Deperfectionism and My Botched Breast Surgery

Kerri Devine
9 min readMar 10, 2023

Pro tip: When you hack off part of your body, it weeps.

My daughter returned from camp and said we needed to talk. As we sorted laundry, she leaned in, speaking with the quiet urgency of a stock trader uncloaking a life-changing tip. “I think it’s time,” she said, “I need a bra.”

She didn’t. Not even close. I pictured her and her bunkmates in their cabin, robed in PJs, painting their nails and chanting Judy Blume’s iconic puberty mantra, “I must, I must, I must increase my bust,” while they did pectoral enhancement exercises and wondered if anything would sprout.

I never had that problem. By age 12, I was a C cup. It was uncomfortable physically, but even more socially. I was the first one to “get them.” At least such good ones. I felt like an awkward student driver with a shiny red Corvette. My breasts loomed large, set off whispers and glances, sometimes more. In seventh grade, Randy, a hormonal teenager in my shop class, sneaked behind me, wrapped his arms around my ribcage, and cupped my newly pert breasts on his way to the table saw. I was flush and nauseated, as uncomfortable as the straps of my new Warner’s bras. I did not want to be known for these mounds, in school or anywhere. I spent the whole semester trying to give Randy’s advances the brush off, like the sawdust on my corduroys. Recently, I wondered what became of him, whether this behavior continued into adulthood, or whether any #metoo moments brought him the reckoning my young seventh grader was too weak and confused to deliver.

“No matter what I wore, my large breasts made me feel immodest, indecent, like a giant Scarlet Letter arriving a few heartbeats before the rest of me.”

As I grew, so did “the sisters.” They were popular in college, especially in tank tops. After gaining the Freshman 15, I disguised them beneath oversized football jerseys. No matter what I wore, my large breasts made me feel immodest, indecent, like a giant Scarlet Letter arriving a few heartbeats before the rest of me — making my breasts feel a little like community property, worthy of at least commentary from dorm moms and construction workers alike.

Oh, hello, dear. My, you’ve grown.

Nice tits!

By age 30, I was trimmer, but even in a size 6 sweater “the sisters’’ were the first ones to enter a room.

My waistline grew after the birth of my daughter, my chest swelling with maternal pride and subcutaneous fat. The discomfort was more than physical. I didn’t want these breasts to be a source of food. I wanted them to go away. At the new mothers’ group, I felt like a pariah. We met at the coffee shop in the 92nd Street Y. Everyone came with a breastfeeding story. I kept mine — that I’d never considered breastfeeding, that the mere thought of it nauseated me — to myself. I thought of those first days home after my emergency C-section: the sour smell of milk…swollen breasts extending as far as my armpit… the feeling of shame… then relief as I wrapped my chest in ace bandages and tight-fitting bra. In the morning, I iced them. At night, after the last bottle feeding, I stepped into a cold shower and wept.

Despite, or because of, my decision to forego breastfeeding, my bosom continued to expand. By the time I reached the cup size “G” — four past DD, the one reserved for mail order catalogs and secret fitting rooms — it was impossible to discern where the bulge in the middle ended and the two above it began. I wanted to look better, sure, but also to feel better. I’d battled severe rashes under my breasts and nagging back pain for years; now the extra weight of my breasts was making it difficult to exercise. Simply putting on a proper fitting sports bra was an exercise all its own. Gradually came the longing for what, as the daughter of a plastic surgeon, I knew was possible but was too afraid to consider: elective surgery.

I spent nearly every morning of the next decade trying to talk myself into it, manipulating the mammaries in the mirror as I dressed. I’d cup both hands over my heart, pressing off just enough tissue from my left breast to so it would appear half its size. I looked better, but the burst of confidence was fleeting; my dutiful flesh always fell back into place.

My curiosity grew in quiet moments with the help of Google. I searched “breast reduction,” but couldn’t stomach the pictures. My father’s surgical chromosomes clearly had skipped a generation, repelled by my deeply entrenched, squeamish constitution; I could barely look at the veins on the underside of my wrist without feeling faint. Beyond my regular queasiness, annual trips to the radiologist for mammograms brought the supplemental indignity of being lubed up and taken to a special ultrasound room reserved for women with “dense tissue.”

Over time, I accepted the facts: If my breasts were going to get any smaller, I would need to go under the knife. A new determination gripped me. I became bolder. I joined message boards to get over my fear of the prospective procedure through full-color, medical photography. I learned about lollipop incisions, dissolvable stitches and post-surgical drains. I examined images of areolas that had been cut from the body, resized, and glued back on. I researched surgeons in New York, asking every doctor I’d ever been to for a recommendation, including the paunchy podiatrist who fit my running shoes with orthotics. When the same name came up three times, I booked a consultation, and took a friend.

The surgeon’s pristine Park Avenue office glowed with the kind of tender lighting actresses requested in the late stages of their career. Assistants circled the hallways in groups, like the black-turtleneck set in that Robert Palmer video, while well-dressed women sat on plump sofas in the waiting room. Some, of indeterminable age, bore the soft edges that suggested this wasn’t their first nip-and-tuck rodeo. I laid my coat over my lap to cover my knees, shaking from the medley of excitement and worry.

During my appointment, I took copious notes, stifled my nerves, and signed the forms. The surgery would take four hours; my recovery, six weeks. I scheduled the procedure for early summer while my daughter was at camp, giving me just enough time to lose a few extra pounds and cement the details of our upcoming move to the Carolinas.

That June, just after my 48th birthday — while my daughter was learning to sail — I was finding my sea legs in a sterile ambulatory suite, having the breast reduction I’d secretly wished for my entire adult life.

