I haven’t always been a feminist. In fact, didn’t understand what the term even meant until about two years ago. My journey toward comprehending the need for equal rights between all people began when I realized how I have experience the consequences of society’s sexism.
I had a serious eating disorder for the entirety of my pre-teen and teenage years. And when I was 16, I had a breast augmentation. The decision to have surgery was my own, and I take responsibility for it.
Like many young girls today, I was never taught to love and respect my body. I developed an eating disorder when I entered the sixth grade. By the time I was 13, my 5’2 frame carried only 70 pounds. While I was able to get back on a healthier track in eighth and ninth grade, my weight plummeted again during my sophomore year of high school.
At that time, because I was so thin, my breasts were essentially nonexistent. While I wanted to stay skinny, I believed that if I had bigger breasts, I could be more confident. I saw having a model’s figure as the equivalent of happiness. I asked my parents if I could get a boob job. My mother has one, but I was still surprised when, after minimal consideration, they said yes. By this point, I had dropped down to 88 pounds.
My first appointment with the plastic surgeon went well. The office was clean and professional. The all-female cast of nurses was bright, smiling, and made-up. They explained the procedure and took pictures of my waist and breasts for measurements (and before and after pictures to potentially use for “advertising purposes”).
The doctor (a man) was warm and funny. He told me that his daughters were runners, too. My mother and I scheduled the surgery for Christmas break. In the meantime, an appointment with a physical therapist for my running injuries lead to a referral to a nutritionist. Everyone suggested strongly that I gain weight. But I saw their concern as criticism, and I ignored them.
On the morning of my surgery, I woke up at 4:30 and completed my daily 60 minutes of exercise. Although I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since midnight, I dutifully performed my workout on the family elliptical, knowing that I might have to take two or three weeks off from physical activity after the surgery.
The moments before surgery go like this: the plastic surgeon breezes into the pre-operation room, marks my pale chest with purple Xs. Next, a cloud of nurses hover around me, prick my arm with an IV needle again and again, trying to find a vein that will take. My heart rate is too low, so they finally decide to use an infant needle in my hand. I pass out, tear out the IV, and wake up splattered with blood. It takes two more tries before the IV finally takes. Too faint to feel more than a shadow of fear, the world blurs into bright pastel as I am wheeled into the operating room. Relief overwhelms me when a thoughtful nurse drapes a heated blanket over my shivering body. The doctor smiles, and then I am under.
Here’s what you might not hear enough about breast augmentation: It hurts like hell. And this pain is incessant. I could feel the implants on my chest like boulders. As soon as I got home, I swallowed a slew of pills and choked down a plain yogurt before hobbling into the guest bedroom -- I couldn’t walk up the stairs -- and slept for five or six hours. When I awoke and turned too quickly to get a glass of water from my bedside table, I heard a popping noise from the implants. I froze in terror and, in a haze, peaked beneath the ace bandages. Nothing had ruptured. But the image of my yellow-dyed, raw, swollen, bloody chest will never leave me.
The recovery process was excruciating and slow. My anorexic mind couldn’t bear the almost constant pain and the inability to exert myself physically. I made a strict effort to eat only 1,200 calories a day. My stomach was so swollen that I felt too fat to even consider the thought of food -- or the thought that my body might need fuel to recover. I wore a tight bandage over the top of the implants to allow them to “settle in naturally.” On New Year's Eve, I finally left the house. My friend gave me a hug and I nearly passed out from pain.
The reality of my recovery was far from the flawless plan I had conceived in the fall. At school, I was paranoid. I thought everyone could tell I had had surgery. I was convinced that they looked at me differently, could see right through my exhausting façade of normalcy. Track season approached and I was scared to change in the locker room. I performed poorly and had to quit early due to an injury from a combination of a lack of training and shin splints from too much running and low bone density.
I was ashamed of my body, and the failure was devastating. But, all the while I maintained my restricting habits and remained underweight. Nothing mattered as much as achieving that ideal. I still hated my body, perhaps even more so than before the surgery.
My anorexia subsided somewhat during senior year. I still restricted my caloric intake, but I allowed myself to weigh closer to 105 pounds. For the first time I began to notice how many girls my age didn’t have “normal” sized breasts; they didn’t seem to care, and no one else really cared, either. A small part of me wondered if I'd made a $7,000 mistake. But that voice was always silenced by the louder voice of my eating disorder.
I chose to go to college at a small liberal arts school in the South. I liked it because, generally speaking, it mirrored my neighborhood at home: a tight-knit community of, generally speaking, wealthy, conservative, and (though I didn’t realize at the time) apathetic individuals. I often looked through drunken Facebook pictures in poorly lit fraternity basements and did not recognize myself.
I lost 15 pounds in the process of conforming to my university’s ridiculous idea of normalcy. I stayed at a dangerously low weight until I took a creative writing class in the spring that helped me come to terms with my anorexia. Once I put it into words, I couldn’t ignore it any more.
Sophomore year, I grew more and more into the person that I am now. Acknowledging my eating disorder opened my eyes to its cause. I began to educate myself about progressive, feminist ideas. When I voluntarily entered therapy at the beginning of my junior year, I faced the fact that while I seemed fine, my eating disorder still had a voice in my head and in my life.
I wanted to be a feminist, but I wanted to overcome my cognitive dissonance between my beliefs and my personal struggle with a poor body image. I admitted to my counselor that I had plastic surgery and, by that point, I hated it. I felt inauthentic and hypocritical. The implants served as irremovable markers of the insecure, troubled girl that I wanted to hug and leave behind.
My parents were shocked and angered when I asked them if I could get a second surgery to remove my implants. They withheld financial support for the surgery, but I was lucky enough to have the necessary funds in savings to pay for the procedure myself. I arranged the surgery with the same doctor as before. He agreed to perform the removal for a discounted price.
As much as I hated to fuel the cosmetic surgery system, I knew that I could never truly abandon my eating disorder if I kept the implants. The second surgery was easier than the first by far, pain-wise. I tell myself that the surgeon’s casual attitude before and after surgery was to make me feel better, and not anything more sinister such as disapproval of my choice to remove their efforts. The female nurses’ indifference was almost worse than the physical pain that I experienced.
I will always have physical scars from my surgeries, but I am learning to love my body for what it is and what it does; my body is no longer a project. But what still horrifies me is how easily I believed the false voices around me, how loud those lies still are.
The cosmetic surgery industry is just one part of the corrupt conception that women develop about their bodies. The lie that told me having bigger breasts and a skeletal figure would make me more attractive. The lie that told me “pain is beauty.” This lie hurts everyone who hears it -- women and men of all races and classes.
But the truth can be told, once voice at a time.