Breast-less by choice

Breast-less by choice

Cassel, Susie Lan

SONGS OF INNOCENCE

When I was twelve years old, my mother told me that she would pay for my breast surgery. I figured she was just picking on me again. She invariably thought I was too fat or too thin; my eyebrows were too thick, my legs too long, my torso too short, my hair too light, my skin too dark. Like certain primate mothers, my mother had a need to pick and preen. The minute I walked in the door, she saw things about me that called out for her attention. Maybe it was because she loved me, but it seemed I could never live up to her expectations. Or maybe this was just one of those things Chinese mothers did, but had my mother gone too far this time — offering cosmetic surgery to a seventh grader?

Luckily, despite my mother’s complaints, at twelve I considered myself completely normal. My girlfriends and I talked endlessly about growing up, and we giggled excitedly about our budding bodies. One by one we started our periods, we learned to wear makeup, we lied about our age, and we noticed for the first time that boys were staring at our boobs. Even though we always protested politely, we enjoyed this new attention. It was attention I would later grow to abhor.

I was always the most shy and private one of the bunch, but my chest somehow made its way into conversations surrounding me. The comments were supposed to be compliments. Friends thought I should be flattered: “What do you do to get like that?” my girlfriends jealously asked. “We need to eat what she eats,” I overheard others say. The school counselor believed she was doing me a favor when she took me aside and told me I should confront boys and say to them when they stared at me, “You’re staring at my breasts!” Right, I thought, I was really going to say that. It seemed strange to me that so many people were talking about my boobs. I looked around school and saw plenty of girls bigger than I was, so I assumed that we were all getting the same treatment and that this was just a part of growing up.

Then I began to notice some different reactions. I found out that the choir director rearranged our group photo when his wife told him to “get the big boobs out of the front row.” People began calling me Dolly (as in Parton) and Susie Castles. A girl from a different school called and told me to stay away from her boyfriend, whom I didn’t even know. Then one day I got to my locker and saw drawn in pencil a horrid caricature of a girl with boobs hanging down to her knees. One boob was much bigger than the other. I was mortified. How did someone know that I really looked like that? Was there a hole in the girl’s locker room or one in my bedroom wall? I did have ugly, hanging protuberances that had grown out of control. They weren’t the pretty boobs in the magazines; they were heavy, bouncing things that made it hard to breathe and awkward to walk or run. The cartoon captured my secret and it showed the world that I was big and deformed. I thought I had kept them well hidden. How did someone find out? It had to be a boy. They were always staring at me. I hated the one who did this. How could I face anyone again?

I wasn’t the only one around who had big boobs. My older sister was busty too, but we were opposites in most other ways. She loved the attention she received from boys, so she wore smaller and tighter clothes to expose her body more. I think she sometimes enjoyed the fact that we shared this physical trait. “Chinese don’t have big boobs,” people would tell us. “We know, our father’s German,” my sister would reply. We were just a year apart, so Mom always made us shop together because it was convenient. I hated shopping for bras, but when my sister bought new ones, she made a point of modeling them at home, comparing her boobs to mine and to Mom’s. She would tease our mother about her flat chest and padded bras, supposedly bonding with me in the process, “She’s so flat she stuffs our bras with grapefruits!” my big sister mocked our mother.

When Mom took us to China in 1980, tourists from the United States had just been allowed to enter the People’s Republic. The Chinese in Guangdong had not yet seen many foreigners, much less many Hapas (mixed-race people of Asian descent). People stared and followed us everywhere; to them we were novelties. They asked my mother if we were Olympic athletes. We walked down the street and crowds followed. It was like having our own little fan club and parade. People gathered outside stores that we had entered. Children were mesmerized. We heard murmurs in the wake of the streets where we had passed. “Wah,” they awed. “Aye Yah,” others exclaimed. Someone spit on us. My sister and I speak Chinese, but no one spoke to us. The older men stared at us, and, when we glared back, they looked away in shame. The younger ones practiced their English with us, “Fook, look ya mudda.” Was it because we were big-busted? Was it because we were Hapa? Someone even asked my more if “they” (our breasts) were real. Mom was furious.

