When I first told her the story, I stood in a hot bath as the steam rose around me. My voice echoed off the tiled walls. It felt like a kind of baptism, my words naming something that didn’t fully exist before I spoke it and that naming had finally made it mine.
It was weird feeling, to look at my breasts for the last time. There would be some of the same fabric, yes, and a new nipple cut from the old one, but the breasts I had spent so many years wishing were different, their peculiar weight, would be gone forever. In the operating room, the body is sacred only for its inhabitant. It crept into me, the strange feeling of sacredness, as my surgeon squeezed, measured, and scribbled on my breasts with a marker the morning of my operation.
When I had my earlobes sewn on at 32, I felt nothing – neither physically nor emotionally – until I got up next and stared at the metal tray of tools next to my bed. surgery, where the little gray bumps on my earlobes still lay like two pieces of chewing gum. “Oops,” said the surgical assistant. “I’m not supposed to let you see that.” She folded them into the green paper that lined the tray, which she then crumpled up and tossed into the steel trash can. It pulled something in me, maybe my body’s basic instinct to stay intact. I suddenly wished I had asked to keep them. The morning of my breast surgery, I was glad that I didn’t have to see my parts thrown in the trash.
I was also happy for the sweet nurses, with their impeccably made up faces and singing voices. I used to be in predominantly female spaces, but these were often full of feminists, queers, and trans and non-binary people. The surgeon’s office was decidedly feminine and steeped in the comfortable assumption that everyone who entered was on the same page about beauty – how to define it and sure they wanted it. Every time I stepped off the elevator, I felt like an intruder. If they had glimpsed my hairy legs, I would have felt guilty, exposed as a feminist Judas in full coverage.
I found it to be a strangely comforting space. The implicit consensus ruled out any tension in the atmosphere, and I found that I had no desire to challenge the doctor when he said things like “They’re going to be so much happier and younger” or when one nurses squeezed my wife’s shoulder and promised her, “You’re going to love them!
All this to say that the culture of cosmetic surgery practices, and perhaps the industry as a whole, aligns with the position of second-wave feminists: an endorsement not just of patriarchal beauty standards, but of the patriarchal social structure. I understand the temptation to extend this assessment to patients who choose to participate in industry. But while writing this essay, I spoke to a number of self-proclaimed feminists who felt no loss or regret about their surgeries — from thigh lifts to tummy tucks to vaginoplasty. Overall, the dominant emotion was one of triumph and pleasure. It now seems clear to me that any feminist position on cosmetic surgery that does not take into account women’s relationship to their own bodies in fact objectifies them.
I hated my body for years I felt both obscured and exposed by her, and subjected her to many acts that others wanted regardless of my desires. These cumulative charges had consumed an invaluable amount of time and energy. In large part, they had defined my relationship to myself. All the years of therapy, recovery, writing, reading, and talking with friends had changed that. I no longer hated my body. My experience of the world no longer felt so defined by my bodily form. Physically changing my body seemed like an important way to make this work happen. It was not, as some might assume, a substitution for a psychological change, but rather the physical consummation of a change that had already taken place: a ritual commemorating my reclaiming my body, once and for all. I didn’t want it to be a subtle process.