Six Months After My Breast Explant…
… the really hard work begins.
I did a media interview the other day. I wish I could act like it’s no big deal… as if Australian television reporters email me every day just to keep up with whatever I post on Medium.
They definitely don’t.
But since I wrote Learning to Love What’s Real (Why I’m Getting My Breast Implants Removed) and What Happened When I Had My Breast Implants Removed, I have received at least three to four e-mails per week from women expressing support, asking questions, and wanting to share their own stories and fears about their implants and removal.
One of those women was Gillian Wolski, a reporter for television channel 10 in Sydney, Australia. She was writing an online column about women who have had breast “explant” (removal of implants) surgery. She happened upon my Medium article and wanted to interview me for this story:
Explants: Why Women Are Having Their Breast Implants Removed
Women who have previously undergone breast implant surgery are now deciding to have the procedure reversed -- a growing…
“One of these things is not like the other…”
In case you’re skimming Gillian’s article and you’re curious as to which of us is which, well… I’m the faceless one in the bra, openly displaying my deflated boobs.
Some of the letters I receive give me hope and strength and some of them bring me to the verge of tears.
I had no idea that so many women believed that the answer to plugging the hole in their self-esteem or keeping their husbands off of porn or any number of problems that had nothing to do with their breasts, was to commission a scalpel to cut their bodies up.
So many women just like me.
Also like me, some women had originally gotten their implants to please husbands whom they are now divorcing. Some didn’t know why they wanted their implants out — they just did. Some wanted to explant but were too scared and wrote me looking for reassurance. Some women told me that their implants are making them sick and wanted to know if I had any of the same symptoms.
Some had already explanted, were disappointed in the outcome, and wished they hadn’t done it. They cried to me on their keyboards and I could feel their sadness weeping from their words. Those stories hurt the most to read.
Before all else, I am a mama and I tried my best to relay to them the wisdom I have gained from this experience:
The change that matters most happens in your head — not your body.
Implant removal was not the end of my world. It wasn’t even the beginning. It was another milestone in a journey I’ve been on for as long as I can remember.
It doesn’t define who I am, but it has helped me begin to take the shape of the woman I want to be.
When I was just 4 or 5 years old, I remember sneaking an early 1980’s JC Penney catalog off of the living room coffee table. I took it back to the privacy of my room to browse in secret.
Back then, everything in the store was displayed on those pages. My family never actually ordered anything from JC Penny that I knew of, so I’m not even sure why we had the catalog in our house. Aspiration, maybe?
The book was 3–4 inches of heavy color glossy glamour, and I marveled at all of the things I had never seen but were available to someone —microwave ovens, Girl Scout uniforms, and happy families in coordinated outfits.
We had that cinder block of a book for years, and there were two sections that I had flipped to so many times the corners were worn and the binding broken.
The first was the formal dress section. Those dresses created a longing in me so intense that I’m not sure I could conjure an analog today. It was very typical for a little girl in the 80’s to want to be a princess.
I never dared to imagine myself royalty, but I could conceive of one day being comfortable enough to buy a pretty dress…if I squinted just hard enough.
The models were perfectly coiffed and beautiful and feminine. The dresses were exquisite. I would pick a dress, choose a color, and then thumb through and find coordinating accessories, like gloves and shoes. The idea of having this kind of beauty in my real life was mesmerizing. I’d try to imagine where I would go wearing something so fancy.
What were those dresses even for?
The most elegant event my kindergarten brain could think of was a wedding, and those dresses were much too formal even for that occasion — at least as I understood it.
The only wedding I’d ever attended was held in the basement of the local union hall.
“Maybe the dresses were for a ball,” I thought to myself.
Cinderella had a ball, and didn’t she wear a beautiful dress like this? But that couldn’t be it. Cinderella was a fantasy. She wasn’t real.
My reality was my one-size-too-small scuffed up snow boots, stringy hair, and brown corduroy high-waters.
The catalog was from JC Penney. On its best day, my wardrobe was from K-mart.
I sat for hours staring at those dresses and fantasizing about being that beautiful.
