Recently I got a new set of breast implants. I had the first pair for nearly two decades, and they needed to be replaced. I’ve been reckoning with my reasons for getting fake boobs in the first place. Most of us don’t talk about implants with the people who never see us naked. But breast augmentation has risen more than 48 percent since 2000. It’s the No. 1 most-requested surgical cosmetic procedure in the United States, with nearly 314,000 performed in 2018. And though every woman has her own reason for wanting to change what she’s born with, I want to dispel the idea that breast implants are a dubious vanity project.
I’m a 53-year-old feminist, a mother and a former medical professional, and I’ve always felt women should do what they want if it adds to their life satisfaction: spa retreats, advanced degrees, stay-at-home mothering. I just happen to be a bit obsessed with breasts.
As an adolescent, I hated my breasts the moment they sprouted. My mother was a D cup, and I was terrified I’d be getting what she got. I was a thick girl and a tomboy who was boy crazy. I loved dodgeball and tag football, and I did not want boobs getting in the way of my fun. Every day I pressed them with the palms of my hands, beat those breast buds into submission and made deals with God to stop them in their tracks. And suddenly, they did stop growing.
But when I saw the lovely orbs my friends were developing I became envious. They would prance after P.E. in their pretty new bras, and I realized the firm flesh of a developing cleavage was indeed a thing of beauty. Breasts on my peers were fascinating, and I wanted what they had. I tried to coax mine back to life, but they were like plants that had germinated early only to be killed off by a freakish hard frost. By the time I entered high school, I could barely fill an A cup.
I tolerated my breasts. They didn’t affect my enthusiasm for sex, though a Wonderbra did nothing for a woman without flesh to press together. I accepted I would live with tiny breasts, got on with graduate school, traveled the world and skied like a badass. But I longed to shed my Gore-Tex jacket at the end of a day on the mountain and command the attention of ski patrollers. Sure, I had quads that could crush cans, but what I really wanted was a pair of extraordinary specimens of feminine beauty.
“No man ever complained about the size of my chest. I was the one who needed to be pleased.”
No man ever complained about the size of my chest. I was the one who needed to be pleased. I wanted some heft up top to balance out my bottom half, to fill a bikini top ― jiggle even! No doubt many women feel ambivalent about the pair they’re given. Is dissatisfaction with our breasts a deep insecurity born of a narrow cultural definition of breast beauty? Perhaps. But what I felt was a longing for something which, on me, had gone missing.
Breasts are a defining feature of womanhood, and to have ones so small and inconsequential detracted from my ability to feel bodacious, that magical combination of bold and audacious. I argued with myself that I didn’t need bigger breasts to accomplish more. But like people who get nose jobs and suddenly feel the weight of self-consciousness fall from their lives, might new breasts help me shed a nagging discomfort that I wasn’t all woman? Couldn’t I roar louder if I had the mammaries?
After finishing my physician assistant training at the age of 33, I saw an opportunity. I was newly married and about to be making a good salary. Before I entered the professional world, why not give myself the gift I’d always wanted? We would vacation in Australia and I would come back an enhanced woman, well before I entered a new clinical environment. My husband neither encouraged nor discouraged my decision; he simply wanted me to be happy.
This was 2001 and silicone breast implants were unavailable in the U.S., having been banned in 1996 over concerns of long-term safety. Saline implants didn’t appeal to me because they looked less natural and felt less real (I’d seen my share having worked in a women’s clinic). But a new breed of cohesive silicone implants were available in other countries. Even with an overnight in the hospital, the cost of having the surgery in Australia was reasonable. And I could recover with the sound of kookaburras outside my window.
“I had the cohesive implants for 18 years, nursed my son without problems, and essentially forgot I even had them.”
The day I first opened the post-surgical bra to view my new breasts I nearly cried. The surgeon and I had practiced restraint regarding their size ― nothing larger than a B cup. What I saw reflected back at me was a new fullness beneath my once-tethered nipples. Perfect teardrops of soft flesh now adorned my chest. I sighed with relief, as though I had just been reunited with a body part. I was also aroused with the sight of myself, an unexpected and delightful sensation that put a spring in my step.
I tell people I became less shy and more gregarious as a result of practicing medicine, forced to do so because of the sheer number of people I had to help guide through periods of stress and illness. But my breast augmentation happened at the same time I started medicine and I can’t separate the two. I was more at ease in my body, I stood straighter, and I finally felt I belonged to the tribe of women. My implants weren’t the only reason I genuinely began to enjoy life. Though, like a catalyst, I’m sure they accelerated the rate of change in my confidence and contentment.
I had the cohesive implants for 18 years, nursed my son without problems, and essentially forgot I even had them. Becoming free from ruminating over something I could change was alone worth the price of surgery. But at my last mammogram, there was evidence one had torn, and a diffuse haze of what was assumed to be silicone was visible outside the implant. Despite them being solid, these “gummy bear” implants have a small amount of free silicone within the envelope of the implant. I was experiencing twinges of pain and there was a chance silicone would migrate to my lymphatic system and cause unknown havoc. So I scheduled surgery.
I thought about not getting new implants, just removing the old ones and sailing flat-chested into menopause. As with any surgery, there are risks, and I debated whether I should take on new ones with a 10-year-old at home. The latest retrospective studies on the safety of silicone implants, which were approved again by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006, report that long-term health issues are very rare. It’s much more likely I’ll get diabetes or heart disease before my breast implants do me any harm.
“My implants weren’t the only reason I genuinely began to enjoy life. Though, like a catalyst, I’m sure they accelerated the rate of change in my confidence and contentment.”
But the best reason to replace them was that I wanted to. Despite being in my 50s I’m enjoying my body in ways I never did as a younger woman. My lovely breasts are part of the package I’ve brought to new relationships after becoming single at midlife. Now my breasts contribute to feelings of sexual maturity and eroticism that I would no more do without than I would stop traveling to new countries.
As far as insecurities within our cultural obsession with beauty, I’m not too bothered. Every culture has its own ideals for both men and women. I don’t feel compelled to tuck my tummy or lift my butt. I’m content to let my body otherwise sag and age as it will. However, I support any woman or man who opts for esthetic surgery if it gives them more confidence to pursue their larger goals.
I’m delighted with my new implants. They are rounder and slightly smaller, with less projection, as though they were aging gracefully. Just as I intend to do.
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