The feminist case for breast reduction

When I first told her the story, I stood in a hot bath as the steam rose around me. My voice echoed against the tiled walls. It sounded like a kind of baptism, my words mentioning something that hadn’t completely existed before I said it and that had finally made the name mine.

It was bizarre feeling, of looking at my breasts for the last time. There would be some of the same tissue, yes, and a new nipple cut from the old one, but the breasts I had spent so many years wanting different, their particular weight, would be gone forever. In the operating room, the body is sacred only to its inhabitant. The strange feeling of sacredness came upon me by stealth as my surgeon held me, measured and scribbled on my breasts with a marker on the morning of my surgery.

When I stitched up my earlobes at 32, I felt nothing, physically or emotionally, until I stood up and looked at the metal tray of instruments next to my operating table, where the little gray lumps of the my earlobes still lay, like two pieces of chewing gum. “Oops,” said the surgical assistant. “I shouldn’t show you those.” He folded them in green paper which he lined the tray, which he then crumpled up and tossed into the steel waste bin. He pulled something into me, perhaps 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 happy not to have to see my discarded parts thrown in the trash.

I was also pleased with the sweet nurses, with their impeccably made up faces and lilting voices. I used to be in predominantly female spaces, but these were often filled with feminists, queer and trans and non-binary people. The surgeon’s office was unabashedly feminine and steeped in the welcoming assumption that everyone who entered was in agreement about beauty: how to define it and sure they wanted it. Every time I got off the elevator, I felt like an intruder. If they had glimpsed my hairy legs, I would have felt guilty, exposed as a hidden Judas feminist.

I found it an oddly comfortable space. The implied consent precluded any tension in the atmosphere and I found that I had no desire to challenge the doctor when he said things like, “They’ll be much livelier and younger” or when one of the nurses squeezed my wife’s shoulder and squeezed her. I promised: “You will love them!”

Which is all to say that the culture of cosmetic surgery, and perhaps the industry as a whole, aligns with the second wave of feminists: an endorsement of not just patriarchal beauty standards, but patriarchal social structure. I understand the temptation to extend this assessment to patients who choose to participate in the sector. But as I wrote this essay, I spoke to a number of self-proclaimed feminists who felt no loss or regret for their surgeries, from thigh lifts to abdominoplasty to vaginoplasty. Above all, the prevailing emotion was that of triumph and pleasure. It seems clear to me now that any feminist position on cosmetic surgery that does not take into account women’s relationships with their own bodies makes them objectively.

I hated my body for years, I felt overshadowed and exposed by it, and subjected it to many acts that others wanted regardless of my wishes. These cumulative burdens had consumed an inestimable amount of time and energy. For the most part, they had defined my relationship with myself. All the years of therapy and recovery and writing, reading and conversations with friends had changed things. I didn’t hate my body anymore. My experience in the world no longer seemed so defined by my body shape, physically changing my body seemed to me an important way to realize that work. It was not, as some might think, a substitute for psychological change, but rather a physical consumption of one that has already taken place: a ritual that commemorated my reclamation of my body, once and for all. a subtle process.