What It’s Like to Get a Breast Reduction

by Virginia R

There’s never been a time when I’ve loved my breasts. When I was younger, I was mad they didn’t show up as fast as I wanted them to. (Remember the joy of getting those painful little nubby breast buds?) I guess it was middle school when I finally grew a real pair, but I don’t recall exactly when I started wearing a bra or when I really started needing one. I know that by the time I was a freshman in high school my boobs were a fairly decent size, but even then I surmised during locker room changing sessions that mine were too squishy or floppy. And it only got worse as high school wore on. I went from being a C-cup to a D, and then I pushed all the way into DD territory.

I know that many women lust after big boobs (witness the breast implant industrial complex), but I found mine to be a complete pain, both literally and figuratively. Once they finally showed up, they grew so quickly that they were often tender and were streaked with ugly pink stretch marks. They got in my way, and a large, unsexy bra was always required to keep them under control. Above all, they made me self-conscious. Of course none of my boyfriends minded their large size, but I minded.

They ruined my posture because the more ashamed I got about their size, the more I hunched to avoid showing them off. When you have big boobs, and you stand up straight, it feels like you’re thrusting them into the world’s face like some kind of pin-up model. Not exactly the preferred look for a shy teenager. The weight of them also started to pull my shoulders down. At the end of the day, I’d have big red marks where my bra straps had dug into my skin, and I regularly got aches in my neck and back.

Even though I was a healthy kind of skinny, my bulging breasts threw off my proportions and made me look deceptively heavy. Being so buxom also made it difficult to find clothes that fit properly. Things that fit my torso and arms would be too tight in the chest. (Button-down shirts were the worst; thoughts of seeing my bra exposed through the gaping holes between those damn buttons still haunt me.) And I was constantly aware of how much trouble they caused me. When I got dressed in the morning, when I ate and tiny crumbs collected on my cleavage, when I was running to catch up to someone — there were dozens of tiny moments throughout the day when I noticed them and thought to myself, “too big, too big, too big.”

Still, as much as I’d come to hate my boobs, it never occurred to me that there was anything to be done about them. Of course I knew that plastic surgery existed, but I thought of it mostly as nose jobs and facials, something older rich people did for vanity’s sake. I had never known anyone who’d had a breast reduction.

Then one day when I was 21, my mom and I went out shopping for clothes. On the way home, I complained about my boobs being too big. My mom casually wondered if I’d ever thought of getting a breast reduction. My mind was blown! Not only by the idea of me getting plastic surgery, but by the knowledge that someone else (yes, it was my mother, but still) had thought that my boobs were big enough to need fixing. I was almost a little insulted at first, but then after a while the idea sunk in, and I became irrationally excited about the possibility of being freed from having giant knockers for the rest of my life. I fantasized that the surgery would transform my body completely, and I would henceforth lead a carefree existence filled with low-cut tank tops and strapless dresses.

But was this something I could actually do? How much did it cost? How did one find a doctor? What did they do to you? Luckily my mom knew her way around the healthcare system and found a good surgeon — and she agreed to pay for it, which was beyond generous. And so it was that a few months later I found myself in a doctor’s office for a consult. He was mousy and nerdy, not at all like the idea of a smooth-talking plastic surgeon that I had in my head. It turned out that he mostly did complex breast reconstruction surgeries for cancer patients, which made me feel better somehow.

He came in and started examining me. I was very nervous. It’s weird to have a stranger squeezing and lifting your breasts, looking at them as a medical problem to solve. He delivered his verdict: there was no question in his mind that I was a candidate for reduction. He continued, saying they were heavy enough that they would soon start causing me serious back problems.

He then explained to me how the procedure would work. He would cut a ring around the nipple, leaving it attached to the blood vessels that fed it. Then he’d cut a line straight down from the nipple and also a curved line along the underside of the breast. The excess breast tissue and fat would be cut out and the nipple moved up into what would be the center of the new breast. The skin would then be trimmed and brought back together around the remaining breast tissue, leaving me with a scar that looks like an anchor.

Then they’d do a small amount of liposuction around the side of my ribcage and upper abdomen to ensure that everything blended together. The idea is that the majority of the scar is hidden in the fold beneath the breast, so mostly what you see is just a line running down from the nipple. And even that scar fades over time so it’s not glaringly obvious from afar.

