Edited by Kathryn Hummel
Do my boobs look big in this? The truth is, my boobs always look big. Regardless of what I wear. I have big boobs. Bazoombas. They just grew there. Prolifically.
Living in the world while wearing large breasts is not for the faint-hearted.
There’s the bounce factor. The under-boob sweat rash (which, living in the tropics, is continual). The irritation from underwires. The shoulder indentations from wide bra straps. The stress on the neck and upper back.
Worst of all, my breasts are relentless stare attractors. Men just can’t help looking at them.
I never leave the house without considering my boobs and their prominence.
Wearing a T-shirt? Need the minimiser bra.
Any clothing with a high neckline make them stick out like… well, big boobs. But a v-neck or button-down shirt accentuates cleavage. Either way, there’s no escape. I lead with my E-cup chest.
Spandex and lycra are my friends. With them I can swim and dance and generally move without hitting myself in the eye. A sporty crop top gives me a homogenous ‘boob shelf’, while racer-back bathers squash and streamline my breasts for lap swimming. Regardless of what I wear, whither I go, they goest. And they always goest first.
I thought about all this — my lifetime of strapping and squashing and being continually aware of not only my boobs, but of others’ reaction to them. The unasked-for and dreaded grabs, leers, yells of ‘Show us yer tits!’ from vehicles — over the years these all have become something I feel responsible for. If these things happen, I know I have failed in my attempts to make my boobs less prominent. It’s hard not to blame yourself when the reactions, mostly from men, to my natural body are so predictably degrading.
Thus it was with a frisson of amusement that I followed a recent Twitter thread in which women were encouraged to write a description of themselves in the way male writers so often write women. I tried it for myself:
‘Her ample bosoms preceded her by some distance. Slim of waist, nonetheless her top half unwittingly brushed against furniture and people in any tight spot. Her brassiere dug into her skin, leaving indentations around her back and under her arms, hoiking the breasts in front into their individual slings, where they frequently bulged out the top of the cup, giving a distinct ‘double breasted’ appearance… and by that I don’t mean as in a stylish suit!’
Yes, I’m making fun here, but in my case there’s even more to it. My big boobs have undergone a revolution and have changed over time in ways I could never have predicted.
I have lived with the autoimmune disease Rheumatoid Arthritis (which I prefer to call Rheumatoid Disease, as arthritis is just one part of it) since the age of twenty. As with many autoimmune disorders, RD affects women three times as often as men. I identify as disabled due to the ongoing pain I endure and the permanent damage the disease has caused to my body’s functionality.
When slim and fit and thirty-something, I could squeeze my already ample boobs into a large C cup, but now I’m a bit older — and a lot larger.
Before the current crop of (life changing) medications, RD treatments were not particularly effective. It was more of a crapshoot and the years of trialling different drugs — including cytotoxics, sulphur based, antimalarial, gold by injection, anti-inflammatories, disease-modifiers and piles of pain killers — did little to halt the progression of the disease.
As a result, I have permanent deformities in the small joints of my hands, wrists, ankles and feet and all of this severely restricts what I can do on a daily basis. One drug that did help during these years was prednisolone, a type of steroid therapy that is hugely effective against inflammation, or flare ups. Severe asthmatics will recognise it as a first port of call during a life-threatening attack as it works quickly and effectively. Using it for an RA flare is a ‘magic bullet’: it provides fast relief in the short term, but its long-term side-effects are formidable.
I took prednisolone for a decade for symptomatic relief and was grateful for it. But when more effective drugs that treated the actual inflammatory process became available, I began to wean off it. This is a long process that in my case took two years, slowly dropping the dose in small increments from 10 mg a day to eventually none. Now I keep a supply of prednisolone on hand but only rarely need to take some, usually after over-exertion, or if I have to keep to a particularly busy schedule that cannot be avoided and require my body to be able to push on. When I do use it, it provides the relief I need.
Prednisolone has also given me some other unwanted ‘gifts’: early stage osteoporosis while only in my forties (osteopenia), weight gain, increased facial hair, chalky teeth that break off in pieces, Cushing’s syndrome (the dreaded ‘steroid fat face’ that, thankfully, eased after I stopped taking it), and, most obvious of all, abnormal breast growth.
Even though I’ve been many years off steroids, at 68 kilograms I wear a size 12 to 14 bra with E cups. My top half is two full sizes larger than my bottom half. All my life I’ve been described, variously, as ‘well-endowed’, ‘top heavy’, and ‘buxom’ — and that was before steroids. Seriously, only the smallest-breasted woman who naively dreams of being larger could ever possibly imagine being described in these terms as complimentary.
