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"I’ve never been the pretty girl." What it's really like to have breast reduction surgery.

I sat inside the Victoria’s Secret dressing room, topless and humiliated. On the other side of my dressing room door, my friends squealed about all the cute, lacy bras they were getting from the semi-annual sale. Feeling freakish and ugly because I couldn’t stuff my breasts into the DDs — the biggest bras in the store — I sat on the floor and bawled, sure there was nothing I could do about it.

I’ve never been the pretty girl. My mum and best friend would object, but they know it’s true. The ‘smart one’, the ‘hip one’, the ‘crazy one’ — sure, but never pretty. I didn’t hit puberty until ninth grade, but then it came all at once. My completely flat chest ballooned to a C almost overnight. My friends said I was so lucky, and by my sophomore year of college, I was 5 feet 2 inches (1.57 metres) and 36DDD. I envied those who could wear skimpy tops, buy bathing suits from the mall, and even go braless.

No matter how many layers I wore, when I walked by shop windows, I’d see my chest bouncing by in the reflection. I walked a lot, and almost daily, men would make lewd comments and gestures at me out of car windows. I learned to cross my arms across my chest and pretend to ignore the calls of “hey baby” and “hey slut”.

Team Mamamia Out Loud discuss the feminist implications of a society that is entirely preoccupied with women’s looks:

Video by MMC

But even when it came to the good guys in my life, there were problems. I found myself apologising to boyfriends for my disproportionate body and insisting on undressing in the dark. Each of them told me I was beautiful, but I couldn’t see it, and I didn’t feel it.

Yes, there were days of horrible back pain. Yes, my posture was atrocious, because the weight kept me from standing up straight. But those things weren’t on my mind when my mother called to suggest the surgery — when she told me there might be a solution. I had never heard of breast reduction surgery, so when she told me about it, I cried tears of joy. Suddenly, I had hope that I might someday feel comfortable, or maybe even beautiful, in my own skin.

My mum took me to a plastic surgeon, where I was first shown a video about reduction mammaplasty, commonly known as breast reduction surgery. The video’s aim seemed to be to scare away anyone who wasn’t 100 per cent sure they wanted the surgery. The risks were emphasised more than the benefits, even though breast reduction has one of the highest patient satisfaction rates of any cosmetic surgery.

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I met the doctor in a small exam room. My mum stayed with me as he took my measurements and a female assistant snapped some “before” photos. The doctor was professional and gentle, asking me about my expectations and answering all of my questions.

He said I was an excellent candidate for a breast reduction and lift, but my insurance wouldn’t pay unless enough tissue was taken out to put me at a low B or even smaller. I wanted a full B to low C, so my parents and I decided we’d pay for it without the help of insurance. I am so thankful we were privileged enough to do that.

The doctor checked in with me to make sure I was happy with my size choice — “You don’t want to go too small,” he said — but the only regret I could imagine was if I didn’t go small enough. Small sounded fantastic. We also discussed areola size, because, with a keyhole-shaped incision, I got to have my areolas trimmed down to match my new breast size.

After looking through my doctor’s portfolio of before and after photos, I was sure I wanted to go through with the surgery. A date was set — December 19 — so I would have enough time to convalesce before spring semester began. To prepare, I lost a little weight and told all of my friends I was going under the knife. Plenty of the guys tried to dissuade me. “Bigger is better,” they said, echoing a social norm that had never fit my own experience. My female friends cheered me on, though, and some were even jealous.

I hadn’t realised how many people I knew who also felt out of place in their own bodies.

“I woke up to a nurse yelling frantically, ‘She’s crying! Why is she crying?'”

The last thing I remember saying before the anesthesia took me to la la land was “Ooh fancy,” as they wheeled me into the big, shiny operating room.

I had never so much as broken an arm before, so the entire surgery experience was new to me. I understood that for sanitary purposes, all jewellery had to be removed, but I still pouted when they cut off a friendship bracelet from my best friend. The doctor had drawn black lines on my chest to mark where the incisions would be and to ensure symmetry. He said he’d do his best to keep my milk ducts intact, giving me a 50/50 chance of being able to breastfeed someday.

I woke up from my 5.5-hour surgery to a nurse yelling frantically, “She’s crying! Why is she crying?” It must have been from the pain. All I wanted was a drink of water and all I could say was, “Where is my underwear?” I knew I hadn’t taken it off myself. A nurse sat with me, feeding me ice and telling me the surgery had gone off without a hitch.

If insurance had paid, I’d be staying overnight, but since it didn’t, my parents took me home to sleep the rest of the day away. As they helped me stand up in the recovery room, I felt a pull and learned what a urinary catheter was. Ew.

