Post-Mastectomy Woes: Barbie Did a Number on Me

February 10, 2017

There are heavy societal pressures on women who choose to forego breast reconstruction surgery after cancer.

Recently, I had an epiphany. On my way out the door to go shopping, I realized I didn’t have my prostheses on. I always wear them when I go out, but rarely wear them at home. When I’m home, I’m around people who love me and understand the painful journey I’ve been on. When I go out, I cave to societal pressures to look female because I am, indeed, female. I don’t feel a freedom to enter the public arena without my breasts. I wondered why I felt so strongly about it and realized it’s been engrained in me since I was a child.

Barbie dolls. That’s where it first began for me. Way back in my childhood somewhere, I began to get the message to be a woman meant you had to have breasts and not only breasts, but large breasts. I remember playing with dolls and taking off their clothes. Barbie had some pretty good sized hooters while her little sister, Skipper, did not. I looked at them closely, comparing their chest walls. Barbie was definitely all woman and Skipper, well, she just looked like a flat chested little girl. I wanted to be like Barbie.

When I entered puberty, my mother bought me a training bra. I didn’t really develop quickly, so there was no need for a real bra with cups. A couple of years later, I graduated to an A cup while all of my friends were already in B cups. I didn’t feel very feminine. I secretly dreamed of bigger breasts. I knew I wouldn’t feel like a woman until I was able to look down at my chest and see mounds of flesh.

After my first child, I’d graduated to a B cup. I felt like a woman and rightly so; only women can give birth. My chest wasn’t what I wanted it to be, but it was acceptable. I had enough projection to signify womanhood.

When my life was touched by breast cancer in 2014, I had both of my breasts removed. I had to think long and hard about the decision to remove my treasured companions. I felt humiliated when my breast surgeon told me I didn’t really “have that much anyway.” My breasts were my womanhood. After I had them removed, I was asked if I wanted reconstruction surgery. The pain I’d been through with the mastectomies and the lymph node removals prompted me to decline. I’d read a lot about reconstruction and knew it was a very involved process. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I didn’t want to take a chance on it not working. I didn’t want to have fake boobs that felt no sensation and had no nipples. The only other option for me was prosthetic breasts…silicone mounds of fake flesh. At the time, I felt this was the best decision for me.

A few months after I’d healed from my initial surgery, I was fitted for prostheses. Standing before the fitter bare chested was difficult. She was gracious and kind however, never making me feel uncomfortable and that helped. I went home with two breast forms tucked in two little pink boxes.

The prostheses were heavy and uncomfortable to wear against my newly healed scar. I opted to forego wearing them at home. My husband quickly got used to seeing me flat chested. My children never said a word. They were just happy to have me alive. Soon, I got used to having a flat chest and found freedom from bras and prostheses to be liberating. But when I went out in public, it was a different story. If I went out without my prostheses, I was constantly trying to cover my chest with my arms. I felt uncomfortable and felt like people were staring at me. I didn’t feel feminine. I made a mental note, from that day forward, to always wear my fake boobs when I went out in public. I needed to look like a woman.

Why can’t I be brave enough to just be OK with who I am? Why can’t I allow myself to venture out without my prostheses? Am I afraid of being considered transgender or is it because I never see any other women with perfectly flat chests? Surely there are other women who’ve been through breast cancer without reconstruction, but where are they? Do they feel the same way I do?

A couple of years ago, there was an ad campaign by a company called Play Out. This company made unisex underwear. In their campaign, they chose to use women who’d been through the trauma of breast cancer. The women they chose did not go through reconstruction. In an article about the campaign, the company said the women wanted to celebrate their bodies and defy gender stereotypes. While the company, Play Out, was not promoting breast cancer awareness, I was enthralled by the bravery of the women in their ad. They were perfectly happy to appear topless in front of the camera.

I can’t help but wonder if other women who’ve chosen to forego breast reconstruction surgery feel the same way as I do. Do they ever feel “less than” if they choose to be seen in public without their breasts? And if so, why do we feel this way? Do mothers do a disservice to their female children by purchasing well-endowed dolls for them while they are young causing them to form a warped opinion of what being a woman is all about?

I’ll admit having my breasts removed has affected my self-esteem greatly. Perhaps, if I had it to do over again, I might have chosen to have reconstructive surgery, but what’s done is done. I might not feel so self-conscious about my femininity if society didn’t demand I do so. Without all the attention on transgender in the media, I might not worry so about my appearance or what others think, but I do. I know in my heart, even without breasts, I am a woman but it would be nice if I didn’t feel like I have to prove it to others.


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