“Have you ever thought of having a breast reduction?”
Those words were spoken to me as I was leaving a plastic surgeon’s office for a follow-up visit regarding a small subdermal cyst I had removed from my cheek 12 years ago. The absurdity of his question struck me then as it does now — I was not there to discuss anything remotely related to my breasts, yet the question was asked. The door to discuss my breasts was one I had not opened, but emboldened by the nature of his profession, this surgeon tried to push it open anyway.
I wasn’t so much surprised at the question as I was disappointed. I naively had the expectation that I could drive the discourse about my own body. My presence in a plastic surgeon’s office for the removal of stitches on my cheek was not an entrée to have him evaluate the rest of my body. Unfortunately, this is something that most women already know — female bodies get freely commented on and critiqued without invitation every day.
Of course, I had thought of having a breast reduction in the past, but that’s beside the point. I had all the usual complaints that lead one to have the surgery — it was difficult finding clothes that fit right, my bra straps dug into my shoulders, and I had varying levels of back and neck pain. Regardless, something kept holding me back from finally doing it. A breast reduction is a major surgery, and I wasn’t keen to rush into that. As the years passed, I began wearing a heavy-duty sports bra as my everyday bra. Approximately 5% of my body weight was breasts. I was unhappy and, moreover, I was uncomfortable.
This past summer, I reached a point where I was ready to finally go through with it. Once I made the decision, I told myself I would get it done as soon as possible so I couldn’t over think it any longer.
The task of finding the right surgeon seemed daunting to me. I began asking people “in the know” for surgeon recommendations — I got three or four names from my gynecologist and family friends. Interestingly, all of the plastic surgeons were men. In doing further online research, I was hard-pressed to find a female surgeon in the major metropolitan area I was living in that had a significant amount of experience, sufficient reviews online and, of course, that would accept my insurance. While I wasn’t concerned with the gender of the surgeon per se, I was concerned with finding a surgeon whom I felt was experienced, capable and, most importantly, saw his/her patients as actual people instead of just as interchangeable body parts.
Prior to setting up any appointments, I began perusing various plastic surgeons’ sites. All the sites were nearly identical in their presentation –— stock photography shots of (mostly white) twenty-something models with thin bodies and large augmented breasts. The women in the photos were almost always in their underwear, and they were all positioned in the same ways — head cocked to the side, caressing themselves with their eyes closed or staring seductively at the camera.
Of course, I wasn’t surprised to see these visual tropes on plastic surgery websites, but it was disheartening to see these sexualized, self-gazing portrayals on site after site after site. These surgeons were all conductors of the train I tried so hard to throw myself off of — they were peddling insecurity to women and filling their coffers in the process. How could I patronize an industry that was so anathema to me? These websites were born to sell illusion. I knew I didn’t want to play that game, but my choices seemed limited.
I started booking appointments with some surgeons hoping that their in-person presentation would counter the bad feeling I had from their websites. Unfortunately, things just got worse.
I left the appointment feeling like a person rather than as a body.
The first surgeon I interviewed was bizarrely insistent that I agree with him that my breasts were asymmetrical. When I told him I had never scrutinized my breasts to that degree, he seemed perplexed. It didn’t make sense to him that I had not been critical of my breast shape before, and I was equally as baffled as to why it was so important that I agree with him over such a minutia. He further disenchanted me by saying that if I lost any weight after the surgery and felt I was too small then I could just come back later and he would do an augmentation surgery for me. I looked at him stone-faced and said “No, that won’t be happening. That’s not how this works.” I left his office and never turned back.
A second surgeon struck me equally as odd. Despite good reviews, I raised an eyebrow when he chose to forego having a female chaperone in the room for the examination. This was typical practice with other surgeons who examine “sensitive areas,” as it protects the surgeon from being accused of inappropriate conduct and gives the patient extra peace of mind when being examined. If this surgeon was willing to cut corners by not having that chaperone in the room, I began to wonder what other common sense safeguards would be ignored during the surgery itself.
This seeming bad judgment was compounded by a certain dismissiveness in how he spoke about women. The women working in his office were “the girls,” and he couldn’t seem to answer general questions regarding the timeline of how soon the surgery could be scheduled after insurance approved it. I left realizing he had never even asked me what size I wanted to be. This was not going to be the surgeon for me either. He may have been an excellent surgeon, but my intuition kept giving me a hard “no”.
I crossed his name off my list and looked at surgeon #3. My hopes were soon dashed when I was told that he didn’t accept insurance for breast reductions, and I’d have to shell out $14,000 to have the surgery with him. His industry was vanity, and he likely had a booming business with enough people to pay for breast implants and facelifts that he didn’t need to bother with surgeries that were considered “medically necessary” versus cosmetic. I hung up and moved on. I wasn’t about to pay thousands of dollars for something that my insurance could cover.
I eventually met with a surgeon that I intuitively felt was the best match for me. While he didn’t have as many years’ experience as the other surgeons, his reviews were excellent, and he seemed compassionate. I liked that he volunteered his time in the past to perform surgeries on children with cleft palates and other malformations in less-developed countries. He was open to me giving him photos of how I wanted to look and, most importantly, I left the appointment feeling like a person rather than as a body.
We scheduled the surgery for August 2nd, and I was confident in my choice. The surgery itself was routine and inconsequential. I reported to the hospital at 6:15am, and I was home by 2:15pm after being in the operating room for three and a half hours. Fortunately, my recovery was easy — no nausea, no complications, two weeks off of work. My pain was no worse than a very bad sunburn. Now that I’m nearly three months post-op, I can say it’s a surgery I’m glad I had, and I am aesthetically and physically pleased with the results.
I was luckily met with kind praise and support from women I knew on Facebook when I announced I was getting the surgery. One acquaintance fervently exclaimed, “You’re my hero!” under my post. I couldn’t quite grasp what that meant exactly. This wasn’t heroic to me. Having a surgery was neither good nor bad in my view, but others seemed incredibly excited for me. Perhaps, though, the comment speaks to the greater issue of women taking ownership of their own bodies and that, in itself, has become “heroic” in a culture that often encourages women to please others, instead of themselves, with their appearance.
While many people choose to keep surgeries like this a secret, I made the decision that I was going to be quite open discussing it with anyone who was interested in learning more. To me, there is value in sharing this story with others considering the same surgery. Yes, the process of finding the right surgeon can take a while, and yes, it’s scary to think about such a big change. In the end, though, if you listen to your intuition and set your own path, you, too, will get to where you’re going with no regrets.
Jennifer Mintzer is a writer, filmmaker and professor of communication and media studies originally from the Philadelphia area. You can connect with her on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/jenmintzer.
Photo: Flickr/Ana Karen Garcia
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