A. J. Kay started the story of getting her breast implants removed last August. In September, she wrote about the surgery and its aftermath. And last month, she wrote a six-month follow-up. Kay is a remarkably honest and forthcoming writer, and I especially appreciate her commitment to telling complex and nuanced truths.
It starts when she’s 26. Her husband is a breast obsessive, and can’t stand what has happened to her after nursing two children, so he suggests she see a plastic surgeon who’s a friend of his:
“Your ptosis is severe. Especially for a woman your age.”
In other words, “You are too young to have tits this saggy, hon.”
At that point in her life, she’s deeply unhappy with her own breasts, and not only because her husband is. But she’s also aware (at least at the time of writing these articles), of what she did have.
… my breasts were champions. They had made so much milk for my daughters. I pumped and nursed daily for nearly a year following the birth of each baby and, with both girls, I had a freezer full of gallons of extra frozen breast milk that lasted me months past the cessation of nursing. My breasts did exactly what they were designed to do, and they did it well. They nourished my beautiful girls and kept my sweet babies healthy and strong. They could’ve nursed a village of sweet babies. Each time they finished, they rested, and each time they rested, they lost significant volume and lift.
The marriage ends (for which the reader can only feel relieved) and here she is, contemplating the surgery:
Now, 13 years later, looking in the mirror is even more difficult than when I was 26 years old, confronting the collateral damage from my pregnancies. My breasts are cartoons. They are aging caricatures of idealized, improbable female proportions. They look like two globes sitting on my chest, like cereal bowls. My nipples are stretched and the skin is so thin that you can literally see the implant and all of its contours.
And then, the procedure:
He said that there would be no pain, but that it would be “messy” when he punctured the implant. He said that he would insert a drain with a pump to remove the saline and that it would be loud. It was. I remember feeling the liquid that had been residing in my body for 13 years soak the left side of my body. …
I thought I would feel them coming out, as you do with a C-section when you feel the pressure of your baby being lifted from the hole in your body — but I didn’t. There simply came the point when I felt the tugging of the needle and sutures and knew they were gone. …
Wrinkly skin and nipples. Concave dents where there should’ve been fullness. That’s all that remained of my breasts. And it was okay.
Her lover was deeply supportive and affirming, but children and young adults often tell a more complex truth, and Kay shares it with us:
When my three youngest got home, they all expressed some degree of disappointment at my new shape. My children’s consensus was that they had loved my big, ol’ boobs and were going to miss them. They said they were the only “soft” part about me. That hurt my heart.
The most difficult was the reaction of my 10 year old autistic daughter who literally recoiled when she saw me naked. “Mom!?!?!? Why are your boobs so ragged??? That’s going to take some getting used to.” She wasn’t wrong and I couldn’t be mad. I had raised her thinking that augmented breasts like the ones I had had were the norm.
This second article has a lot of detail about what changed and what didn’t, what felt okay and what was hard to process, what she is still struggling with.
I don’t necessarily believe in “accepting myself just the way I am”. I’m about making myself better and growing and changing. I hesitated even writing this yet because I don’t feel like I have landed anywhere that could serve as a guidepost for anyone else.
In the six-month follow-up, Kay tells us a lot more about who she was growing up, including an unemphasized mention that she is anorexic (and had to buy bathing suits with 34G breasts and extra-small bottoms). She leads us through a childhood of not having much in the way of material goods and being fascinated by formal gowns and ladies’ lingerie … and (completely understandably) conflating beauty with protection and love:
Beauty wasn’t something I knew for myself. I was so sure that those beautiful women [in the J.C. Penney catalog] were loved and adored and showered with attention….
Beauty meant warmth and safety and love. And I was sure they felt those things when they snuggled into their bed each night. They didn’t sneak the light back on after their mom went to sleep and stay up until 2 a.m. because the vulnerability of closing their eyes was too much of a risk to bear. Being beautiful meant they had someone watching over them.
She writes about the mail she gets because of these articles, and doesn’t shy away from saying she gets mail from women who have had their implants removed … and regret it. She talks about her journey towards acceptance, and towards focusing on how her body feels instead of how it looks. She is still extremely focused on the admiration of one man (her lover), and she certainly sounds like he has been an essential part of her journey. And I get the feeling that I could ask her about that, and she would respond as honestly, and with as many layers, as she responds to other issues.
What I appreciate most about this story of breast implants and explants is how much it is story of being a woman in the 21st century — here and now in 2019, it is still very difficult for us to look at our bodies, and look at our situation, and work on reframing the cultural messages that control us — but it is also possible. And stories like Kay’s — long detailed human stories — are a crucial resource for that journey:
I didn’t know, back in those days of augmenting my body and starving myself, that I could be the woman I am today. The mama. The writer. The lover. The fighter. Removing my implants was a piece of the bigger puzzle of finally settling into my skin.
I’m letting go of needing to be one of the models in the catalog to convince myself of my own value.
The little girl I used to be was confused, in pain, and without guidance.
I’m not confused and in pain anymore.
At least not nearly as much.