Thankfully, YouTube did not exist back then, so videos of the procedure were not readily accessible. (I’ve since watched a bit of footage online, and let me just advise you not to do the same. Eeesh.) If you’re curious to see how all this plays out, I encourage you to watch this completely blood-and-guts free animation that does a good job of explaining the steps.

My surgeon talked about what size he’d make my new breasts. I dreamt of having a tomboyish A-cup, but he wisely pointed out that my child-bearing hips would seem freakishly large if I had no breasts to balance them out. Fair enough. He suggested I go down to C cup, which I feared would still be too big, but I wasn’t going to argue with him. He explained that while my breasts were pendulous now (such an icky but apt expression!) they’d be more of a perky, normal shape after the surgery. He drew a side view to show me what he meant. It looked something like this:

The “after” image absolutely captivated me. It looked like a normal young person’s breast! I wanted my body to look like that! He, of course, went on to talk about the risks and the pain and the recovery time involved in this kind of operation, which is pretty major as these kinds of procedures go. But I barely heard any of it. All I could think of was walking around like a free woman, without pendulous breasts weighing me down.

Fortunately, my mom took the possible side effects more seriously and went back over all of it with me later. We both felt it was worth the risks, and the surgery was booked. (This was in 1999, right at the height of the Y2K panic. I was originally offered a surgery date at the very end of that December, but I chose one in early January instead because I figured if chaos did ensue on New Year’s Day 2000, I didn’t want to be in a post-surgical haze, unable to flee into the hills…Those were the days!) I was apprehensive, of course, about the surgery and whether I would like the results, but mostly I was excited.

As psyched as I was, I didn’t tell very many people I was having the surgery. It’s pretty weird to talk to people about your boobs under any circumstances, much less to be like, “They’re too big, so I am having them cut down!” It’s still not something I tell most people I’ve had done. I’m not embarrassed by it, but I just figure it’s not anyone’s business. If it comes up naturally, I’m happy to talk about it — but it hardly ever does in the course of normal conversation.

As much time as I’d spent envisioning my new post-op life, when the day of the surgery rolled around, I was fixated mostly on what I’d been thinking when I agreed to let someone put me to sleep and cut me open. I was anxious about the fact that I could die, sure, but I was also jittery because I had to get up at the crack of dawn and wasn’t allowed to eat anything. After I was checked in at the hospital, I remember they gave me a surgical gown along with a very attractive bonnet and some booties. They put me in a little room with a bed. The anesthesiologist stopped in and asked me some questions, and the surgeon came by and drew dots and dashes all over my breasts and torso with a marker to denote where he’d make his cuts once I was sprawled out on the table. Then a nurse gave me a sedative, and after that I don’t remember much. I have a vague recollection of walking into the operating room and putting one of my arms out so that they could put an IV in. Then I was out cold.

Next thing I knew I was awake. Actually, awake makes it sound like I was coherent. I wasn’t. I’d come slightly back to consciousness, and all I could feel was an agonizing pain in my chest. It felt heavy and searing and throbbing all at once, like I was being slowly driven over by a giant steamroller or like an elephant was jumping up and down on my ribcage. It hurt so much that I could barely breathe — and I didn’t understand why I was in pain because I was still so bleary-brained. I just remember fearing that the agony would never go away. I’m not sure why they hadn’t already dosed me up with something to lessen the pain, but in retrospect it seems insane. Regardless, after what felt like an eternity, someone finally gave me something powerful enough to work and within minutes the pain was down to a manageable level. Thank god for narcotics.

I was moved to another room to be monitored, and eventually when I was more awake, I tried to have some ginger ale and saltines. My throat was very raw from the breathing tube they put in during surgery, and it hurt to swallow. At some point, I looked down to examine my new chest, but it was hard to tell what it looked like because they’d bandaged me tightly and there were all kinds of tubes and things. Plus, I couldn’t focus on much beyond the pain I felt every time I moved even the slightest bit.

It was an outpatient surgery, so that evening they released me from the hospital. My mom helped me change very slowly into my own clothes. They’d had me bring a shirt that opened in the front (since I couldn’t lift my arms anywhere close to over my head) and had pockets so that I had somewhere to put the two drains they’d installed in me. The drains looked like translucent hand grenades, with tubes that came out of the top and went into my incisions. They slowly collected blood and pus. It was as unpleasant a sight as you’d think, though I admit I also found it kind of fascinating. (Hey, I was high on painkillers.) Mainly I had to be careful not to catch them on anything and accidentally pull them out because that would mean big trouble.