For two and a half decades I was heavily involved in writing, publishing and performing my own poetry and spoken word pieces. During the 1980s and 90s I read and performed my work all over Australia and at one point coordinated a tour of the American Midwest with a small group of Australian poets, accompanied by my American partner. In that period, ordinary people were just beginning to access plastic surgery to correct perceived faults; I wrote ’my sister has a new set of breasts’ in response to the increasing normalisation of plastic surgery being inflicted on perfectly healthy, functional bodies. My poem poses the question: ‘If our bodies aren’t perfect in the way society envisions, are we therefore unloveable?’
A lot of people read and/or heard this piece over the years. Here, now, I face up to my own decision to go ahead with the dreaded ‘Boob Job’, that is, breast reduction surgery. To say I am scared is an understatement, but I haven’t been braless, besides to sleep, since the age of thirteen and, frankly, I am tired of carrying these heavy breasts around; tired of the bodily restrictions they impose and tired of feeling like my most prominent feature is a set of humongous breasts. I want to be known for my words, my mind, my creative output, my kindness to others, my capacity for yoga — anything but my breasts. Still, I posed the question to the women in my online writers’ group. Am I a hypocrite? Does doing this negate the body positive message ‘my sister has a new set of breasts’ sought to convey?
There have been varying responses:
— that a person is allowed to change their mind about something over time;
— that the size of my breasts has been artificially inflated due to my drug treatment so it stands to reason I would seek a surgical remedy;
— that my body is my own and I can do whatever I like with it and that embracing this freedom is, in actual fact, a feminist action;
— that my body-positive message still stands, regardless of my personal choices, because it is our patriarchal society that only accepts certain types of bodies as ‘normal’ that has led me to this decision. If this was not the case, we’d all be seeking to look like the Venus of Willendorf instead of desiring the prepubescent boy body shapes we’ve long seen revered as ideal by that ridiculous maker of garments for aliens: the fashion industry.
(Sometimes I am so grateful for the sisterhood!)
I am going ahead. In three weeks I fly out alone to Thailand for breast reduction surgery. I am feeling both excited and terrified. I envision the types of clothes I’ll finally be able to wear after a lifetime of avoiding any clothing that might draw attention to my chest. I imagine what it will feel like to no longer have to squash and bind myself into a physical form that hides the true size of my boobs. I might even be able to go braless without attracting attention. I look forward to buying a swimsuit that fits both parts of my body, top and bottom.
I signed up with an agency I’d found online that specialises in low-cost plastic surgery. They organised everything from accommodation to surgeons, hospital rooms to pain relief. They sent me a welcome pack that told me everything I needed to know about getting by in Thailand, right down to descriptions of common foods, essential phrases, tipping etiquette, how to avoid being abducted and photographs of banknotes. They have checked in with me frequently and been available at all times. I couldn’t be happier with the service.
On January 21 I boarded a direct Thai Airlines flight from Brisbane to Bangkok, which took around 9 hours. As I could feel my anxiety building, I popped a Valium to keep my physical responses under control. The flight was pleasant and uneventful. As soon as I exited the plane I was met by a porter with a wheelchair, who whisked me through immigration and customs and saved me from what would have been a gruellingly long walk for someone in my condition. He dropped me off at the arranged meeting place and within the hour I was met by a representative of the hospital and taken to my hotel. The next morning, I was collected and taken to the hospital to meet with the surgeon.
I had chosen my surgeon, Dr C, out of more than a dozen available based on his considerably lower quoted price, a couple of glowing testimonials from other reduction patients (far fewer than augmentation clients, the surgery being much more extensive and risky), and because he had done his postgraduate study in plastic and reconstructive surgery in Melbourne, my original hometown. Also, I felt he had a kind face.
Two beautiful Thai nurses sat in on the consultation to translate. Via them, I explained the connection between steroids and my current predicament, that I was a Melbourne native, and that his studies there had influenced my choice of him as my surgeon. Then I stood topless and mildly embarrassed before them all as the surgeon weighed each breast with his hands, kneaded them about to get a sense of their underlying structural integrity and then drew fat blue texta lines all over my chest, lines that indicated either reference or actual incision points. I was given a quote on the spot, less ten percent. I asked if this was the ‘Melbourne Discount’ and we all laughed.
