due to medical complications. The decision is out of my hands. John, who has been awfully patient, catches the train to work and I drive home alone.
Tests later reveal a harmless but unattractive skin condition, just another odd turn of events in my ongoing body drama.
My friends urge me to get over this obsession. “What if you had gotten that rash after surgery? You would have blamed it on the implants,” says a friend. Another adds, “It’s not meant to be.” Even my husband suggests that I move on.
When Brianna calls to reschedule surgery, I say I’ve reconsidered.
This time I take the cerebral approach and read with a vengeance, living for monthly book club meetings where I derive vicarious pleasure from my fictional friends’ problems, far worse than my own. I sneer at women with fake breasts, proud of resisting the easy way out. Everyone agrees. Such manufactured contentment. At least my unhappiness is real.
At a charity luncheon I overhear a woman, whose intellect and altruism is well-respected, talk about her recent plastic surgery. She looks great and, from the sound of it, feels even better. “You rarely regret what you do in life,” she explains to another, “but often regret what you don’t.”
I demand an honest opinion from John, who has been positive throughout.
He quotes Nike in return.. “Just do it.” It’s his win-win attitude that gets me. “You can always take ‘em out,” he adds.
Is it sarcasm I detect, or just weariness from supporting a discontented wife? Whether it’s indecision or obsession, guilt or fear, there’s no doubt I’ve wasted countless hours over-thinking and over-analyzing this.
I can’t resist a cliche in return. “True. And I’m good at making mountains out of molehills.”
I schedule surgery for the end of the summer when the kids will be at sleep-away camp, when I’ll have three weeks of air-conditioned, quiet healing time. Time passes without event. Brianna checks in regularly. I force myself to think as little as possible.
The morning of surgery, John and I arrive at the hospital at six sharp. After signing a waiver and checking in, a nurse appears in the pre-op room.
“I’m Susan, your nurse.” She sets up the I.V.
“She had to fly to Ireland for a family emergency.”
I focus on yoga breathing. It’s fate. Brianna needs to be with her family. I am here, where I should be. John, steady as ever, holds my hand.
The Boob Fairy makes his grand entrance, humming and looking jovial.
“We have a few sizes to try on during surgery. I’ll make sure you look good,” he says.
“Not too big?”
“Tasteful. Not fake, right?”
“You’re a runner. You’ll still look like a runner. Don’t worry.” He looks at his watch. “Are we ready?” Susan inserts the I.V. and I see the anesthesiologist overhead. I’m not sure what they’re putting in, but I pray it’s strong.
As they wheel me in, all my insecurities gush out. I’m cutting up my body, slicing into breasts that nursed my children. I could die. Why am I letting the Boob Fairy decide my size? I’m Raggedy Anne and Prince Andy is about to prop me up and stuff big water balloons into my chest. I wonder if this is a panic attack. Or some paranoid disorder.
The surgery room is steel grey and icy, but rocks in stereo to Grand Funk Railroad. It’s a scene from a Grade B Halloween movie, ghoulish characters donning freakish masks and white cloaks. Boob Fairy appears to be jamming.
“She’s some kind of wonderful,” he belts. “She’s some kind of wonderful.”
“Give me the waiver!” I scream. Boob Fairy continues singing. I shout louder. “Change. The. Waiver.”
The music stops and I feel myself melting into the metal bed. My voice echoes around me.
Nurse Susan’s eyes widen as she leans down toward me. “Don’t you want to do this?”
I know the drugs are making me crazy, but I’m clearheaded enough to speak. “I want this. Just don’t try sizes on me. Give me the small implants, please.”
Boob Fairy nods his head. “Not to worry. We’ll go with the small implants.”
I close my eyes. “Thanks.”
I wake, chest wrapped in gauze, without pain. Dr. Andrews floats above. “You did great. Perfect surgery. See you tomorrow.”
I’m lined up on a stretcher next to other recoverers, and all is peaceful but for the shuffling of doctors and nurses. I hear John’s voice before falling off into another nap.
“You woke up from anesthesia smiling,” says Nurse Susan.
“Really?” I look down at my feet in the little blue booties. “I’m glad it’s over.”
“I’m sure.” She takes my blood pressure. “I’ll be back to review everything before release.”
My husband drives home with caution, tucks me into bed, and I spend two days resting between painkillers. I prepare for the pain to get awful, the remorse to kick in, but it never does. My easy recovery feels like a gift.
On day three, I unveil in the privacy of my bathroom, while John is out. I’m not sure how ugly the scars will look, and I hate to complain.
I remove the supportive bra to reveal two proportioned, natural-looking breasts, perfectly sized. It’s amazing how normal they look so soon after surgery.
. I peek under the bandages. The scars are barely visible. Thin, pink lines run along the crease under my breasts. Dr. Andrews is a miracle-worker. They look like the breasts I always wanted, gently curved but fully feminine. Not voluptuous, swimsuit-issue material, but right for me. I’ll never think of them as fake. They’re all mine. I feel beautiful inside and out.
The phone rings and I recognize Brianna’s Irish lilt.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be there. How’d it go?” she asks.
“Simple.” I spare her the theatrics of surgery day. “I feel like I’m waking from a weird dream. I built this surgery up to be bigger than it is.”
“Give yourself credit. It was big,” she says. “So, how do they look?”
“Unbelievable. Fabulous…” I search for a better adjective to describe my delight.
“Brianna, I should have done this years ago.”
“You did it now,” she says, “and that’s enough.”
Brianna’s right. It is enough. I realize this is the end of a long, tiresome journey. Suddenly, I don’t care what people think. I know what I did was right.
Turns out few people, not even my kids, notice the small additions, but my quiet victory is huge. I sing out loud as I jog, welcoming a bit of bounce to my stride.
Three years after surgery, I rarely think about breast size. My implants are just another part of me. Have I taken luck for granted? The thrill of having new breasts has disappeared…isn’t this often the case with possessions? But what remains is a steady confidence. I look in the mirror and like my body. The guilt I experienced while contemplating elective surgery was strong. But I was steeped in self-hatred and self-pity. How healthy were those feelings?
Consumed with fear, I worried about people’s perceptions, the surgery, the aftermath. Although my implants are fine now, ruptures and complications can occur and often require surgery. I would do it over again.
It’s liberating to tell perfect strangers at lingerie counters about my ordeal, how changing bra size, though insignificant or pathetic to some, has been miraculous for me. Like women before me who burned their bras for entirely different reasons, I’ve discovered my own measure of beauty, defined my own happiness, all at my own pace.
Heather Stewart Newman is a mother of two teenagers in suburban New Jersey.
Although she held production positions in advertising and television for
fifteen years, her passion is musical theater, and she loves to sit down at
the piano with friends and belt out show tunes. Heather recently found her
voice writing memoir and has been published in “Two Hawks Quarterly.” An
avid skier, triathlete and gym rat, she ran New York City marathon at fifty
and looks forward to more “fifties firsts.” She hopes to sit still long
enough to write a novel, and escapes to her peaceful, Vermont mountain home
Heather can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org