I was carefully transferred into my mom’s car, and we drove back to our hotel for the night. (I had the surgery done in a city a few hours from where I live because that’s where the best surgeon was.) I felt every bump in the road along the way. The only thing I remember from that night is my dear mother propping me up gently on some pillows in the hotel bed. The next morning, I still felt incredibly sore and weak. We went to a follow-up appointment at the surgeon’s office, and they removed my drains. They also changed my bandages and gave me a surgical compression bra that I had to wear for 6 weeks after surgery. It was sort of like a sports bra, but it zipped up in the front and was extremely tight.

The first few days after that were a blur. I was back at home, and I remember I had to be sitting up slightly at all times to keep the swelling down. I was in a lot of pain, but I was on a ton of meds so mostly I slept. Also, whatever I was on gave me crazy dreams, like as weird and vivid as any dreams I’ve ever had. By the end of the week I was able to get up regularly and move around and eat without too much trouble. But coughing, or really doing anything that expanded my ribcage, remained a very unpleasant sensation.

The second week was a big improvement. I went out to eat, I could dress myself, and I felt a lot more alive. Even though I’d been warned, I was still surprised by how major this surgery had been, how completely it had wiped me out. I went back to my surgeon’s office, and he took all the bandages off to take out some of the stitches. It was a pretty gruesome sight. I was covered in bruises and sutures and my breasts were mangled looking. I was disappointed. I was afraid I’d permanently turned myself into Frankenboobs. The nurse assured me that I’d look normal again someday, but the more I saw them the more I worried they were still too big, that he hadn’t reduced them enough. The doctor explained that they were very swollen and that as soon as the swelling went down they’d look a lot smaller. I was doubtful, but of course in the end he was right.

A few days later, as I was changing my own bandages at home, I finally allowed myself to look — really look — at my new chest. It was both exhilarating and scary. I could see more now that they were smaller, but they also looked funny, like they didn’t belong on my body. I cried a little bit. Once I had my shirt back on I felt more hopeful. The compression bra gave me an almost flat chest, and it was a nice, very unfamiliar feeling. I could stand up straighter. It felt like a weight had been lifted off of my chest, because, well, it had.

By the third week, I was recovered enough to resume a somewhat normal life. I wasn’t allowed to lift anything heavy or do anything that would jiggle my chest (like exercising), but I went back to work, wearing my surgical bra under a baggy shirt. A few people, mostly other women, commented that it looked like I’d lost weight, but a lot of people didn’t notice anything at all — or if they did they didn’t say anything.

Already I was happier with how I looked. I had to wear soft sports bras for a few weeks after I got rid of the surgical bra. Then I was finally allowed to start wearing regular underwire bras again. That was when I really noticed the difference. I had breasts again (as opposed to the flattened chest I’d been sporting), and they were normal! I was an average C cup, and I was giddy. My new body felt like it made sense; its proportions looked right. I could go to a store, pull a shirt off the rack, and it would fit me. No tugging at the chest, trying to stretch it out. I looked like I was 15 pounds lighter, even though I hadn’t lost any weight (other than the 2 pounds they’d surgically removed). I could move more freely, without worrying about where my breasts were going to end up. I hadn’t realized how much time I’d devoted to stressing about them, disliking them, cursing them, until suddenly they weren’t a problem anymore.

As the months stretched on, I was mostly healed, but there was one remaining freaky part. They’d used internal stitches during the surgery. Some of them dissolved on their own, but some of them did not, and my body was supposed to naturally eject those over time. They were blue and thick, sort of like lanyard. Even though I knew they were in there, I will never forget the shock I felt when the first blue line show up beneath the surface of my breast, right near my nipple. Within a few days of spotting it, it had worked its way through the skin, and I pulled it out with a tweezers (as instructed by my doctor). I felt like I was removing some sort of alien worm. It was several inches long, and I could feel it tugging and catching a bit deep in my breast as I yanked on it. This happened six or seven more times over the next few months, and by the final one I’d come (however perversely) to enjoy the satisfaction of pulling them out.

My new, smaller boobs did take some getting used to. When I was dressed, I thought about how good I looked instead of how fat or busty I was. But when I looked at my bare breasts in the mirror, they looked ugly to me — in a new and different way than they had before. My nipples, ringed in scar tissue, looked funny. My other scars were ropey, knotty things. The bottom ones were a quarter-inch thick in some places, and at that point they were all still bright pink. Plus my skin still bore the faded white lines left over from the stretch marks I’d gotten as a teenager. Even though I loved a lot of things about having smaller breasts, plenty remained to be self-conscious about — but at least now my flaws were easily concealed by wearing something as simple as a bra.

