Abby is a cute blonde nurse in her mid-20s. Tanned, thin, and heavily eyelinered, she is a walking billboard for the benefits of plastic surgery. Like a scene from the Stepford Wives, all of the women working in the office have pointy, petite faces, shiny hair, and round, perfect breasts — I wonder if they got them for free.
I'm sitting in the exam room, waiting for one of the best doctors in America to feel me up. Abby taps her nails on the counter. She looks like I imagine Jessica Simpson would if she ever had reason to hold a clipboard. Abby wastes no time asking what cup size I'd like to go up to.
"Well, I'm really not sure," I say, talking fast. The words pour from my mouth, on and on. "I'd want nice boobs to fill out my shirts and look good in a bikini top, but I wouldn't want, like, hel-lo! boobs, like those pole-dancer watermelon things. So a medium-big size, probably, if I really had to narrow it down, but still natural, you know?"
Abby writes down, Desired: C.
Amanda, my best friend through the most self-conscious years of my life, was tall and athletic and once convinced me we should pierce our own belly buttons with safety pins. I was short and scrawny, but we had one thing in common: We both wore AA bras. One of our favorite things to do was to stand in front of the full-size mirror in her closet.
"I'm so fat," she'd whisper.
"No, you're perfect," I'd say, pinching my stomach skin between my fingers. "You don't have this disgusting roll."
"Yeah, but look at my tiny boobs. No one is ever gonna want to go past first base with me."
We spent hours arguing back and forth about who was more hideous, simultaneously hating ourselves and begging each other for a reason not to.
In high school, Amanda and I both grew breasts, if small ones. I got accustomed to my body and assumed she had done the same, although I couldn't be sure — we drifted apart. It was a few years after college when I heard from a mutual friend: Amanda got a boob job. Big, fake, round beach balls. Amanda explained to our friend that the new breasts had saved her life, made her stop hating herself, made her finally feel like what a woman should be.
I never understood that Amanda felt so deeply what she'd been saying in front of the mirror; I had no idea it would later lead to something as drastic as surgery. I felt betrayed — didn't we spend all that time talking to build each other up? I couldn't stop thinking about Amanda, the girl who once felt like my soul mate, a girl who didn't leave those adolescent feelings behind.
I asked the mutual friend where Amanda got her boobs done. I needed to see for myself what she'd seen.
Abby gives me the perfunctory speech about the risks. Breast augmentation is the country's most popular plastic-surgery procedure for women, up 55 percent from 2000 to 2006. The reoperation rate is also one of the highest, though Abby does not say this. One reason is capsular contracture, where the scar tissue around the implants turns hard, rigid, and utterly un-breast-like. A guy I know describes breasts in this state as feeling "like a bag of Legos." Abby also tells me that the risk of implants leaking increases greatly after 10 years; they will most likely need to be replaced within 20.
These risks don't seem to deter many patients, though — especially younger ones. In 1992, only 978 women age 18 or younger underwent breast augmentation. By 2004, the number for that same age group nearly quadrupled.
Abby tells me about her own implants experience, how the first day, the pain is simply brutal. Like an elephant sitting on your chest, she says. She also says that when you first wake up and see these huge, hard breasts, you think they look ridiculous, and you wish you'd never gotten them.
"It's a roller coaster," Abby says. "The pain, all the emotion."
Then she adds, "But I would do it all over again in a second."
When the doctor comes in, he opens my gown and takes a long look. He reaches for me, and his hands are soft. He presses in a way that reminds me I'm not filled with Nerf foam but with glands and tissue and blood. It only takes a minute, and it's the same kind of exam I get at the gynecologist, but it feels more judgmental.
"Do you think your breasts are even, symmetrical?" he asks.
I panic. My blood percolates. Are they not? I mean, am I lopsided and I never noticed? The doctor sits back and crosses his arms.
