Written by Kate Fox

Health

When breast isn’t necessarily best

Having ‘put up with’ her 38GG boobs for the best part of 25 years, Kate Fox decided she’d had enough of gaping blouses, flapping coats, laboured in-bed breathing and having to accept outward chest pain as a consequence of running.

fox

Illustration by Louise Boulter

Part of me thought that to justify a breast reduction, you had to be stick thin and carrying your giant breasts around in a wheelbarrow, or hunched over with back pain and weeping every day about the Grand Canyon-sized grooves your bra straps dig in your shoulders.

I don’t move in circles where people have fake tan or Botox as routinely as brushing their teeth. Even getting my eyebrows threaded feels like excessive grooming – I imagine a chorus of Northern Grandmas who got through the war on stoicism and powdered egg saying: “You could darn a sock with that cotton”, then delivering twelve lambs in a blizzard before breakfast.

Yes, I thought, my chest causes me irritation and inconvenience everyday, but so do traffic jams. I’ve just got to put up with it. It’s part of the price of being a woman. It serves me right for not being skinny, etc. I bemoaned having to buy size 18 or 20 tops when the rest of me was often a size 16, and I wished I could fasten the Desigual coats I love but which are made for petite Spanish women, but even having those thoughts made me think I was vain.

It was running that became the straw that broke the extensively engineered, tightly undergirded, always uncomfortable 38GG bra for me. Although I loved training for a half marathon and enjoyed running miles, it made my chest hurt.

“Have you got a good sports bra?” people would say. Yes, but even one designed by experts in holding iron girders hundreds of feet in the air would struggle to find a comfortable way of holding up several pounds of flesh which gravity is urging downwards.

I began to think that maybe it wasn’t something I had to just ‘put up with’. That maybe breathing more comfortably in bed, sleeping on my front, running for a bus or going downstairs without having to make a hand bra and being able to buy blouses that fit wasn’t such a big ask after all.

Internet forums helped. Lots of women who didn’t fit the NHS criteria – which varies on where you live, but basically requires you to show significant pain and mental issues – had gone private.

I began gathering information. Breast reductions are the fourth most common cosmetic surgery in the UK – and the one with the highest patient satisfaction. As one nurse said to me: “We know this as the happy operation.” Another said she thought there should be more done on the NHS because there so many health benefits and I agree, but it would be a hard campaign to start in a time of austerity when people are waiting ages for urgent operations.

The forums said you should see a few consultants. I knew the tall Irish plastic surgeon was the one for me when she said sympathetically my breasts were very heavy then drew a picture of them on her notepad and said they looked like Snoopy.

When she added that it was normal for us women to fluctuate in weight and that they should be fine if I went up or down a stone, I said there and then I’d like to go for it. The NHS criteria are often strict about you being, and staying, under a 28 BMI for a year. As I can barely stay the same weight for a month I’d always thought this might rule me out.

I bemoaned having to buy size 18 or 20 tops when the rest of me was often a size 16, and I wished I could fasten the Desigual coats I love but which are made for petite Spanish women.

People had asked ‘Have you thought of losing weight?’ when I revealed I was thinking about a breast reduction. As if the idea had never occurred to me. My yo-yo dieting had a minimal impact on my cup size. This is common. I suspect the pill had an impact on mine, even more so when I read oestrogen released into our water supply once turned half of the male fish in our rivers into female fish. At least I haven’t got gills.

After finally managing to save up the £6,100 cost, I set a date when I didn’t have too much work on, which was hard as a freelancer but I’d taken note of what the forums said about it being major surgery needing six weeks recovery. Also tips like taking a pillow with you in the car when leaving hospital, drinking healing lemon tea for the swelling and eating lots of greens beforehand as well as –  invaluably – opinions on the size dilemma.

Many surgeons say they’ll make you ‘proportional’ but that’s truly relative. In the past Marilyn Monroe was the ideal, now it’s Kate Moss. I stared like a flasher at breasts and bras online and in the flesh for months, before concluding that a 38C would have the right look and feel for me.*

I took a bra to my last consultation and really pushed the point home to my surgeon, who had talked about 38D; “I know I could stay bigger, but I’ve had over twenty years of these and that’s enough”.

After the operation I deliriously said: “I’m alive, I’m alive!” to everyone who came into the room. My main fear had been dying on the table, though the risk is absolutely tiny. I was scared to look in the mirror at first, but when the nurse helped me to the bathroom I just gaped in astonishment. Even under the foam bandages I could see they were smaller and perkier than they’d been since the five minutes of being small and perky they’d had when I was 15.

The predicted six weeks to feel normal again was about right. The first few days there are the effects of the general anaesthetic. Plus there’s the fact that someone has made a sizable anchor-shaped cut in your body, whipped out four pounds (in my case) of flesh and sewed you up again. It’s bound to hurt a bit, though not as much as you might think.

You’re very bruised and swollen. I drove somewhere after six days, though a fortnight would have been better. You’re advised to massage the scars with cream so that after a year they’ll fade to a thinner white line rather than a thickish red one. Mine don’t look bad at all, though to be honest that Page 3 career never appealed and scars were never something I was too bothered about.

The surgeon had kept saying the underside skin probably wouldn’t be great because it “hadn’t seen the light of day for years”, which made it sound like some sort of unknown oceanic species but again, it’s fine.

There are many best things. The lying down and not feeling squashed by my own chest. The walking and jogging that’s so much easier now that those four pounds are gone. The bras I can buy in ordinary shops. The shirts that actually close, the coats that fit over my hips and my chest. How I can reply when asked: “Why did you have it done – they weren’t that big were they?”; “Imagine strapping a pound bag of sugar to each side of your torso, then going about your daily business. That’s why.”

People say: “You can’t really tell” in one breath and then “Have you lost weight?” in the next because a whole area of my waist that was previously covered now isn’t. Mostly though, I’m happy to be able to go through life without really thinking about them anymore. They’ve become part of the beautifully useful architecture of my body.

Truly I can now say, thanks for the mammaries.

* Looking at photos is so useful, but I’m not keen to put mine out there to come up whenever someone Googles me for a school workshop or wants me to write a poem about the TUC. I would highly recommend looking at lots of Before and Afters though, asking your plastic surgeon to show you theirs (not their own breasts – that would be weird – but operations they’ve done) and signing up for sites like www.breasthealthonline.org, which have lots of information on the operation itself, recovery and the minor problems such as fat necrosis, slow-healing scars and infection which can come up. The recommended solution for these is to go back to your plastic surgeon whose aftercare will be included in the price.

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Written by Kate Fox

Standup poet who's been poet in residence for Radio 4's Saturday Live, Glastonbury Festival and the Great North Run.