Much as my big sister seemed to appreciate our similarities, I think having me around was hard on her. I was the little sister, the shorter and smaller one who happily received her hand-me-downs and tried to follow in her footsteps. When Mom stopped giving me my sister’s old bras and began buying me new ones, it must have upset my sister’s sense of herself as older, as literally bigger, and she retaliated by humiliating me. When her friends were around, she would ask me to stand up straight, as though she were going to measure my height, and, while I stood there waiting, she would tell me to look down. “Can you see your toes?” she’d ask ironically. Everyone would laugh. She thought herself charming when she introduced me to her friends by pointing to my left breast “Fred” and then to the right one “Ethel,” and she duped me into trying “the pencil test.” In front of her boyfriend, she asked me to put a pencil under my shirt and under my breast. I did. It stayed. “You’re sagging,” she pronounced.

Even though we grew up together, I began to feel uneasy undressing in front of my big sister. It was unavoidable one morning when we were getting ready for school, and we both were in the bathroom. I tried not to make a big deal of changing my clothes. She didn’t say anything, so it seemed like it went fine. That afternoon at school, I was in the band room eating lunch when my sister walked in. “Hey, there’s my sister with the uneven boobs. Her left side is bigger than her right!” she taunted. She was as big as I was. How could she do this to me? Why couldn’t she just leave me alone? I hated her.

Our father joined the act, although less deliberately. Dad was president of the band parents’ booster club, and I was the student representative. We went to a meeting one night, and when I raised my hand to say something, he asked, “What’s on your chest, Susie?” The room full of fathers chuckled. He didn’t mean to make everyone laugh. He just said what was on the tip of his tongue, but the other men must have noticed my breasts, too. These were fathers, husbands, and adults; were all men like this? Did all men giggle at the mention of a thirteen year old’s chest?

Things grew worse. Guys walking toward me on the sidewalk went out of their way to walk into me, bashing into my left or right breast. One guy reached out and grabbed me in the middle of the street. Drunks screamed at me, “I want to suck your tits,” and it didn’t matter who I was with, my mother, father, boyfriend or girlfriends. To men I was a thing — a pair of boobs. Even sadder, boys were beginning to look like things to me, too. They were things of a different sort — pigs, dogs, and cads. Society told young girls that men were only capable of wanting women for one thing. I had hoped to learn otherwise, but this stereotype seemed true.

I fought back in my own way. When I was thirteen or fourteen, my girlfriends and I were hanging out at a local bowling alley. As we walked through the pool hall, some sailor said, “Look at the size of the tits on that thing.” I was tired of it, and I resolved not to let it go — not this time. He was just a random guy. He might have even seemed attractive under different circumstances. But this night he was all men combined — asshole, user, playboy, objectifier. He was a man. All men were pigs. Did they think my chest somehow made me deaf? Was I just a pair of walking boobs? Did these men treat every woman this way, or just me? I stopped and faced him. “What did you say?” I demanded. Surprised, he didn’t answer. “What did you say?” I insisted. When I slapped him, the people in the pool hall gasped in unison, and my friends and I marched proudly out the door.

I learned that my phone number was circulating around other high schools, and that some boys were bragging and giving me a bad reputation. One group of guys called just to laugh on the other end of the phone. They asked if I remembered being with them the night before. They said we were all in a van together and that they had fucked me: “You liked it, Susie, didn’t you?” they jeered. They called me a whore. I became even more reluctant to trust or to get involved with anyone. I was convinced that they wanted me for one thing, and I resolved not to give it to any of them, but that didn’t satisfy the girls. I had always had close girlfriends, but now girls I didn’t know threatened me with harm if I didn’t stay away from so-and-so. They stared me down at parties, and, once or twice, gangs of girls surrounded me on the street and wanted to fight.

I started to carry a stiletto that I tucked into my bra right between my breasts. As long as my shirt wasn’t cut low, no one could see it and the sharpened knife was accessible. It made me feel safer, but it didn’t stop the threats. A Puerto Rican from another high school called me out over her boyfriend; she wanted to fight. I had never fought anyone besides my sister, but I had a sense that it was time. If I didn’t respond, I was going to be jumped sometime soon — plenty of threats and close calls had already occurred. It wasn’t about the guy; it never was, and, as usual, I hardly knew this one.

When my friends and I arrived at the local neighborhood park, it was swarming with police. Word of the fight had gotten out, so we moved the fight to another park in the city. We knew she would try to embarrass me, so I wore a thick sweatshirt with a one-piece bathing suit underneath. By most accounts, it was a good fight. A few of the backups from both sides jumped into the fray. The boys broke it off after the fight had run its course. When it was over, she had a bloody nose and I had a black eye. Even if the neighborhood called it a draw, for me it was a minor victory. I had far fewer crank calls from girls after that.

