The Breast-Laid Plans
“She’s perfect otherwise," said the doctor. "There’s nothing else I could suggest.”
There’s something about those medical paper gowns that just might be sexy. But sitting on the crinkly sterile paper of the plastic surgeon’s table, his eyes level to my nipples and his hand massaging the tissue of my left breast… it was not. In fact, I felt qualified to join a sideshow alongside the bearded lady and the freak who hangs heavy objects from his testicles. Show me to my bed of nails.
“Well, she’ll certainly like them better than a used car.”
As he said this he was looking at my mother, who sat watching in the corner, oddly impassive. She nodded and smiled, agreeing with him. I could practically see the wheels spinning in her head. She had always suggested that I go to medical school or law school since those were the places to get a husband with the best earning potential. I knew that she had studied in those places, eventually marrying my father – a law student. I also knew what my father did not, that up until late in their relationship she was also dating a medical student. And that she had admitted, aloud, to finally deciding on my father because she “believed that he’d be the more successful one.”
I figured that she was thinking that if I got a used car I could stop biking all over in the winter. I wouldn’t have big bruises on my back from putting cans of soup in a backpack on my way back from the grocery store. But if I got breast implants, I’d be able to find a man who would eventually buy me a car. Why give a man a fish when you can teach him to fish, after all?
It might seem cruel to assume that my mother would think that way, but she had basically admitted to cheating on my father (or possibly cheating with my father) all in the pursuit of future gold-digging. And she’d later continually ask me why I didn’t get back together with a boyfriend who had a rich family, forgetting the fact that he was an alcoholic who cheated on me with his ex-girlfriend at the birthday party that he threw for me.
“I know he drinks a lot. He’s in college. Give him a chance,” she said. “You know he’s a good kid. I met his parents and they’re quite wealthy.”
But I, on the other hand, couldn’t quite place the distinct correlation between saline implants under my pectoral muscles and a car. My parents had never offered to buy me a car. It wasn’t a choice between tits or a car. Of course, I also didn’t understand why I’d want to walk to the opposite side of campus to study in the medical or law school. And I didn’t enjoy having body parts compared to consumables by men wearing latex gloves. True, I had reached the age where I wanted to fill out a bra and wear strapless dresses, but I didn’t want to look down at my tits for the rest of their shelf-life and think, “Well, I could have been driving these.” Even less did I want to get dressed for a date and think that part of my pre-date preparation involved several thousand dollars and a week’s worth of pain medication. I was hoping that eventually the implants would be a body part and not an after-market product or sugardaddy-bait.
“She’s perfect otherwise. There’s nothing else I could suggest.”
The surgeon spoke to me very little. At 19 years old I was obviously not the one who was footing his bill.
But I was the one getting the surgery. I didn’t have tits to speak of. Years of not eating had probably affected my growth, and since I was still competing in a weight-classed sport I didn’t have much body fat to allocate toward creating cleavage.
In high school I was generally fine with being flat. Not having tits meant that I was thinner. The goal was to achieve no spare body fat and to be singularly unfit to breed or survive famine. My mother, on the other hand, seemed to take my lack of development and any other appearance-based deficiencies as an assault designated specifically for her eyes and her eyes alone.
She might have been right.
She’d regularly hyper-extend her finger, point a nail in my direction, and say, “Are you wearing a bra? You have…no…shape.”
Then she’d grimace and look fairly disgusted. It’s hard to apologize for body fat distribution. I didn’t know exactly how to apologize for what I had little control over. But I had gotten fairly used to being pointed at, and groaned at should anything go awry appearance-wise.
Thankfully I had clear skin in high school. I couldn’t have stood both the “no shape” point and the “you’re picking, aren’t you?” accusations 24/7 while I was living at home.
It was bad enough in college, during which I would sometimes break out from stress. Using a concealer brush and some skill I could usually manage to disguise any spot or blotch. But on those days during my Christmas or summer break, when I didn’t feel like painting myself up for family, she’d repeat the manicured point, pained frown, and harangue me about my skin.
“What’s wrong with your face?”
“I’m stressed. My skin broke out.”
“You’re picking at it, aren’t you?”
“Are you washing your face at night? You must not be.”
“Just stop. I wash my face. My skin just broke out.”
“Why are you breaking out? You never did this before.”
I was eventually dragged to dermatologists with another disappointed sigh. I can now safely say that Proactive saved some of my sanity. But I suppose they wouldn’t put that on their infomercial, since it’s only really meant for zits, not as a means to pacify mothers.