Beauty wasn’t something I knew for myself. I was so sure that those beautiful women were loved and adored and showered with attention. I don’t know how I made the connection between the appearance of the models in the catalog and their worth as human beings, but I can still feel it, as I sit here today.
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.
When I was done looking at the dresses, I would inspect the tiny rooms adjacent to my tiny room to make sure no one was around. I’d hop back on my bed, hide under my covers, and turn to the other section that was worn from use.
Sex wasn’t just shameful in my house. Sex was shame.
It makes sense to me now, knowing the lies and secrets that congealed in the dark corners of our little two-bedroom, 1200 sq ft house — but back then I couldn’t have known.
At five, I had no idea why I was transfixed with these pages, but I was certain that I would get in trouble if I were caught looking at them. The women were so beautiful — like angels. Some of them I recognized as the same women from the formal dress pages.
My little brain was already adept at telling stories to add color to my grayscale life. That was why I risked sneaking the book — I need my little escapes.
I imagined the photo shoots for the catalog. First, the models would have their pictures taken in their stunning ball gowns. Then, they’d peel off their gowns, like butterflies from cocoons, and have their pictures taken again, this time wearing only the underwear underneath.
I would put on the one fancy-ish dress in my closet, which was stained and had a broken zipper, and strip it off in the mirror behind my door, posing in my underwear, just like they did.
Except I did it without finding any of the beauty or charm that those women radiated. My reflection was a disappointment.
Then I’d jump back into bed, huddle back under the covers and imagine the models wrapping up the bra and panty pictures… and then taking their underwear off, too.
Tops and bottoms.
I wondered where those pictures were. I knew I’d like to see them.
And for that, I felt shame.
In a few of the bra pictures, I could see shadows of nipples, and I would strain for a closer look — eyes on the page, ears listening for anyone who might walk in and catch me.
These were the women I wanted to look like.
I wanted breasts that would fill out a bra in a way that made someone feel about my body the way I felt about theirs.
I wanted someone to look at me like I looked at those beautiful women. With longing and desire. With love.
My explant surgery required more than just a scalpel and a vacuum that sucked out the saline from my internal water balloons. I also had to do some mental surgery — cognitive reframing and excision of the maladaptive beliefs I had been holding onto for decades.
That takes longer.
My implants weren’t the only thing I needed to let go of.
Physically, my breasts have indeed “fluffed up” and filled in, as it was suggested that they might do in the countless, “What to Expect After Your Surgery” articles I read.
The internal cavern where the implants resided has healed — the walls lining the empty space have fused back together. I no longer have pain radiating from the inside out when I lean forward. The dents that were apparent looking at me head-on immediately following the surgery have filled in and generally smoothed over. Unless I raise my arms straight over my head, I can’t see them anymore.
The breast tissue has redistributed. Prior to surgery, it had been compacted and pushed to the side and behind the implant. In the months since removal, the tissue has been allowed to reform as nature intended. There’s still more space than tissue, but what is left has migrated back into a more organic position.
The physical healing seems to be complete and, honestly, the result could be worse.
The mental and emotional changes are still in progress and more of a struggle, but I am working on them on a daily basis.
Last week, I bought a swimsuit.
More than the Australian interview, the swimsuit purchase was the event that got me started thinking about writing this article. I had started looking for one in February because I figured it might take weeks, even months, to find a suit that fits correctly, and if I didn’t get started soon I wasn’t going to have anything that worked for taking my daughters swimming this summer. Missing out on fun times with them because I’m insecure isn’t something the woman I want to be would do.
Still, I was dreading the search — it felt like my Waterloo. So, I began with low expectations. The goal? I just didn’t want to hate it. More accurately, I didn’t want to hate myself in it.
It’s one thing to walk around covered in layers — boobs covered by bra, covered by shirt, covered by sweater — in the winter. It’s quite another to put my new body “out there” in a two-piece swimsuit — nothing but a thin layer of wet fabric between the girls and the world — to test my declaration that my recovery had less to do with my appearance and more to do with reconciling my own insecurities.
Before my explant, shopping for a swimsuit was akin to (forgive the cliche’) looking for a needle in a haystack.