SONGS OF EXPERIENCE

At college, the pattern repeated itself, but it was scarier. First was the uninvited attention: Some guy I had never seen before stopped me on campus and presented me with a greeting card, asked me to dinner, and gave me his phone number. Was it a joke, or maybe a fraternity dare, I wondered? Another guy waited behind the trees next to the library. He wanted me to be in the music video he was making. A clerk at a local department store had a new shipment of suits he wanted someone to model right in the store after hours — he’d pay, he said.

The weirdest one was a guy who paced outside the door of my classroom everyday during my four-hour summer school class in San Diego. Pretty soon, I noticed him before class at the entrance to the parking lot and after class at the parking lot exit. He silently stared, often catching my eye, but he never spoke a word. In the fall, when I walked out of my apartment two hundred miles away in Los Angeles, he was parked in front of my bedroom window.

Eventually, my safety was threatened when I received a funeral notice in the mail with my name on it. A week later someone followed me to school, and a block from campus jumped on top of me. It was dusk on the sidewalk of a busy street; the assailant threw my body into some bushes next to the walkway and grabbed at my crotch and the button on my jeans. My scream prompted a football-player-sized guy nearby to shout, “Hey, what’s going on over there.” The attacker ran and I was so angry and offended that I chased him. I was determined to give him a piece of my mind! I was going to scream and swear at him and tell him that he was an asshole like the rest. When he leaped over a six-foot wall, I went home and got my stiletto and knocked on all the doors of the apartment complex where he had jumped. Although I was too angry to feel grateful at the time, I was lucky I didn’t find him.

Perhaps the most troubling thing that happened to me was that my Air Force ROTC professor began to harass me and eventually stalk me. It began in my sophomore year of college while I was his student. He made excuses to call me into his office nearly everyday. On graduation day, he kissed my cheek three different times in front of my parents. After college he called and sent letters -up to five a day. The letters gave way to flowers, the flowers to packages, the packages to porn material, the porn material to declarations of love. When I returned to the Los Angeles area for graduate school almost seven years later, he found me again and sat outside my apartment, frequenting bars and restaurants near my home. When in my neighborhood, he would pay the waitresses to call me and read messages he had written. Over an eight-year period this man tracked me down through four different countries, three states, and five telephone numbers. It took a sexual harassment complaint to the United States Air Force (adjudicated in my favor) and a civil restraining order to make him go away. Of all the students or women he had met, why did he choose to harass me? Did it have anything to do with my big boobs? Why did this pattern follow me from junior high to high school to college? This didn’t happen to my sister. It didn’t happen to my friends. My mother said it was because I was smart. My friends said it was because I had a pretty face. I was pretty sure it had something to do with my boobs.

During the summer between my sophomore and junior year in college my life changed. I went to Air Force Officer’s Training Camp, and, with the help of other women, I started to gain perspective on myself. It started with my jock of a roommate who kept complaining about her chest. She wanted to win the camp athletic award, and she thought her boobs got in the way of doing pushups and sit-ups. I didn’t want to hear it. As far as I was concerned, she didn’t know the half of it. She didn’t have to wear a straight jacket for a bra; there were no dents in her shoulders, no pain in her back, no bad posture. Her boobs wouldn’t knock the breath out of her on a bumpy backseat bus ride. The guys didn’t talk about her when she jogged by. I had no sympathy for her complaints. Who did she think she was speaking to? But this was the first time I had ever heard a woman complain about having breasts, and to my surprise this woman didn’t want even her small boobs.

Then, the older woman in the squadron took me aside. She was a born-again Christian with bright red hair and a kind demeanor. “Guys look at you different,” she told me. “Is it a way that you would want to be looked at?” I asked her. “No,” she replied. It was then that I realized big boobs could be a bad thing and not the “gift” that others coveted. Back home, before I knew what I was saying, I asked my Mom if I had to put up with these boobs, these things. She seemed excited. I was sorry that I had mentioned it. My parents acted with such speed and urgency that it made me feel like I had a life-threatening disease and that I needed to be cured as soon as possible. It had been six years since my mother first mentioned surgery, but we had never spoken of it since. I assumed the problem had gone away. Now my parents made me feel like there was something so seriously wrong with me that I required surgery. “My boobs are okay,” I told myself. “They aren’t such a big deal. I can live with them. Besides, I am used to them by now.” I convinced myself that this was my natural body and thus my fate.