But the tits seemed to bother my mother most. Even when I was 16, she continually gave me the frat boy once over, her eyes focused on my chest while I vainly moved my mouth and produced sound. And she’d then ask me again why I had no “shape.” I sometimes think she really did expect an explanation.
My typical response was to passive-aggressively mutter, “Shut up,” or, “Leave me alone” and retreat before it could go any further. If I could have grown tits magically I probably would have. I don’t think that people should want to alter their appearance in order to be a better limb on the parental torso, but there are worse reasons to get plastic surgery. And by the middle of sophomore year of high school I stopped saying “shut up” and just asked her what her suggestions were.
So she took me to Victoria’s Secret. And while I stared at the size small cotton camisoles, fingering the built in shelf-bra, she proceeded to pull a vast selection of hugely padded bras. She might as well have duct taped a pair of shoulder pads to my chest. And she came close. She did sew them into the chests of my swimsuits. (Which, by the way, I’m pretty sure looked ridiculous.)
As we walked out to her car with a pink-striped bag containing several hundred dollars of smoke and mirrors, she said, “Well, it’s about time you got some breasts.”
There is a certain indignity to padded bras on a 16 year-old. I wore my shirts in layers because I was horrified by the idea of couch cushion seams showing. I wore the padded bras under my sports bras when I went to aerobics classes and the gym. Once you commit to a padded bra you can’t just walk away from it. You’re tethered to the thing. After all, tits don’t shrink and grow, so that stuffing has to be in place at all times. I am not good at maintaining façades or lies, and the anxiety stemming from my fakies was enough to make me never want to have any that weren’t sold in a pink striped bag.
As a result of my fear of exposure as a bra-padder, I developed a reputation as a prude. Personally, I had no moral qualms about premarital sex, but I would be damned to have some boy reach for a breast and grab a handful of cotton. And so, in high school, the few times I did date didn’t last terribly long. The boys who showed interest in me with the hopes of getting past first base gave up in frustration.
But when I turned 18 and still had no tits, my mother chose to suggest medical intervention.
So I stood in front of the plastic surgeon. He was the head of the department and featured in magazines. He gave lectures. He didn’t give lectures on bedside manner or making young girls not feel defective.
“Well, you know, the only way she’ll possibly grow breasts is if she gains weight. And she’s not going to do that, are you Jane?”
I stood in my underwear and faced front, left, and right for snapshots destined to be the “before” photos. He put them in his file and led us both to the billing room. We scheduled the appointment for surgery and discussed the particulars. My mother was dead set on the fact that I should not be larger than a full B. That was the size she sported.
But I was being operated on by a man and not my mother. My mother viewed me as an extension of and reflection upon herself. To the doctor, however, I was an aesthetic challenge, another photo for his lectures, and a paycheck. He wouldn’t be willing to work within my mother’s confines if they meant that his product would suffer.
So he measured my hips, drew on me with magic marker, and said small C. My mother smiled and reminded him, “B. She just wants to look natural.”
I really didn’t want to wear a padded bra anymore. I woke up with large, frightening Ds that eventually settled in, de-swelled, and became small Ds. They’re certainly a far cry from what the woman who wrote the check wanted. The first time I saw my breasts in a mirror after surgery I cried because I thought I looked like a cow in need of a milking. And that I looked fat. The first time my mother saw my bra size she cursed out the doctor in absentia. Then she told me to never let my father see one of my bras and (blessedly) opted out of any further doctor visits for fear of angry outburst.
When I eventually returned for my post-surgery checkup, my surgeon brought in his protégé, a young doctor who was fairly good-looking. He looked like he was fresh out of medical school. My surgeon showed him my before pictures, opened up my paper robe, and said (without seeming to notice that I was a sentient being), “I did beautiful work. Look at these.”
The young doctor nodded his head appreciatively and smiled at me, holding eye contact for just a little too long. And I thought, well, my mother would be proud — this just might be more lucrative than studying in the medical school.
Note: My father has never spoken of the entire ordeal, to me, at least. The closest he ever came to mentioning breasts in my presence was in the mid 90s. He walked through our kitchen to pour himself a second (third? fourth? Who knows?) glass of scotch. I was looking at a photo of Gavin Rossdale in Rolling Stone. He pointed at Rossdale’s nipples and asked me if I liked men with big nipples. It might have been his version of a sex talk. At the time I didn’t entirely understand that nipples came in a variety of sizes, so I suppose it was somewhat enlightening.
We never spoke of that again either.• 19 October 2007
Jessica Allen is a freelance writer in Athens, Georgia.
Photo via istockphoto.com.