My body was like a collection of mismatched Frankenstein parts.
I usually went with the $100 + swimsuit separates that I couldn’t afford because they offered the option of pairing an extra-small bottom with a top in a full-figured bra size: 32G. I had the most luck was with brands that catered to strippers, which makes perfect sense. I would typically pick their more conservative offerings, but it was never a matter of liking any of the suits I bought. I was lucky if I could find anything that fit.
After explant surgery, my problem is different.
Now I need a high cut neckline because I have extra skin that even the most-padded, most-pushy push-up bra won’t lift high enough to give the appearance of typical cleavage. Now, I need extra padding because sometimes my wayward nipples end up pointing in two different directions and it makes me self-conscious.
I was convinced it was wishful thinking that I could buy a whole suit in the same size, but I figured I would give it a shot, if only to prove myself right. I begrudgingly picked one out online and willfully forgot about it until it showed up at my door.
That suit sat in its package for 48 hours on my dresser until I was changing into my jammies one night and finally said to myself, “Fuck it. Let’s get this over with.”
I pulled on the bottoms and quickly tied up the top. The whole experience was much easier than it used to be when my heavy breasts would have to be positioned just-so among thick straps, giant cups, and 6–7 hooks.
I stood there and stared in the mirror, much like I did when I saw myself for the first time right after surgery and tried to get acquainted with the woman staring back at me. The last time I wore a swimsuit, I was 20lb lighter, had long hair extensions, and giant breast implants.
This time, it was just me.
I was now looking at the reflection of a nourished, unfettered, unaugmented Me.
I didn’t cry this time, but I did tear up.
Maybe its just a great suit, but it’s more likely that my perspective has taken a 180 degree turn.
I felt good.
Good, people! Healthy. Strong. At home in my skin.
I ran down the stairs from my loft and showed my oldest daughter.
“Oh my God, Mama, you look ah-may-zing! Amazing. Beautiful, Mama!”
I felt beautiful.
It’s been a long time since I could say that with any degree of sincerity.
I went to see a new plastic surgeon last month to ask her what my options were to repair my breasts. I sought out a female doctor this time — one who specializes in post-mastectomy and lumpectomy reconstruction.
I was pretty let down when I disrobed and she told me that there’s not much she can do for me without putting in a new implant. There is just too much excess skin.
She said she would use the smallest size implant they have and that she would go under the muscle this time instead of over it. She explained that it would take two surgeries — one for the implant insertion coupled with a classic breast “lift,” and one for skin removal — like after rapid weight loss — to achieve an “acceptable” result.
She assured me that the implants would be nothing garish like I had before and that she believed it was my best chance for an aesthetically tolerable outcome. And I believed her.
Her eyes were sympathetic. I could tell she wanted to help.
I listened to her explain the process and the surgeries and everything that would be required of me and what it would cost.
I put my clothes back on and she sat down on the table next to me and said, “I’m sorry, but even if we do the surgeries, you’re just not going to get your breasts to look they did when you were 20.”
“That makes sense,” I replied with a sigh of relief.
I’m not 20, and I’m not trying to be.
“I think I just want to be me for a while. Saggy boobs aren’t the worst thing in the world.”
“Indeed, they are not.”, she said, smiling. “I’m here if you change your mind.”
I thanked her and walked out the door.
Every day, I look in the mirror and watch as time dulls the shine of my youth. And I have nothing but gratitude for it. My birthdays are milestones to be celebrated and there’s no better reminder of how fortunate I am to have my health than passing through a waiting room full of my sisters battling or recovering from cancer.
A healthy body is a precious gift, in any aesthetic iteration.
I’m learning to be grateful for mine.
In that moment and still now, one month after my appointment, I can’t imagine having another pair of foreign objects inserted into my body. Everything I have experienced in the last six months has led me to the decision that I’m going to leave my breasts precisely the way they are, in all of their semi-deflated glory. As much as I would love to have the pre-implant breasts that I took for granted back, I am learning acceptance and gratitude for what I do have: my life and my beautiful, healthy body. Attempting to, once again, surgically fix something that isn’t broken is the wrong solution to the problem.