I signed a multitude of consent forms and from there another nurse took me on foot through a series of tests — blood typing and mandatory HIV screening, a chest X-Ray and an ECG. Then she took me to the cashier’s counter where I paid for everything upfront. I signed my belongings into the secure area, was given a plastic ticket for reclamation and was taken to my private hospital room where I was showered, disinfected, shaved and dressed for surgery. I was quizzed about whether I wanted to pay extra for a state-of-the-art pain control method, involving a button I could push up to four times an hour to deliver morphine on demand, at a cost of 3,000 Thai Baht (about AUD130). Of course I said yes, signed more consent forms and scanned my credit card. I had an intravenous line inserted into my hand and lay in the bed waiting for the gurney to come and collect me. The operation would take three hours.
There was a loud moaning sound in the room — it took me a moment to realise it was coming from me. We were back in my private room and the pain I was in was intense as six people transferred me from gurney to hospital bed. I received instruction on how to use the morphine pump and drifted into a netherworld from which I wouldn’t emerge for several days. My body and my life had, I knew, for better or worse, been forever changed.
If Dante had been born a 20th century woman, I’d wager he would have added ‘shopping for bras at Target’ to his Circles of Hell. People often cite shopping for swimsuits as one of the most humiliating dressing room scenarios — but having big bazoombas and trying to fit yourself with a low priced bra shits all over that on the humiliation and self-loathing scale. Tiny fitting rooms with fluorescent lighting and wall-to-wall mirrors highlighted the impossibility of fitting into a maximum selection of three brassieres, chosen by cup size and with numerous sliding adjustments on the straps. If the first three didn’t fit, you had to get dressed all over again, return the original three to their hangers (an art in itself), return the hangers to their correct positions and choose three more to try on. Finding one that actually fitted and was almost comfortable to wear felt like winning the lottery, though reaching this elusive goal required several dressings and undressings. For me, with the added difficulty of Rheumatoid Disease, the routine was often too much. Just getting there on my damaged foot joints was a challenge at any time. Especially during a flare, reversing my shoulders enough to hook up my own bra was almost impossible; more often than not I would hobble away empty-handed. I could, of course, have tried a more up-market department store, where there is some service from fitting specialists, but that always involved paying at least three times as much: people with chronic illness just don’t have that kind of money to squander.
Things were different when I was young. Being a ‘change of life baby’ meant my mother was much older than the mothers of any of the kids I knew; her fashion choices were also much more old-fashioned. My habitually well-upholstered mother would drag me along as she shopped for foundation garments in tiny specialty boutiques that were a cross between a doctor’s surgery and a department store fitting room. These garments were fitted by stern, no-nonsense women, presumably trained as nurses, who used the moniker ‘Sister’ and wore proper nursing attire. The Sisters emerged from tiny rooms at the back of the stores with their measuring tapes hanging around their necks, prepared to enact the private women’s business of fitting the unruly female body into what I’ve always thought of as a ‘torpedo bra’: the type in which the breasts were squashed into a pre-existing 1950s-style silhouette that shaped them into something resembling twin rockets. The garments had wide shoulder straps and a thick many-hooked back section with three settings to accommodate fluctuations in the wearers’ weight and/or the garment’s elasticity after repeated washings. Its main body was comprised of a thick, satin-like material stretched over a rigid structure of metal ‘bones’, all overlaid with that epitome of feminine frippery, lace. It had elasticised hooks at the bottom that attached to the corset, which was a similarly rigid carapace for the midsection; this also had elaborate attachments dangling from the bottom through which one hooked the tops of stockings. Over all this was worn a large pair of ‘granny panties’. Once the fitted garments were chosen, Sister would wrap them up in brown paper like a slightly shameful secret, tied with a length of string so the parcel could be carried by hooking it over the wearer’s wrists.
This way of creating a female silhouette wasn’t much remarked upon by my peers, most of whom I doubt had ever even witnessed it. Yet I clearly remember the spark of recognition I felt upon reading, in Enid Bagnold’s classic novel National Velvet, a description of Velvet’s mother’s morning routine, which involved forcing her voluptuous body into the confines of boned garments that greatly resembled my own mother’s. From the young Velvet’s point of view, we saw sagging folds of female flesh made to conform to a structured, manufactured ideal. This was the moment that cemented in my mind just how wide a generation gap existed between my mother and me. National Velvet was a decades-old book by this time and if I hadn’t been such an avid devourer of stories, my tatty copy may have never been read. In reading it, and watching my own mother’s morning dressing ritual, I absorbed an unpleasant truth — that our female bodies were unruly and required the strict discipline of these supremely uncomfortable and expensive undergarments. The ‘foundation’ had to be laid to achieve an acceptable shape before the overlaying dress was even chosen.