On the other hand, could it hurt to see a doctor and to get a professional opinion? I was pretty sure he’d say that I was young and normal, and that my parents were just being overly concerned. My mother, I reasoned, probably didn’t understand what was acceptable in this culture since she was Chinese and grew up in Vietnam. There was no problem. This was all normal.

The surgeon seemed to confirm my opinion when he looked at me as if he wondered why I was there. When he returned to the room and uncovered my breasts, his eyes changed. “You’ve been hiding them,” he told me. “You’ve been strapping them into a too-small bra. Your breasts are DD or an E cup, not the C that you wear. Your shoulders have dents; your back probably hurts; you’ll be much happier with the surgery.” He went on to explain that many young, large-breasted women remain in smaller bra sizes to hide their breasts and to get away from all the attention. They often wear baggier and baggier clothing or gain weight unconsciously, as a means of deterring the stares. He was describing me to a tee.

The surgery was scheduled for the following week. I was petrified. I couldn’t sleep and I was ready to take it all back. I gave blood the week before surgery to prove to myself that the procedure was minor. My surgeon wished I hadn’t done that, especially since I nearly needed a transfusion. In my last words before being anesthetized, I begged him to take them all off. “I’ll make them the size I think they should be,” he instructed. During three hours of surgery, my nipples were taken off and trimmed down, two pounds of my body were hacked off, and my breasts were completely reconstructed. I emerged a perfectly average B, but with hundreds of stitches inside and outside.

When I recovered enough to dress myself, I noticed that I could see my knees. Things felt extraordinarily light. What remained of my boobs (about one third of the originals) was plastered high and tight. My torso turned black and blue and my rib cage was wrapped like a mummy. It hurt to sit up because my stomach muscles stretched the stitches. It was the first time I had ever been flat on my back for a week.

When the mummy wraps came off, everything was swollen, red and puffy. The scars healed over into huge, half-inch worms. Two months later, when the swelling went down, my Mom and I agreed that they were not quite even. We went back for a second operation. Insurance covered this surgery, so I wanted my breasts to be perfect. I took a local anesthetic this time and watched the shadows of my surgeons hands through the sheet laid over my head. He pulled the flap of skin surrounding my breast off and away from my body. I heard the crunch, the cutting of my flesh, and saw him take pieces of meat away. Beads of wetness streamed down the side of my rib cage where I still had feeling. Little pangs twinged me as he cut and sewed. When I got up, I looked back and saw clumps of my own flesh on the table where I had been lying. It was almost too much to bear.

My whole system felt topsy-turvy. For months, as my body tried to regain its equilibrium, I felt strange and twitchy all over. My toes tingled, trying to accommodate the hormone loss that accompanied the loss of so much of my woman’s tissue. For two or three years, my chest was so numb I had to look down to see if anything was touching me: hand, coat, or table. For five or six years, I had shooting phantom limb pain. For a while I stopped wearing a bra — my signature of freedom.

I gave my old bras to my roommate’s dog and watched the destruction of cup after cup. “That’s right, little doggy, eat them up.” The dog was more accepting than my friends were.

When I returned to school after the summer surgery, I thought few people would notice my change. Those who did notice, I trusted, would politely refrain from mentioning anything. After all, I was normal now. What was there to talk about? But I was wrong. People stared even more. People tried to approach it obliquely. Countless asked how much weight I had lost. “You shrunk all up,” they told me. The postsurgical hyperattention created in me an urgent need to confess the truth about my body. If I didn’t mention it, friends and acquaintances might think I was living a lie, a deception. If I gambled and told them the truth about my surgery, they might understand rather than mock. So it came out almost immediately — even with near strangers — and after I told my story, I felt that the burden was somehow lifted. I had articulated what I thought was already in the air, and now I hoped we could marvel at medical technology. I longed to join the conversation, not be the object of it.

