When I was 16 years old, I read an article about Modern Family star Ariel Winter’s breast reduction surgery, which took her from a size 32F to a 34D. “It’s amazing to finally feel right,” she said in an interview with Glamour. “This is how I was supposed to be.” Two years later, I sat on my boyfriend’s bed, my arms defensively crossed over my own 30F chest, realizing that I didn’t feel right at all.
“Are you still planning on getting that breast reduction? I thought about it when I saw how bad the stretch marks are,” he asked, gesturing to my naked chest.
“Maybe,” I swallowed the word carefully as though it could break.
Instead of reveling in an intimate moment, he was pointing out the ugly marks on my breasts — my biggest insecurity. Were his words from moments before — calling me sexy — all pretend? I pressed two thin arms over my heavy chest as my face grew red and I fought the urge to cry. I wished he’d never look at me again.
He didn’t realize how deep his words cut, they burned inside of me for weeks.
He was 19, older than me, and the first person who felt entitled to have an opinion on my body. We were the definition of “it’s complicated” and the on and off state of our relationship made my potential breast reduction surgery something I didn’t want to discuss with him. His words made me sink into his navy-blue sheets in humiliation.
My body— a feminine, imperfect thing — was worth nothing to him but a dig at its imperfections. I felt like I was nothing beyond my boobs.
After that, I knew I’d have the surgery. A size 30F bra on a 5-foot-3 frame, I wanted to live unrestricted by the attributes disrupting my every day — both physically and emotionally. I needed for someone, anyone, to see past them. When I first met that boyfriend, I believed he wanted to be with me past my chest. Yet he was still surprised when I told him I wanted a breast reduction. Like so many of my peers and acquaintances, he wondered why a young girl with a small frame would want to erase her breasts — something other people pay to have enlarged.
Despite how he treated me, I had a weak spot for his humor and dark brown eyes. They’d won me over instantly — but 6 months later, I was desperately struggling to become the person he wanted, not realizing this was unattainable. Between the internal struggle with my physical appearance and the yo-yo of our toxic relationship, I worried I was nothing but a body.
At 18, I became an expert at hiding my breasts and feelings — in life and social media. On Instagram, I refrained from posting anything revealing. I wanted my life to appear untroubled and light as air. As I struggled with my body, I hid behind feigned smiles and a facade of confidence. With a Big Ten college education, sorority sisters and an older boyfriend, I made myself look like I was happy. If you vaguely knew me through images on your phone screen, you never would’ve known that I couldn’t get dressed in the morning because of the internal battle I was fighting.
Immediately following our break-up we reunited in a vicious cycle. The constant push and pull of our relationship had me in a fragile emotional state. I dreaded waking up because I dreaded getting dressed. I couldn’t run, because wearing two sports bras left bloody marks on my skin. I couldn’t go to the beach because bathing suits just didn’t fit. Shopping — from searching for prom dresses to trying to find a shirt to fit me — became a nightmare I avoided. My friends and my boyfriend simply did not understand. But on social media, I could be instantly desired, liked and affirmed without struggle.
After he mentioned the stretch marks, I posted a picture of myself at a football game in September, still tan from summer, smiling. It was the first time I used Instagram as a ploy to make believe my sadness away. I didn’t even realize what I was doing until after the photo uploaded and I watched it gather likes from my screen.
In the photo, I didn’t look like a girl who despised her body and felt like a stranger in her skin. The warm glow of the screen hit my face and I felt elated. I could imagine him, looking at the picture and falling in love with me, instantly regretting his harsh words. Whenever I was insecure about the body that subjected me to sexualization, or remembered I had stretch marks and imperfections that made me unlovable, I posted something and pretended to feel OK.
My profile seemed untroubled — there was no room for mental illness or melancholia. It was my drug. Snap, scroll, post, affirm, feeling refreshed as I was bathed in the affection of digital hearts. I was more than huge boobs — I was worth commenting on.
On May 4, 2017 I had the six-hour surgery, making the choice to change my life. My mother and father waited, full of support and excitement in the lobby, and when I woke up and opened my eyes, my mother and I both burst into tears. I will forever be indebted to her for advocating for me during the process of insurance coverage and recovery. I felt freed from the oppression my chest had caused, but it still hadn’t been enough to free my mind. There was still weight there.
The relationship had ended in April, yet I hadn’t stopped obsessively monitoring if he’d viewed or liked my Instagram page, or whether I was worth a number of likes or comments. Even at a new and improved size 32B, 7 pounds lifted off me, I had stretch marks. I lacked the confidence I needed to end my reliance on social media as a faulty crutch for self-love. I craved the affirmation that I received with each post; I wanted to prove that I was more than a body.
What I didn’t realize? It wasn’t the world’s love I was after; it was my own.
When I recovered, I put on a tank top. I was giddy in the way it fell gracefully over my new boobs. Though I still donned a clunky surgical bra and rows of deep red scars, I felt beautiful. My mom took a picture of me in sweatpants and the top, my face still puffy from the anesthesia with no makeup. I considered deleting the photograph. There was nothing exceptional or envy-worthy about it. But it wasn’t faux affirmation I was after by posting it. It wasn’t meant for an ex-boyfriend to see and call to profess his love. I didn’t spend hours selecting a filter or thinking up captions. I just hit post, and as I watched the photo upload, I recognized my right to choose. Just like with the surgery, I could navigate my own path because I’d never lose a battle about my own happiness. I put down my phone, wrapped my arms around my chest and exhaled — everything finally felt right.