“They’re just boobs.”
More than one well-meaning friend or acquaintance has uttered that or a similar statement in an attempt to comfort me, minimize the anxiety I feel as I face a bilateral mastectomy. I will willingly say good-bye to my natural breasts in the interest of prolonging my life; it’s the wise choice. But there’s no “just” about it.
They aren’t “just” boobs. They’re my boobs. My breasts are part of me. I have not, and will not, “use” them, it is true, for their evolutionary purpose, to feed a child or children. As such, some might say they are extraneous.
But they’re mine. And I like them.
And I grieve their loss.
I didn’t always like my breasts. They debuted, when I was a young teen, as small knots on my chest, literally: hard bumps arose underneath each of my nipples. I was embarrassed to ask my pediatrician to examine these buds, but he reassured me (and my mother) everything was fine. For years I worried I was “too small,” even after I turned seventeen and suddenly gained a cup size, perhaps a result of the hearty German fare I ate while an exchange student that year. I still felt my minimal cleavage didn’t quite balance out my womanly hips, that my nipples were too prominent.
And they were troublemakers, these breasts of mine. When I was in my late twenties, I found a lump. It turned out to be nothing but a benign, fluid-filled cyst, and some doctors in the medical center at Ohio State, where I was in grad school, drained it. That was the first of many more benign cysts, too many to count.
It was also the start of many years of creative commentary by various medical professionals. I’m a “cyst-maker”; I have “busy breasts.” Enough nurses and doctors expressed surprise at the number and volume of my cysts that I felt like a curiosity. One surgeon in Georgia, who I’d been referred to for draining yet another set of what one nurse called my “natural implants,” greeted me by exclaiming, “Why, you’re just a little bitty thing!” He waved a copy of my scans through the air. ”After seeing the size of your cysts, I thought you’d have great big ba-zooms!”
I didn’t, though I was slowly learning to appreciate them just as they were. Practically speaking, smaller breasts offered maximum wardrobe flexibility: I could wear low-cut or clingy tops without attracting unwanted attention, and button-downs never gaped. But I also finally realized they were, actually, pretty nice breasts. Kind of perky, actually. By the time I reached my early thirties, I’d have said they were my favorite part of my body.
Like many women, I’ve often struggled with body image and self-doubt. It took me more than half my life to love my breasts. Now I must let them go, and re-learn to embrace my body, post-surgery, all over again.
I know I am no more or less a woman with or without my breasts. My identity as a woman, my worth as a human, is not defined by the shape or size of my chest. Nor do I assume that breasts are universal signifiers for femininity, womanhood, or desirability. In fact, the way breasts are weirdly glorified and overly sexualized, especially in American culture, has often puzzled and annoyed me. I once argued with a man who insisted that breasts were always sexual. No, I replied. If I choose to walk out my front door with my breasts exposed, or with no clothes on at all, that does not necessarily constitute a sexual act; minus a display of express and clear intent, it’s definitely not a sexual invitation. I’m just naked, and we’re all, as the saying goes, naked under our clothes.
Something else I know: attachment is the root of all suffering. Yet I find it difficult not to be attached to something that is, well, attached to me. Front and center.
My breasts have been my conscious companions at the beach, suited up and sun-screened in a cleavage-baring bikini; on the figure-modeling dais, revealed in the service of a painter’s line, curve, and shadow; on the running trail, compressed and protected in a jazzy neon sports bra.
My breasts have brought me pleasure in private moments, sensual pleasure wrapped up in sensitive nerve endings and a lover’s tender touch, his open admiration. My breasts have brought me aesthetic pleasure, when I slip into a pretty dress that fits just so, hugs the curves of my hips and breasts in a way that makes me feel sexy and beautiful.
My breasts are not some idle, remote organ like an appendix, whose absence I’d scarcely notice. They are a daily presence and a source of pleasure, and I will miss them.
I will have reconstruction, and I’m grateful for that. I’ve talked to enough survivors, however, to understand the process is no picnic. And my bionic boobs, as I’ve come to call them, will look and feel quite different from my natural breasts.
I’ve been trying to find ways to reconcile myself to the coming changes. I’ve begun to try to re-frame the mastectomy in my mind: instead of thinking about losing my breasts, I focus on regaining my health. I’m saying goodbye to a cherished part of my body, but I am also saying goodbye to the cancer.
I’ve tried to imagine my breasts as being like an old friend, one whose friendship has become toxic. She was a perfect match in my younger years: we liked the same music, went to the same parties, celebrated good days and commiserated over bad ones. Then, she began to lash out, to drink too much; when I was around her, so did I. We had a great run, my old friend and I, but now—well, she’s not healthy for me anymore. I appreciate the good times we shared; I’m grateful and glad for her having been in my life. Even though it hurts, I know I have to say goodbye.
Still, my body isn’t a metaphor. Metaphors don’t go numb or swell with lymphedema. They don’t scar or press your chest with pain. They don’t change what you wake up to every morning, what you see in the mirror, for the remainder of your days.
I’m working on cultivating greater self-compassion and acceptance. I recently hired a photographer to document and celebrate my pre-surgery body, highlighting my bald head with a beautiful custom headpiece. And this time, after surgery, I don’t want to wait thirty years to decide to like my body, my (new) breasts. It won’t always be easy, but loving myself as I am is a choice I will endeavor to make every day.
The photos included here are a preview selection from the shoot described in the post: photos by Michael Wilson, Bohemian Robot Photography; make-up by Jolina Goad, Jolina does Make-up; bespoke headpiece by Sandra Eileen, Every Girl a Goddess Couture Headpieces.