In fact, thinking that there is a problem is the real problem.
My body is getting healthier and stronger, because I’ve started shifting my focus from how I look, to how I feel.
I don’t hesitate to remove my shirt in front of my Lover now, like I did in the month or so after surgery. We have even better sex than we did before I had them removed (which I honestly didn’t think was possible).
One thing we learned, through this process, is that implants are not his jam, either. I was the first woman he had slept with who had fake breasts, and he has concluded that they don’t work for him.
I’m glad. I want to be with a man who finds beauty in what is real.
It would be easy to question his sincerity, as some of my readers have, when he says that he prefers my body now to what it looked and felt before.
Back then, I was much closer to the unrealistic ideal that is peddled in pop and porn culture. The one he is supposed to be attracted to.
But I do I believe him, in part because I see the improvement, too. The improvement is in my health and my strength and in the wisdom I have acquired in accepting the things I cannot change and finding the courage to change the things I can. (Yes, the reference is intentional.)
And it still stands, since my last update, that my Lover’s is only opinion I care about besides my own.
When I see my Lover looking at me these days — whether I’m draped sunny side up on his bed, blissfully reposing after a long night of fucking/eating/cuddling/fucking/talking/sleeping, or sitting across a stuffy, crowded room during a dinner party, both of our collars buttoned up both literally and metaphorically, or chatting via video call half a world away in opposite time zones as one of us is sacrificing sleep to check-in with the other — I finally feel what I had hoped I would someday as I was looking at that old catalog.
I feel him longing for me the way that I had dreamed someone would when I was a little girl.
And his desire is not at all about what I thought it would be.
His attraction is not solely about my body or any of its individual parts. Lots of women have shapes more attractive than mine.
Curvier hips. Perkier breasts. Smaller waists. Longer hair.
His desire, I’m learning, is about my health and my strength and the depth of my mind. It’s about my intelligence and my wit. It’s about my femininity and the beauty that comes from growth borne of pain. It’s about the changes that have taken place in me that the implant removal was an essential part of.
It's about my willingness to do emotionally difficult things to get closer to the woman I wish to become.
His desire is for the woman who was strong enough to fix what was broken, even when it activated her most primal fears of rejection. He craves the woman who has spent the last year challenging herself to be better.
As far as pure aesthetic value, my breasts are not ideal. But I’ve learned through this process that “mine” beats “fake” any day. And that’s not just lip service.
I want a healthy body. I want a body that is able to carry me through another 50 years and allow me to watch my four beautiful daughters navigate the world and find their meaning and purpose and become the women they want to be.
Healthy and strong.
This is not to say that making changes in one’s appearance is wrong or bad, even if its done in the name of being more attractive to our partners. But that altering should be in the name of health, not someone else’s ideal.
Healthy is beautiful.
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.
Sometimes I close my eyes and find little AJ sitting on her bed, under her covers, with the catalog open to the lingerie section. I see the terror in her eyes at being “caught” looking at the women in their underwear. She’s so afraid.
I scoop her into my lap and tell her that it’s okay to cry and I promise that I won’t let her go. And she cries so fucking hard and long that I think she might pass out until finally, she sleeps in my capable, loving arms.
I rock her until she wakes up.
When she does, I let her show me the pictures in the catalog and ask her to tell me all about her feelings.
I tell her that they are okay and that there’s nothing wrong with her for wanting to feel beautiful and loved. It’s normal. She’s alright. She’s not bad or wrong or dirty.
And those women are beautiful.
I tell her that being beautiful isn’t just about her appearance or her body. I tell her that she already is brave and strong and beautiful. And when she looks up at me confused, because no one has ever said that to her before and she never imagined herself as those things, I tell her that I’m not going to let her forget that she is brave and strong and beautiful and that she can become the woman she wants to be.
What she can’t do is give up on herself.
And now I say that very thing to myself that every damn day.
“You are brave and strong and beautiful.”
I’m not going to let my inner little girl forget it.
And I’m sure as hell not going to give up on myself.
Thank you for taking the time to read my piece. :) Here are a few more of my favorites. -AJ