I threw up four times that night. I needed to take my antibiotics and narcotic pain relievers with food, but the nausea made even a cracker hard to swallow. I couldn’t lift my arms without surges of pain. My parents were afraid I’d cheat and take the pain relievers too often, so despite my protests, they insisted on controlling the medication and doling it out every six hours. Sleeping on my back was no picnic, and I even had to sleep sitting up for the first few weeks.

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The morning after my surgery, my parents drove me to my doctor’s office so he could change my dressings — or as I liked to call them, “my first tube top.” My parents let me lean on them as I struggled from the car to the office.

My doctor started to unwrap my bandages, and as the pressure was taken off my chest, I felt faint. I got woozier and woozier until I looked down, saw the bloody blue, red, yellow, black and purple mess that was my chest and passed out right there in the doctor’s chair. When I came to, he told me that passing out was normal. He wrapped me back up, told me I could take the new bandages off to shower in three days, and sent me on my way back home to more sleep, drugs, pain and Ritz crackers.

I would’ve gone crazy without my friends. Two days post-op, I was ready for visitors. My ex-boyfriend came and brought me a Shins record and the most careful hugs ever. Another friend brought mint chocolate vegan ice cream, which I felt way too sick to eat. She stayed to watch Titanic with me and reminisce about our huge crushes on Leonardo DiCaprio. The times I was alone were the worst. There wasn’t much to do besides sleep and watch TV. Lifting a book was too painful, and standing up was a chore.

The recovery process seemed never-ending. Five days post-op, I went back to the doctor to have the tape on my stitches removed. It didn’t hurt too bad, compared to all the other pain. He had used dissoluble stitches, so I never had to get them removed. With time, they just disappeared. I stopped the narcotics and switched to Panadol after three weeks, but I had to sleep on my back, avoid lifting anything heavy and give extremely careful hugs for two months.

On Valentine’s Day, a close guy friend took me out to dinner at The Top, one of my favourite restaurants. I shed my huge pink convalescent robe and wore a new low-cut, spaghetti-strap dress. I couldn’t believe I fit into it. I looked in the mirror and told myself, “You are a pretty girl.”

I threw up four times that night. I needed to take my antibiotics and narcotic pain relievers with food, but the nausea made even a cracker hard to swallow. I couldn’t lift my arms without surges of pain. Image: Getty.
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All the pain was worth it. From the very first aching day, I felt that a weight (literally!) had been lifted off my chest.

There was one scary summer day when I found a pus-filled, purple lump on my right breast. My mum called the doctor while I lay dizzy and topless on the bathroom floor. It turns out, one stitch hadn’t dissolved properly, and was making its own way out of my skin. It was horribly frightening, but a few days later, the incident was practically forgotten.

Eventually, my breasts settled into their shape: perky. The scars will be there forever, but they faded a lot, thanks to daily applications of cocoa butter. (Always smelling like chocolate was a nice perk.)

My posture straightened up immediately, adding an entire inch to my height. Being able to move without bouncing allowed me to feel comfortable being much more active. I walk (and almost never get catcalled), do yoga, and swim (in a pink and black striped bikini that actually fits). I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been, and I almost never wear a bra. Yes, I still have days where I judge my body, but mostly I feel pretty; I feel sexy; I feel strong.

Sometimes I just look at myself in the mirror and smile. I want that for everyone.

I used to feel judgmental when I heard someone got plastic surgery. But I no longer do, and I’m sorry that it took having my own plastic surgery experience for me to get to this place of acceptance. We all deserve to do whatever we need to do to feel okay in our bodies.

Yes, we also definitely need to combat social pressures that often lead to us thinking poorly about our bodies in the first place. But even if you could somehow remove societal pressures, it’s so hard to be told all the time to love the body you have, when that body is something you didn’t choose.

I had the chance to choose. And I’m so happy with my decision.

Note: I had my breast reduction when I was 20 years old, and I wrote this story about it before I became a mother. I’m still very glad I got my breast reduction surgery when I did, but I do want to mention that it definitely did affect my nursing journey. I write about that in this story, 'My mum friends saved my life'.

This article was originally published in Fearless She Wrote on Medium and has been republished here with full permission. You can read more from Darcy Reeder on Medium at her author profile, here.

Darcy Reeder writes about feminism, sexuality, parenting, and culture. When she's not at the beach with her kid, she publishes in Human Parts, Scary Mommy, Gen, and Raise Vegan. Follow her on MediumTwitter, and Instagram.
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