The weight of what's lost

Flourish Vol. 40

Red September skies // a garden visit a few days pre-op // a beautiful birthday bouquet

Where do I even start with the past few weeks, with a September that will likely be seared into my mind forever for reasons both wonderful and terrible? Oregon burned with wildfires that spread like infection, and the sky turned a red I’ve never seen before and hope to never see again. At least three children died in the fires across the Northwest, one apparently attempting to save his grandmother from the blaze. My heart breaks for their parents, for the now 200,000-plus people who have been lost to COVID-19, for the injustice done to Breonna Taylor, for the death and indomitable life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. For the national unrest many fear is just weeks away

And in this same September, trying with all my might to keep my head above water, I have turned 27, chopped off most of my hair — accepting once and for all that I am not suited for the upkeep of anything longer than my shoulders — and finally undergone a procedure I have wanted since I was 17, laying to rest something that began eating away at me many years before that still.

I debated whether to be open about this experience because, well, a woman’s breasts are supposed to be private, aren’t they? But then they’ve never really been private for me, or at least it felt like that was a choice I never fully got to make. And if this year has taught me anything, it’s that pain is universal, and valid no matter how seemingly small, and there is nothing more important we can do to heal ourselves than to be honest about the things that break us into pieces. So here goes nothing, or everything, in all its awkwardness and vulnerability.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget my distinct horror at beginning to develop in the fourth grade, wearing my mother’s underwire bras at age 10, learning the word “voluptuous” because a boy who had a crush on me insisted upon using it in a poem he wrote to flatter me. I was not so much openly bullied as less-than-discretely gossiped about and slyly derided, by boys and girls, teachers and other adults alike, whose gaze inevitably found its way to my chest before my face. I felt, suddenly, that I could no longer turn to the people I thought I could trust, to reassure me that the body I hadn’t asked for and hated with a fury didn’t make me a freak.  

Those years of puberty were relentless and mortifying and changed the way I saw myself in a rather catastrophic fashion. I gave up on soccer and track — not that I could find sports bras that fit, even if I’d wanted to keep enduring those activities — as well as the bathing suits and formal dresses and candy-colored bras that might have made me feel an inkling of pride in my changing body. Instead, I felt it had betrayed me.

I began to dress, as my high school best friend never let me forget, aggressively conservatively, in necklines above my collarbones, oversized sweaters and coats, determined to be the “smart girl” rather than “the one with the boobs.” As if the two were mutually exclusive. When I developed an eating disorder in high school, one that caused my body to rapidly shrink and then expand, I was first and foremost lucky to survive. But the body I was left with after the weight returned was unmistakably not the same one I had lived in before. Sometimes I blamed myself for that.

For many years, my issues with my breasts were superficial. All of the clothes and bathing suits and bras I convinced myself I could never wear; I loathed the way I looked in photos, was a late bloomer when it came to dating. I watched my twenties slip by and felt immense shame and premature regret at never being able to embrace my body fully.

But as I grew older, the physical issues cropped up with a vengeance: the back pain, the strain on my soft tissue, the knot at the base of my neck from permanently hunching, treated more and more consistently with ibuprofen or leftover painkillers when the discomfort became unbearable. Exercising was a chore, intimacy at times was fraught (due entirely to my own festering insecurity.) I’d always heard that I’d find a man who loved the way I looked (as if that were an issue — and if it was, I’d never gotten any complaints.) That I would be unable to breastfeed my hypothetical children (which I was uncertain I wanted at all and — again — where exactly did my happiness factor into these scenarios about my own body?)

With each passing year, I began to think more and more seriously about a breast reduction, but with the demands of college and then a career, plus the sizable cost of surgery due to the fact that my insurance refused to assess my pain based on anything other than grams of breast tissue, the timing never seemed right. It felt increasingly impossible, like a pipe dream, like something that would only happen for a more-perfect version of myself living in some parallel universe.

Then, the pandemic hit, and underneath all of its heartache, it offered a silver lining in the form of a year of remote work, the chance to exchange my LA rent for some time spent living with my parents, and my mother home to care for me, too.

After years of discomfort and dissatisfaction with my body, I knew I had reached a juncture: the time had come to decide whether this was something I would do in my lifetime, and to make peace with my decision either way, once and for all. And when I realized that the idea of never doing this broke my heart, that was all the confirmation I needed.

This has been a terrible, godawful, no good, shitty year for just about everyone I know, collectively and personally, but it has offered me this one merciful reprieve. With the caveat, of course, that I must endure significant pain to finally inhabit the body I always felt I was meant to have. But, one day post-surgery, I am already certain that it was worth every dime, every stitch, every ounce of pain and minute I spent waiting to finally get here.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the love and support I’ve received from those I chose to tell, by the patience and care from my mother as I make my recovery, and by the work of the incredible medical team who made this dream my reality. As personal of a decision as this was, I was never alone in it, and I am beyond grateful for that. And so ready for this new beginning, my whole lifetime in the making.

-Olivia