“… at least they’re not very big…”
The week before my double mastectomy, a good friend of mine (a flamboyantly butch gay man whose penchant for potty talk ranges from the hilarious to the tiresome) was trying to help me look for the bright side.
I don’t remember if I snapped back at him or just thought it:
“Really? Remind me to comfort you with that knowledge when they come around to cut off your penis.”
I liked my breasts. They were small only to an observer who felt compelled to rank me in a mental line-up of variously endowed women. From my end, they were everything I knew and expected breasts to be. The idea of my boobs going out with the operating room trash made me sad. Never having boobs again was hard to fathom.
I gave the matter plenty of thought, and discussed it with anyone who didn’t fall into awkward silence when mention of the surgery came up.
In the end, I opted to forego the implants. Once I’d gone to all the trouble of having my real boobs removed (in what my surgeon later described as one of the bloodiest operations in the manual), I couldn’t imagine enduring a series of additional surgeries undertaken solely to embed faux breasts under my badass 4″ rumble scars.
As soon as the surgery had been scheduled, I received my mastectomy gift bag (yes, that’s a thing). It contained a melange of helpful documents, resources, and odd little artifacts of encouragement and support, including a long. slender, floral cotton cushion with velcro back straps (handsewn by some previous mastectomee) to slide over my seat belt strap on the ride home from the hospital. How thoughtful.
The gift bag also included a generous and enlightened coupon offer from Nordstrom’s, an upscale department store. The coupon carried the promise of a free “fitting,” and one free pair of “prostheses.“
I struggled to consider this non-invasive backup plan seriously.
To begin with, the idea that a bra filled with soft rubber mounds – in any size of my choosing, no less (“why not enjoy something a little more voluptuous?” I was advised) – the idea that such a contrivance could qualify as a prosthesis struck me as patently ridiculous.
A prosthesis is a device that replaces the function of a lost or missing part, isn’t it?
At that point in my life, my breasts clearly lacked mission-critical functionality. The contribution I did appreciate my breasts for – call it the zing of arousal – was, shall we say, neuro-psychological, and unlikely to be replaced by silicone substitutes.
The “function” of a prosthetic-enhanced brassiere in fact serves someone other than the wearer. “Prosthetic breast,” I concluded, is a euphemism contrived by pitying patriarchs.
And as for taking my mom’s advice to keep a free, pre-loaded bra in my drawer just in case I wanted “to feel pretty sometime” … I just couldn’t imagine taking a “sometimes you feel like some breasts, sometimes you don’t” approach to stepping out on the town.
I felt pretty sure that, if I allowed myself a reasonable journey through the stages of grief, I’d eventually arrive at some version of just fine.
To lose my hands or my eyes, I reasoned, would result in a much greater setback. I decided I had the mental toughness to create and embrace a new self-image, especially since its likely side effect was life.
Ultimately, though, I was mistaken – not so much about my mental toughness, but about the impact of my toughness on my relationships, and the impact of breastiness on my relationships.
I’d anticipated it was shame I’d have to overcome, but shame turned out to be the easiest dragon to slay.
The more stealthy dragon – the one I not only did not anticipate – but also failed for years to recognize – was the reality that the new self-image that I worked to evolve into … and the new boobless me (as seen by those who hadn’t known me before) … stood, somehow, worlds apart. Breasts and nipples give a woman a reassuringly nurturing look. Breastlessness, it turns out, raises the intimidation quotient (or “nasty woman” factor) of a woman with a point of view.
It took me six years to understand that my healing would be incomplete until I pulled these two beings into functional alignment: the me I thought I had shaped myself into and the me that could be seen by strangers and acquaintances across the room.