In the years since then my scars have faded considerably. Now they are white in some places and a darker flesh color in others. My nipples blend in a more naturally than at first, but there is still a visible, craggy line that runs down the front of each breast. There’s no way to hide it; if someone looks at my naked breasts it’s obvious I’ve had surgery. There are other long-term ramifications too. I lost some sensation in my nipples — I can feel it when one nipple is being touched, but not the other, which is odd but doesn’t bother me now that I’m used to it. Also, because they had to move my nipples, there is a real chance I won’t be able to breastfeed when I have children. When I was 21 and the doctor told me about this possibility, I didn’t care, but now that I am closer to actually having a child, the thought of not being able to produce breast milk is a little sad. Still, none of this is enough to make me regret having the breast reduction.

The surgery hasn’t just changed the way I think about myself; it has changed the way I interact with other people. I’ve grown a lot more confident in my appearance, and now I’m much more willing to be seen than I was before. I feel more attractive, and that in turn makes people think I am more attractive. Of course there’s still a difference between how self-assured I feel with and without clothes on.

Prior to surgery, I hadn’t considered that someday I would have to explain my scars to men who were going to see me naked. But obviously I did, and in the early days I struggled with how to bring it up. On the one hand you don’t want to just throw it out there because it’s a little mood-ruining, but you don’t want someone to happen upon the scars by accident either. At this point, I’ve been in a relationship for a long time, so it’s not an issue. But I used to worry what guys thought of them. They’re not your stereotypically lovely young breasts; I felt like they must be a disappointment. And maybe they are, but no guy has ever seemed to mind.

To me, the most fascinating product of the surgery is that it’s changed the way men react to me when I have my clothes on. Before, it was not uncommon for a man to stare blatantly at my large chest. When guys would approach me, in bars or at parties, most of them seemed to be operating on the assumption that I was a little bit of a slut. This was not, in fact, the case. I was a shy, fairly serious person who did not sleep with people lightly. And yet men I didn’t know regularly talked to me like I was eager to be their sexual plaything.

Then suddenly I had smaller breasts! When I’d walk around, men would still look at me, but they were no longer looking right at my breasts. I could feel them taking in the whole picture of me — my face, my body, my legs, and sometimes my breasts too. Almost overnight guys began treating me like a pretty girl instead of an easy girl. When they would talk to me, they would approach me like I was a normal person. They took me seriously. They would ask me questions about who I was, what I was interested in — a rare occurrence pre-surgery. I was shocked the first few times, but it kept happening. Friends of mine confirmed the difference so I knew I hadn’t imagined it, and I’ve since talked to other people who’ve had breast reductions and experienced the very same shift. Something to think about.

My own plastic surgery experience has made me far more sympathetic to other people who choose to get nose jobs or fix whatever it is about themselves that they hate. Sure, there are those who go overboard, but most of us get something subtle done because we’re tired of standing out, not because we want to look like a Barbie doll. If you have a strange looking chin, it influences the way that you feel about your entire body. It’s all you can see when you look in the mirror, so you assume it’s all anyone can see when they look at you. It invades your sense of who you are, and it influences the way other people perceive you too. There’s nothing vain or wrong about wanting to fit in, about wanting to be seen as yourself rather than the guy with the ugly ears or the girl with the huge boobs.

I feel incredibly lucky that I had a problem that was easy to correct and that I had the means to do it. Yes, it was major (and majorly painful) surgery, but it was a few weeks of discomfort for a lifetime of relief. Beyond saving me from back problems and ill-fitting clothes and leering men, it’s changed the way I think about myself — it’s given me the great gift of feeling normal. Becoming comfortable in my own skin has made me a generally more happy and secure person — a transformation which has probably influenced my life in countless ways that I don’t even realize.

Of course I still have issues with the way my breasts look, but so does pretty much every woman alive. We all wish ours were a little prettier, a little bigger or smaller, perkier or less firm. (Actually, I’ve never heard of anyone wanting to be less perky, but you know what I mean.) My breasts aren’t perfect, but they’re fine. I don’t love them, but I don’t hate them either. In fact, the thing I like most about my breasts now is that I never have to think about them. Instead I can spend my time paying attention to my work and the people I care about and all the things in life that are way more interesting than boobs.

Virginia R. is a writer who happily looks just like everyone else.