I knew I was being taught by example what being a woman was all about. As soon as my own body began to develop, and with Lycra’s nylon and rayon antecedents now in use, my well-meaning mother pushed me to squish myself into a more modern stretchy sheath known as the panty girdle, over which one wore pantyhose instead of stockings. But by then it was the 1970s (just) and the much younger mothers of my schoolmates were abandoning such constrictive attire and ‘letting it all hang out’. My one panty girdle languished unworn in my dresser drawer for many years, awaiting an occasion that never came.
My large breasts may have been one of my more defining features, but all my life I had longed for a more ordinary body, an unremarkable body in which breasts existed but in proportion to the rest of me, not out front and loud, magnets for attention. Whenever less well-endowed women expressed envy in response to any complaints I voiced about my boobs, I was gobsmacked. I can pick an oversized implant at fifty paces. Nobody who’s grown up with large breasts carries them with the pride a skinny, previously flat-chested, augmented woman does. They’ve brought us too much unwanted attention and discomfort for far too long.
A week after the surgery, I find myself staring in the mirror, marvelling at how well my clothes now hang on me. There’s no stretching across the bodice, no binding down and lifting my breasts to make them fit the shape of the clothes. My posture is better, my back is straighter, my head sits more elegantly on my body. Yesterday, when I presented myself to the hotel spa for a therapeutic hot oil deep tissue massage, the softening and releasing of several tight knots in my shoulder muscles took several vigorous attempts. I felt I was finally letting go of decades of muscular strain that I hadn’t even realised wasn’t ‘normal’.
When writing ‘my sister has a new set of breasts’ I had focussed on the sense of inadequacy almost all women feel and express when they talk about their bodies and what they’d like to fix. When a friend, five years out of birthing and breastfeeding two children, suddenly became a gym junkie, dropped a heap of weight and started running marathons, it all finally made sense when she confessed to me that she’d had to drop her body mass index before her surgeon would perform a reduction.
I knew she hadn’t told me prior to her surgery because she thought I’d judge her. Instead I told her: ‘I now feel that poem was a bit harsh. In wanting to affirm all women’s essential beauty, perhaps I came across a bit too judgey’. I’ve seen her since then, and yes, her ‘new’ breasts look great. I acknowledged that she has a career that requires public visibility and how, in such cases, even more so than in real life, appearances matter. We are, indeed, still living in a patriarchy and it’s still not enough for women to produce great work — we are also expected to look sexy in publicity photos. Who will buy women’s books, music, essays or opinions if our PR photos are any less? And who might judge us this harshly? Sadly, I believe it’s other women.
I still believe in the final line of my old poem, that ‘there is much more to love than a perfect body’. And not just because I want it to be true — though that was the case at the time of writing. My partner is a good man. He has really stood by me, as the wedding vows go, in sickness and in health. Sometimes that’s actually meant dressing me, brushing my hair, emptying buckets of shit, driving me to appointments and being an arm to lean on as I try to walk to them. He’s been a trusted advocate by my side as doctors and specialists outline sometimes scary treatment options and, in one particular case, judge and bully me and almost kill me.
In my mind’s eye, there he is, doing all the housework and trying to move forward with framing the house we had planned to build together while I lie in bed with my pet parrot, crying in pain and too drugged to do anything but stare at inane daytime TV. In some of the more depressed, despairing moments, I see myself contemplating suicide, whining that he should leave me and find a ‘real woman’ who can support his creative talents and doesn’t need looking after; that he is wasting his life as my disease takes more and more from both of us.
But this is what love is. As is his agreeing to fork out money we can’t really spare so I can have a ‘vanity operation’, enabling me live in our subtropical environment without a constant, painful sweat rash, to go without a bra for the first time since I was thirteen, move around without the constant bounce and hate my body a little less.
Though, really, I don’t hate my body. It has served me as well as it has been able to, and I’ve lived in it now for a long time. As well as pain and disability, it has also brought me pleasure. Cuddles. The comfort of spooning in bed. Orgasms. The joy of dancing. Standing by the stove stirring a sauce. Enjoying good food and wine and laughter and stimulating conversation with friends.
We make love the night before I leave for Bangkok on my solo trip. My partner’s been through enough medical procedures with me and I feel I must face this one alone. We kiss and cuddle and he pays particular attention to my breasts. The breasts he has kissed and loved for twenty-six years. He says he is saying goodbye to them. I shed a few tears. I know that, for him, our love is, and always has been, about much more than the size or shape of my body.