Fine, I think. I don't need boobs — I have interests and a master's degree and a cool job and a brain! Or is this how they get you — telling you you're messed up, that you need a boob job to fix the damage? With one pointed question, my years of confidence crumble, and I'm back to being the 14-year-old girl pinching a roll of her skin, shrinking from her own reflection.
I stammer out, "Uh, yes, I think so."
"Me too," he says, and I sigh out loud with relief. "I just wanted to make sure we're looking at the same thing here. Some women seem to have a warped view of how they look."
Yeah, I think, those poor women with a warped view of their looks — and fiddle with a string on my gown. He goes on to tell me that my breasts have nice shape and volume, which moves me past mere breast-acceptance and into breast-pride. I see what Abby means about the roller coaster — and I haven't even had the surgery yet.
After the doctor leaves the room, Abby explains the practicalities of the procedure. He'll put the implants under my chest muscles to prevent future breast-feeding problems; he'll insert the implants as empty bags through a 4-centimeter incision under the fold of the breast to hide the incision. The implants will be filled with saline, and he'll overinflate them so they'll be big enough when they settle and shrink.
"Don't any of your friends have them?" Abby asks, incredulous.
I think about mentioning Amanda and that I feel a little jealous of how perfect her body must look now.
Instead, I just mumble, "Uh, no."
Then she says, "I'll show you mine."
She pulls her blue scrubs shirt over her head and unhooks her bra before I can blurt out a response. Seconds later, Abby stands, grinning at me, topless, telling me to see for myself. Her nipples are stretched and round like pepperoni slices, but the breasts look perfect and natural; I never would have known they were fakes. She lifts one breast in each hand and bounces them a little. I suddenly realize I'm in a junior high school boy's fantasy, and, likely sensing my awkwardness from the gaping silence, Abby puts her bra and shirt back on.
"Now the fun part," she says. She gives me a stretchy white sports bra. Then she hands me smooth plastic orbs filled with silicone, slightly firmer than jelly. They're filled to 250 cc, a.k.a. a "starter size." I squish them in my fist before slipping them into the bra. They make me a cup size bigger — a change, but it's not shocking.
Abby suggests a size bigger, in order to account for settling. She hands me a 330-cc pair. When I look down, I laugh. I can't see my stomach — just round, perfect, ballooning boobs. I look like Pamela Anderson. I'm a fun-house-mirror version of myself, and I start to panic and want to take out the silicone blobs and throw the empty bra on the floor — to run out of the office and never think about any of this again.
As all this races through my head, I catch another glimpse of myself in the mirror; I still can't believe it's me. I stare intently, my gaze flipping between my chest and my face. I put on my tank top, the one I don't even have to wear a bra with, that makes my breasts look flat and unassuming. Over the 330-cc-filled bra, this same old shirt is now transformed: resplendent, glorious.
Abby watches me, as excited and hypnotized as I am.
"Those are great on you," she chirps.
"Yes," I say. "Yes, they are."
With such a large chest, my stomach is less noticeable, and my hips seem slimmer. I am thrilled with these new breasts, and they're only floor samples.
"Yeah, those are definitely it," Abby says. "Look at you!"
And that's exactly the problem. I can't stop looking: forward, in profile, profile from the other side — the opposite of the mirror-dance that Amanda and I used to do.
I reach inside my shirt and hand Abby each nippleless breast. The bra she gave me now hangs on my frame — wrinkly, deflated. And suddenly, I feel like I'm missing something. Not a button or my house keys — instead, it's a deep, panicked kind of missing.
I haven't felt this ugly since junior high school. It's something I swore I'd grown out of, forgotten along with my locker combination, the capital of North Dakota, and the words to the song that was Amanda's and my favorite for an entire summer. If plastic surgery can make me feel highs and lows this extreme, I know it isn't for me. I pull my shirt back on over my head and try not to peek at the mirror.
I think about how Amanda always wanted to look like someone else, and I hope the new breasts gave her what she was after. I'm sure she still wakes up some mornings wanting to change her hair or her legs — been there. But is she happy now? Can a couple of saline bags make it so?