So, I never intended to have a career as a writer and, most especially, did not expect to end up being a positive body image advocate (well, I personally was a positive body image advocate, I just never thought saw it as part of my mission in life. The reality, though, is that what I see my mission as is to get people to live authentic, empowered lives of their own choosing, to get them accessing and using their voice, and not being consumed in body image is one piece of that. Not the only piece, and it is not even the only piece I work on within that mission but an important piece of it for sure). I thought that I would be a career educator and went to graduate school- to get a Masters in Fine Arts of Creative Writing- so I could learn how to better use writing in my classroom. Along the way, I wrote a couple essays that changed the trajectory of my life. One of those essays was The Latina in Me which led to Hijas Americanas. Another essay was Giving Up Beauty which led to the body image work. As I think about the very unlikely route my life has taken (ask me ten years ago where I would be in 10 years and I would have told you in a high school classroom, fighting for my kids) and about the upcoming release of Beautiful You, I can’t help but think about the essay that really articulated my awareness of body image. As are all body image issues, it feels impossible to share, it feels like pubicly sharing this is the worst thing I could ever do, but that’s the personal talking and what I know to be true is that when we have secrets, we lose perspective. We operate from a place of fear instead of a place of peace. And so, though this is a personal essay, I’m sharing it here in the spirit of Beautiful You. Because it is only when we give voice to that which seems unspeakable that it loses its power and we gain our own.
Giving Up Beauty
“It is not a malignancy.” He looked at his chart, nodding, not looking at me. I stared at him, squinting, trying to comprehend what he meant with these words that could not have been intended for me.
I craned to see the chart, convinced that he must have the wrong one, reading me some other woman’s good news because I was only in for a follow-up to my breast reduction surgery. My breasts were simply smaller, not broken, not tumorous, not possibly cancerous. They were the breasts of a woman with no family history of breast cancer. Clearly, there would be no malignancies, even if there were a reason to think that way. But there was no reason.
My gown fell open, revealing a left breast at the end of its festering. The vertical seam that connected where point A and point B came together to mark point C, where inches were snipped away in-between, had come undone weeks before this visit. I discovered it one morning in the bathroom mirror as I put on deodorant. In the humid haze of my bathroom, I caught sight of what my insides looked like.
That time at the doctor’s office, I expected more stitches, a zipping closed of this two inch by one inch gap. He looked at it a moment, pinched it shut with his fingers and placed a steri-stripe over it. I shuddered at the thought of pinching my own breast shut and securing it with tape each morning. “You can use two if you like,” he added upon seeing my disturbed look, as if two instead of one would make this better.
Now, two weeks later, I had returned to his office, expecting just an examination of the caterpillar-sized scar that now crawled up my left breast. The breast was red with tape burns and scabbing, and while it was the uglier of my two altered breasts, he glanced at my right breast furtively.
“You haven’t seen your lab results, yet, have you?” He honed in on the blank look I was trying to mask.
“The lab results– and it is standard practice to send things from surgery to biopsy– revealed a sizeable tumor removed from your right breast. We examined it, though, and it’s not malignant.”
I nodded, thinking about these words. Thinking about how a tumor could hide in a breast, thinking about how I might have reacted if he had told me I had a tumor and cancer in the same breath. My breasts were examined a month before my surgery. How could a tumor so large be missed? Or did it grow exponentially in the weeks following my exam? How much larger would it have grown before being detected?
I stared down at these small breasts, perfect and round and scarred in ways that I could not have imagined a month ago. And for the first time, I had no regrets. If I were not already thankful for the new found freedom and subdued pain (and some days I was not), I had to be thankful for this discovery. The reduction of what I formerly perceived as my womanhood revealed a dark spot that may not have been detected until it had grown too large to deny and morphed into something that could harm me.
I did not go into surgery with relief. Each day, I struggled to know how I felt. In the immediate days preceding my surgery, I stutter-stepped towards the procedure when before I had gone robotically forward,checking things off to prepare for a new silhouette. A week before the surgery, a collegiate friend called, one with whom I shared an undeniable attraction over the years we studied together. He was coming to town and wanted to stay with me. I choked and then replied that I couldn’t host him since I was going into surgery the day he arrived. He asked if this was the surgery that I had always wanted. He remembered what I hated most about my body, but it was an awkward moment because we both knew that it was part of my physical allure. I hung up the phone, cold, uncertain that I could be beautiful without large breasts and unsure that I had ever been beautiful, even with them.
On the day of my surgery, I was matter-of-fact, official, as I hurried my parents to the surgery center. In the prep room, I pulled on my gown and climbed into bed. I talked with my nurse whose breasts had been reduced ten years earlier. She was supportive and reassuring. I fought the urge to ask, “But did anyone ever look at you again? Were you able to be sexy without them?” I wasn’t sure that I could be sexy without them. I did not know what I had in me because I had always had these breasts on me.