Except for a flash of unsteadiness in my building’s elevator, I don’t remember the hours after the procedure. If anyone was there to gawk or postulate when I toddled into my apartment and shut the door behind me, thanks to a large dose of Valium, I could not have known. The next day, a nurse named Dale stopped by to show me how to empty my drains. I guess when you hack off part of your body, it weeps.

A week later, the soreness dissipated enough for me to take light walks. On one, I stopped into the intimate apparel shop on the corner. The salesperson was a petite older woman with glasses and a long, blue measuring tape around her neck. “Shopping for anything special today?” she asked from behind her slim, red bifocals.

I motioned her into the dressing room. When she closed the curtain, out poured my story of my recent surgery, the pain and tenderness, and the overwhelming curiosity I felt about my new size. “The swelling isn’t all the way down,” I said, cupping the suture lines on the front of my breasts.

“I understand,” she said, tapping my arm with reassurance. She pinched the tape on either end, threading it below my breasts on top of my ribcage, then made the same circle around the fullest part of me, in front. “You’re a small C,” she said from behind her glasses. She returned with some bras and new swimwear. I tried on the orange bathing suit and cried.

That weekend, “the small-Cs” and I went away with my husband for the Fourth of July. One evening I noticed a damp spot on my surgical bra. The line down the front of my breast was leaking, so I called the doctor’s answering service. The nurse who called me back assured me the discharge from my wound was normal, so I covered it with gauze and moved on with my weekend. By the time we returned to the city on Monday, the sutures had opened. The next call I made was to the surgeon to ask him why my left breast looked like the Grand Canyon, and what we were going to do about it.

He prescribed a plan of attack that included twice-a-day visits to repack my wound, silver bandages with special healing properties and lots of protein. A few weeks later, when my daughter returned to the apartment we were boxing up, I was attached by a tube to a wound vacuum I carried in a cross-body bag like some old tape recorder. Nothing was working. The surgeon was flummoxed. The day before our scheduled move, I was at Lenox Hill Hospital seeing a renowned wound specialist who suggested surgical intervention and cautioned me against the dangers of leaving town with a hole that tunneled to the deep reaches of my bosom.

We postponed the moving trucks and checked into a hotel. After consulting with my doctor, we opted for a surgical wound debridement in place of reconstruction. A week later, after the procedure, my family and I were cruising down I-95 with three suitcases and a Hazmat bag full of metal forceps, disinfectant and gauze. Somewhere in Virginia, at a Hilton Garden Inn, my husband, the accidental medic, waved our daughter to the far side of the room, turned the desk swivel chair toward me and said, “Hop on.”

“Don’t look, don’t look!” I cried to my teen while my husband cleaned and packed my wound. She stiffened in the club chair across the room, as he helped re-clasp my post-surgical bra and dispose of the soiled gauze, another contribution to the bag of medical waste accumulating in the back of our white Ford Explorer.

Slowly, my wounds healed. Despite the unplanned setbacks and some understandable anxiety, I knew I faced nothing compared to my college roommate who was having a lumpectomy and radiation at the same time. I had spoken to friends about my upcoming breast reduction to get my game face on. Now I felt heartsick and shameful for worrying about this superficial problem I brought upon myself.

I found a local surgeon in my new hometown to monitor my case until my wound closed. Eight weeks later, I got the all-clear. I could exercise again. Wear normal bras. And donate my XL tops to charity. I felt weightless and grateful.

To celebrate, the next month, my husband, daughter and I took a Thanksgiving trip to Italy to see a family member temporarily stationed there. On our way to the Sistine Chapel, a statue in the Vatican Museum caught my eye. Against one wall, Artemis of Ephesus, Greek goddess of fertility, stood confidently, a ring of breast-like sacks rimming the entire length of her torso — a proud display of the very barnacles I spent nearly four decades trying to get rid of. With a knowing smile, she spoke to me. Worship me, she whispered. I am imperfect.

“The gift of my botched surgery was this: from the depths of a wound that refused to heal grew a deeper appreciation for those with real wounds, a stronger me, more compassionate.”

She knew what I did not. We get what we get. My breasts had felt like a burden to me but of course they were so much more: a symbol of motherhood, a source of comfort, my emotional center.

It took a hormonal teenage boy, a dozen tight sweaters and a botched surgery to fix my breasts, but it was an ancient goddess who truly restored them. They’re a little smaller than they used to be — not as little as I had hoped — and are beginning to droop. The left one has a vague heart shaped scar covering the bottom half, the reddened skin looking as if at some point it had caught on fire.

Can a burden be a source of strength? I’m still not sure. But the gift of my botched surgery was this: from the depths of a wound that refused to heal grew a deeper appreciation for those with real wounds, a stronger me, more compassionate. We are all blemished. We start out that way and no matter what stitches they use we still are. Nearly 40 years since Randy first tried to uncover the mysteries hiding inside my brassiere, I’ve finally begun to focus on the beauty beneath my skin, and embrace the normal rhythms of aging.

Back home, my daughter and I grabbed some ginger ales and turned on the TV. A fashion show was on. Models wearing lacy skivvies and feather wings paraded in jeweled bras with colors flying, and lots of wire. I paused, and reached for the remote to change the channel. Noticing her pleasure, I stopped myself. “Ooh,” I said, “Look at those!” Then I turned to my daughter, raised my glass and said, “Here’s to the sisters.”

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Kerri Devine

Essayist and reformed ghostwriter. Menopause maven and founder of @HotinCharleston. Slinger of truth, humor and insights from midlife.