The Feminist Case for Breast Reduction

When I told her story for the first time, I came across a warm bath as the steam rose around me. My voice echoed against the tiled walls. It felt like a kind of christening, naming my words that had never existed before I spoke it and that naming had finally made mine.

It was a bizarre sensation, to look at my breasts for the last time. There would have been some of the same tissue, yes, and a new nipple cut from the old one, but the breasts I had spent so many years wishing different, their particular weight, would have gone forever. In the surgical theater, the body is sacred only to its inhabitants. It did sneak up on me, the strange feeling of sacredness, as my surgeon squeezed and measured and scrawled on my breasts with a marker on the morning of my surgery.

When I had my earlobes sewn up at 32, I didn’t feel a thing – not physically or emotionally – until I was up and looking down at the metal tray of tools beside my surgical bed, where the little gray lumps of my earlobes still lay, like two chewed pieces of gum. “Oops,” said the surgical assistant. “I didn’t mean to let you see those.” She folded them in green paper that lined the tray, which she then crumpled and threw in the steel waste bin. It tugged into something, maybe my body’s basic instinct to keep itself intact. I suddenly wished I had asked to keep them. On the morning of my breast surgery, I was glad I didn’t have to see my discarded parts thrown in the trash.

I was also glad for the sweet nurses, with their impeccably made-up faces and lilting voices. I was used to being in the majority-female spaces, but these were often full of feminists, queers and trans and nonbinary people. The surgeon’s office was unabashedly feminine and steeped in the cozy assumption that everyone who had entered the same page about beauty – how to define it and make sure they wanted it. Every time I stepped off the elevator, I felt like an interloper. If they had glimpsed my hairy legs, I would have felt guilty, exposed as a feminist Judas in deep cover.

I found it an oddly comfortable space. The implicit consensus precluded any tension in the atmosphere, and I found I had no desire to challenge the doctor when he said things like, “They’re going to be so much more perkier and more youthful,” or when one of the nurses squeezed. My wife’s shoulder and promised her, “You’re going to love them!”

Which is all to say that the culture of cosmetic-surgery offices, and perhaps the industry as a whole, aligns with the second-wave feminists’ take: An endorsement is not only of patriarchal beauty standards, but of patriarchal social structure. I understand the temptation to extend this assessment to the patients who are electing to be in the industry. But while writing this essay, I spoke to a number of self-proclaimed feminists who felt no loss or regret about their surgeries – from thigh lifts to tummy tucks to vaginoplasty. Over all, the prevailing emotion was one of triumph and pleasure. It seems clear to me now that any feminist position on cosmetic surgery that does not take women’s relationships into their own bodies into account actually objectifies them.

I ‘m hated my body For years, felt both obscured and exposed by it, and subjected it to many acts that others wanted irrespective of my desires. These cumulative burdens had consumed an inestimable amount of time and energy. In large part, they had defined my relationship to myself. All the years of therapy and recovery and writing and reading and conversations with friends had changed. I no longer hated my body. My experience in the world is no longer felt so defined by my corporeal form. To physically change my body felt like an important way to concretize that work. It was not, as some might assume, a substitution for psychological change but rather a physical consummation that had already taken place: a ritual commemorating my reclamation of my body, once and for all. I didn’t want it to be a subtle process.

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