When a piece of silicone approximately the size and shape of a chicken cutlet flies out of your bra in the gym class locker room, it happens in slow motion.
And it happened in slow motion to me, on one fateful day after ninth-grade gym class, as I was pulling off my sweaty T-shirt. Usually, I would brace myself while changing — sort of cover my chest in a trying-so-hard-to-be-casual way — to ensure that the two silicone inserts I kept covertly tucked into my right bra cup would not be revealed to the world (or, arguably worse, a locker room full of 14-year-old girls).
So when the cutlet broke free of the confines of my bra, flew through the air, plummeted towards the locker room floor, and bounced — bounced! — I did what any rational person would: I fake-tripped over the bench so I could fling my entire body over the rogue cutlet in order to hide it. I then stuffed it, locker-room-floor grime and all, back into my bra. My heart pounded all through my next two classes, but no one saw. My secret was safe.
Growing up with severely asymmetrical boobs, I learned a very singular form of stealth. I could never tell a lie without opening my eyes really, really wide, and I can’t pull a prank to save my life. But my boobs — the left an overflowing C cup, the right completely flat to my chest — were a secret I never, ever let out.
Instead, I stuffed. But no wimpy little wad of tissues would do. No, I had to pull out the big guns. That’s where the chicken cutlets came in. Luckily for me, they came in a set of two (as one might expect), because I needed both, one stacked on the other, to even out my asymmetry.
I cut slits in the lining of all my bathing suits for the cutlets. I wore exclusively bandeau bikini tops — definitely no halters, triangle tops, or anything else that dipped low in the front. My right breast was far too flat to coax into anything resembling the cleavage I had on the left side, so I settled for no cleavage at all.
Going to the doctor was kind of the worst. I got my hormones tested to see if anything was causing my asymmetry, but the tests came back totally normal. I was simply unlucky. Most of the time, when I asked if there was anything that might have led to the dramatic difference, the doctor would look at me patronizingly and tell me how "everyone is a little bit uneven." I was a little more than a little bit uneven, but too polite to push the issue.
Things got even more complicated as my peers began dating and swapping stories of which "bases" they’d gotten to. And sure, I dated a bit and rounded a few bases myself, but every experience was marked by anxiety rather than enjoyment. The first time I had sex, I kept my bra on and said sorry a lot. It was hard to understand how sex could ever feel good when my primary focus was planning an excuse for why my bra had to stay on.
Toward the end of high school, it was pretty clear my boobs were never going to even themselves out, so I made a drastic decision: I was going to get a boob job. Or rather, half of one.
I was scared as hell, and I dreaded people judging me for getting elective cosmetic surgery. But it didn’t feel elective or cosmetic. I knew that if I was ever going to feel comfortable in my own body, something had to change.
I had the surgery the summer before I started college. My parents drove me there. We checked in, I lay down on the operating table, they put an anesthesia mask on me, and then everything went dark.
I don’t remember much about waking up, but I remember that I was crying. I remember being very, very scared. My chest was still too numb to tell how the surgery had gone, but I didn’t even want to look. I went home.
It was the weirdest thing, finally having that operation, after years of hating my boobs. I was swollen and bruised all over. The implant felt tight, hard, and unnatural (it takes months before implants settle in and "drop"). My left areola, which was reduced to match the other, was surrounded by stitches that made me look like a scary rag doll. I was covered in bandages, and drainage tubes poked out of my sides.
The physical pain was blinding. I couldn’t get out of bed without my parents practically carrying me. My upper body and arms were in so much pain I couldn’t reach my nightstand from my bed; one night, I woke up incredibly thirsty and unable to reach a cup of water less than a foot away from me.
I had heard that depression often follows breast augmentation, but I hadn’t really understood how that could be possible — after all, I had waited years to get surgery. I had expected my recovery to usher in a new phase in my life where I’d have perfect movie star boobs and the confidence to match. I thought I’d be celebrating even before I had healed. I thought I’d feel attractive and feminine — fixed, even.
Instead, I couldn’t even bear to look at myself. My mom had to help me change my bandages because I couldn’t see my own body without breaking down in tears.
After a few weeks, my body did heal and my strength returned. I could walk around and get dressed and use my arms and go outside. I could bathe without help. I made plans to go to the beach with my friends later that summer.
Those little things helped ease the intense emotional toll of the procedure. Still, the results I had hoped for and expected never came to be. I waited and waited, but my right breast was never able to stretch enough to accommodate the implant, so the implant stayed tight and pressed grotesquely flat against my chest.
The only thing I could do was try again the following summer, with a different surgeon. I was angry and devastated over my wasted suffering, and terrified to do it again. It felt so unfair. To make matters worse, it would have to happen the summer after my freshman year of college. As my friends went off to fancy internships and cool vacations, I would go home with no plans except two weeks of bed rest and a pile of old DVDs from the library.
Just a couple months before I went home for the second round of surgery, I went to lunch with someone I’d recently become friends with (who would go on to be one of my best friends and roommates). Somehow the conversation turned to how much puberty sucked, and I found myself telling this woman whom I’d only just started to grow close to about my surgery.
"I know this sounds weird, but I used to have super uneven boobs, and I actually got surgery to…" I started to say, nervous to see her reaction.
But she put her fork down and smiled a really big smile.
"Me too," she said. And then we talked for hours.
The second round of recovery was still no walk in the park, but this time, I knew I wasn’t alone; I now had a friend who really, truly got what it was like. And fortunately, the surgery worked a lot better.
My boobs were roughly the same size afterwards — Lil' Righty finally filled my bra without any assistance — but still, plastic surgery is far from magic. It became clear that the big, round, perfectly symmetrical breasts of my dreams were just not going to happen.
Whether it was simply being unwilling to put myself through surgery again or some sudden glimmer of okayness with my body, I said "fuck it." My boobs were fine as is.
And then somehow, slowly but surely — between laying those chicken cutlets to rest at the back of my underwear drawer and the first time I took my bra off in front of someone without explaining my scars; between getting measured for a properly fitting bra (and buying it in five colors) and the night I went skinny-dipping in the Atlantic Ocean — I realized I loved my boobs.
My boobs are fucking awesome. They can be cut and stretched and bruised; they can grow, but retain their shape. Their beauty is in their uniqueness (from others, and from each other), their stubbornness, the fact that they’ve been through hell and back and lived to tell the tale.
My boobs are beautiful because they’ve made the woman to whom they are attached kinder and less judgmental. They’ve allowed me to see the sheer gorgeousness in the diversity of others. They taught me to love my body, radically and actively. They taught me to love it for the singular reason that it is the body I have been given, and the body I will live in, and with, forever.
My boobs also surprised me with a best friend. They’ve reminded me several times since that I am not alone, that the secret I kept for years is one kept by many. And they taught me to never, ever again say "sorry" to the people I’ve allowed to see and touch them. They need no apologies.
My senior year of college, two and a half years after my second and final surgery, I acted in my college’s production of The Vagina Monologues. Opening night, seconds before we walked onstage, a woman in the cast turned to me and grabbed my arm.
"I’m so nervous!" she said. "Quick, say something crazy that I don’t know about you!"
I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "Um, I used to have super uneven boobs, so I got half a boob job!"
Her eyes went wide, and for a terrifying moment I could picture those cutlets flying through the air, all over again. But then she grinned.
"What! That’s so cool!"
She slapped me five, and we walked onstage.