My surgeon arrived and swiftly began the pre-op procedures. He diagrammed my breasts and chest in red and black permanent marker to insure that when everything was carved and sewn, I was even and congruent. During this time, I realized the magnitude of what was before me; I saw just how much of my body would no longer be with me a few hours later.
The anesthesiologist came in to tell me that I had a great chance of surviving the surgery and detailed how he would cram a tube down my windpipe during surgery to monitor my breath. It was too much, and I felt myself grow hot and weak.
“I am going to faint,” I whispered and lay down. I awoke with a nurse fanning me, and my surgeon eating graham crackers.
“It goes on,” I told myself. “It’s all going to be just fine.”
My surgeon finished outlining my chest and gathered my entourage, two nurses and the anesthesiologist, and we started down the hall towards surgery. I looked at them, heard them laugh and exchange minute details of their lives when he caught my eye.
“You will be beautiful,” he said, “just beautiful.”
We crashed through the doors of the operating room with incredible force, and the energy of the room immediately changed. The pace was fast, hands everywhere on my body attaching different monitors. I thought about what he had said and remembered how shamefaced I had been to walk through his waiting room. I had not wanted people to think I was vain enough to go to a plastic surgeon’s office freely. But here I was, now, terrified that in three hours I would no longer have an external indicator for beauty.
“Give it up,” I thought and faded into sleep.
When I woke up, my chest was on fire, a white heat that I could not breathe through without wincing. It was more pain than I had experienced in my life. The nurse noticed me stir and came over to my bed.
“I’ll get your mother.”
But I was more than my mother could handle with a bandaged upper body and various tubes protruding from me as well as an oxygen mask covering my face. She looked at me and fainted; and I wondered if it was, indeed, that bad. That moment alerted me to what I already unconsciously knew: my reaction to this recovery would be the lead for how everyone else would react. If I could not be beautiful, graceful might be within my reach.
I had a week off from work to rest and recover. I visited with friends and wrote. I bandaged my chest and cleaned the wounds. l bought fitted shirts for the first time.
By the second week, I was walking more rapidly, trying to maintain some degree of fitness. In the third week, I began to lift light weights. A day later, I discovered that my breast had torn open, and a small part of my soul followed suit.
Each morning, I gently pulled off the tape that was forcing the hole in my left breast shut and winced as it reopened the wound. I washed it carefully, feeling slight weakness when I pinched it shut with one hand and taped it with the other. One morning, it was especially painful and defeating. When my boyfriend visited, the defeat was etched on my face.
“What’s wrong?” He asked, and I told him. He squinted at me and said,
“I don’t get this– it’s going to heal. What’s the problem?”
I closed my eyes, wishing we had never begun this conversation, wanting to be alone and in pity without the need for guilt or shame.
“Look,” I replied, “I am just feeling a little scared, vain, and pathetic. Can you give me that?”
He stared at me, astonished.
“I can’t because you have never been any of those things. It’s not like you, and it’s just a scar.”
His words reminded me of a scar that I had on my knee, an inch by inch marking that had once been over three inches wide. In my early twenties, I fell down my apartment stairs and refused to go to the emergency room for stitches. I left my knee, a relatively public part of my anatomy, to heal as it would, and it answered with a closed knee cap but a wretched reminder of the fall. I once dated a man who looked at that scar, traced its outermost limits and said “Scars show character.” He won me in that moment, affirming what I had always believed: it is the difficult things that make you rich, give your life personality and flavor in ways that the easy things cannot evoke. I went back to that phrase and thought of my left breast, a private place on my anatomy that very few would ever be able to critique. Its greatest enemy was me.
But in hating my left breast, in critiquing it for beauty, I never considered my right breast and what it might be hiding. I did not think of what it contained behind its walls because it was the wall itself that most concerned me. My right breast was beautiful, as my doctor insisted they would both be once they healed. It did what was expected and healed with little effort. But my right breast could have ultimately altered my world. It was my right breast that, as I looked elsewhere, allowed the forces within to conspire against me.
I looked down at the left breast, red with blood and healing and force, and then at my right breast, small and perky. In that moment I knew that it did not matter if any man ever catcalled again and if beautiful was a word I ever heard from anyone’s mouth to describe me. I had two breasts and a life and a new start. I stepped out of my gown, pulled on my white cotton bra, and glimpsed myself in the mirror of the examining room. I stood straight and stared hard, assessing. Finally, I found myself looking at scars and seeing healing where once I looked at fullness and could not see myself.