Today I visit the surgeon. It has been one week since the operation and I’ve been holed up in my room, reading and writing and watching movies, my breasts and their dressings encased 24/7 in a stretchy sports bra. As the days have gone on, the pain has lessened and I am now able to sleep in my favourite positions: on my side or even face down, my head turned on the pillow. This will be my second dressing change. The first was on the day I was discharged, but I was lying down and unable to see. Today I’ll be facing up to it all —and asking for a mirror.
I know there’ll be a T-shaped scar across the bottom half of each breast that will meet my grafted nipples in the centre. I’m hopeful the nipple grafts have taken okay. It would have been impossible to completely retain nerve and blood supply so I know there’ll be a loss of sensation — but as my menopause has progressed this had been diminishing anyway. I know that from now on my breasts will just be another area of my body, visible but unremarkable, instead of annoying things to be managed, diminished, hidden, or remarked upon. I am looking forward to experiencing this ‘normality’ for myself.
In the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery clinic, I am weighed and my blood pressure (much higher than usual) is taken. I explain that my car broke down and I am late and a little stressed. The nurse smiles and gestures to the waiting area where I strip down and lie on the examination table. The nurse removes my dressings, all but the gauze covering the nipple grafts, covers me with a sheet and says the doctor is coming. I still have not seen his handiwork so I get up, find my iPad and lie back down to take selfies of my new breasts. Each of them has a large incision on the underside and they are bruised brown and purple, with tinges of yellow. They look to me to be healing well, but when the surgeon arrives he comments that my left nipple has some dead tissue that will scab and drop off and one of the incisions on the right side is not knitting as well as he’d like. Later, when I examine my photos, I can see he is correct — there is a small area that, although not leaking fluid, is dark and purply. We arrange another appointment in four days when he explains that if the healing is not improved, he will inject a local anaesthetic and re-suture the original incision to ensure it heals properly. I will be flying home two days after that.
When he leaves I spend a pleasant fifteen minutes chatting to the nurse as she redresses my wounds. I tell her I think it is healing well and she says it will look even better in one month, once the swelling and bruising subside.
When she has finished replacing my dressings she walks me to the cashier’s counter. The low cost of everything continues to astonish me — and is the only reason I’ve been able to afford surgery in the first place. This time I pay 150 baht for the consultation and dressings (about $6 AU). Although I am half an hour late, my driver is waiting for me. I ask him if he could stop somewhere so I can buy beer, which is $8 AU a bottle in my hotel room, but he laughs and refuses. I don’t know if this is because he is not allowed to take detours, or encourage drinking in surgical patients, or just because I am a woman. I feel he respects me less now he knows I like to drink beer. I still don’t know if he works for the agency or the hotel and when I ask he just nods yes to both.
Having a chronic illness, and resultant disability, is hard, especially when it hits you young. It’s impacted my life in so many ways. Rheumatoid Disease has made the decisions for me regarding having children, a career, a decent income, a ‘normal life’. It has said ‘No’ to all of these and over the years there has been much grief. The grief of childlessness I had hoped would abate as my friend’s kids left home and they would again have time for me. But now they are grandparents and the familiar sadness re-emerges. There’ll never be little people of my blood to love and cuddle me, to come to me with their bodily scrapes and bruised egos, or to call me Mummy or Grandma.
Still, I am grateful for the family I have. A loving husband and four nutty parrots who are (mostly) affectionate and make me laugh every day of my life. These are my blessings and soon I will return home to them all. My husband will cook and clean and be solicitous as I heal. The parrots and I will cuddle and play and whistle together, and I know they will be glad to see me. Tucker the Galah may nip me a few times, or turn his back to me, to express his displeasure at my leaving him in the first place. My cockatiel, Graham, aged 24, will be desperate for the scratches only I am allowed to give him. Birdy the lorikeet will make her happy squeal right in my ear.
I will buy a new swimsuit that will, for the first time since childhood, properly fit my body. I will buy some strappy tops and dresses, leave the house braless and nobody will notice; I will exercise without having to strap myself down first, and can say goodbye to those constant painful sweat rashes.
In the face of all the loss and sadness sickness has brought to so many other areas of my life, this is one thing I have been able to change. I have reclaimed at least this aspect of my body, and now living in it will be just that little bit easier.
Liz Hall-Downs has a BA (Victoria College) and an MA (University of Qld) in Creative Writing. She’s published 6 poetry collections, and her poetry, short stories and articles have appeared in many literary magazines and anthologies. She has in the past held writer’s residencies, and toured as a performance poet, but in recent years has focused on performing music with her partner in the folk/alt-country duo, ‘Swampfish’, and on writing articles and essays. She lives off the coast of Queensland on an island in Moreton Bay. You can find out more about Liz on her Website, Facebook and Twitter.