The scars were an unexpected curiosity, so I took the role of educator: “They start here, under one armpit, and end here, under the other armpit.” I lifted my shirt and showed men and women alike the knife trail that bisected my torso. For propriety sake, I didn’t show the rise of my breast or the scars at my nipples, just the crease that joined breast to rib cage. “My doctor left a half inch between them so I can wear bathing suits,” I grinned thankfully. “They took my nipples off and cut my old breasts in half horizontally. Then they removed the lower half. They pulled down the skin from the upper half, sewed it down, made a hole in it, and sewed my nipples back on. Two pounds in all were taken off — one pound per breast.” Okay, so I fibbed. I didn’t feel like they needed to know that it was actually a little more than a pound in one breast and a little less in the other. If I drank alcohol or got into the sun, the scars turned bright red and were irritated — they looked bad. People felt sorry for me. Sometimes my spiel didn’t work, and I felt all the more objectified. More often they said, “Oh, those scars don’t look so bad…you should see this,” or, “Hey, they healed up well, didn’t they?” Sometimes they were saddened or disgusted or horrified. Sometimes they realized I was human. Most important to me, they finally understood what I was willing to go through to be treated like a person instead of a piece of meat. The scars were my war wounds, and I began to regard them with a sense of dignity.

Several years after the surgery, when my girlfriends were getting silicon implants, the jokes abounded, “We should have been on the table next to Susie,” they’d say. I was curious about their surgeries, too. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” I told one. She had a half-inch scar around her nipple where the silicon had been slipped in, but she was horrified when she saw my scars. That made me once again feel flawed. Some women had gargantuan boobs inserted and went on talk shows to flaunt their “beauty.” They made me furious. Women like that craved a certain kind of attention, and they were partially to blame for the unwelcomed attention I had received. I hated those women as much as I hated the men they encouraged. I was glad I got rid of the damn things.

The scars became a test. At first, I said nothing, assuming physicians would know what had happened, but they didn’t. Too often, they asked me when had I received the implants, or when had I a cancer treatment. At other times, the surgery was intriguing for those whom I expected to be more knowledgeable. The physician who administered my Air Force psychological test (in preparation for a high-security clearance) noticed that the surgery was reported in my medical file, and he asked to examine my breasts. I complied, not realizing that this was outside the boundaries of the required psychological exam. He traced the scar path with his fingers, showing me where I could have plastic surgery to make the scars less noticeable. I eventually realized that many doctors had not been exposed to this surgery and that I could help in this matter. When a doctor at my graduate school health clinic asked to see my scars, I made a deal with him: If he would read my lab tests immediately and save me another trip to campus, I would show him my breasts. This, I rationalized, was a mutual favor.

Since the scars could be seen under my arms, the minute someone noticed them, at pool or beach parties, for instance, curiosity about me spread again. Once I went for a massage while I was traveling overseas. I insisted on wearing my bathing suit top, but the clerk talked me out of it. “It’ll get all oily,” she explained. All the masseuses were women, so I agreed. They had me lay on my stomach, and two women massaged my back. When they had me turn over, I kept my eyes closed; I didn’t need to see their reaction. Sure enough, the room fell silent and no one touched me. “Honey, what happened?” a woman finally asked. I opened my eyes to see that there were now four or five women standing around my table. “They got too big and I had them chopped off,” I snapped. The ladies had been genuinely concerned, but I was tired of being stared at and of having to explain.

If I feared sexuality before, it terrified me after the surgery. I could tell strangers and friends about the worm-like scars, even talk about them a little flirtatiously, but I didn’t know what to say to people I was attracted to, especially in the most vulnerable of moments. Without thinking about it, I found myself telling my first postsurgery date who put his hand up my shirt that I had been in a traffic accident and that the steering wheel had gone through my chest. Not wanting to continue to lie, I found myself trying gallows humor the next time, “Easy, it might come off in your mouth” or “Careful, you might get stitches in your teeth…a little floss, hmmm?” And then my greatest fear came true: He called me Frankenstein boobs. He was a man that I loved; we had been together for almost a year, and we were talking about marriage. He was funny, a comedian, someone who often made people laugh by poking fun at his own foibles, his own body. He thought we were close enough that he could, in private, make light of my body, too. It didn’t translate. It made me think that I couldn’t win: If I kept the boobs, I received unwanted attention and stares; if I got rid of them, I was still a monster.

SONGS OF REFLECTION

In time, I gained some critical distance. After the surgery, there were no more crank calls, no more strangers on the street, and no more stares. The men I met without the boobs were completely different from the men I met with them. Even my roommate was astonished at the immediacy of the changes. I finally realized that the attention followed me not so much because I had big boobs or ugly boobs, but because my body was so disproportionate. I was 5 foot 3 inches tall and weighed 108 pounds; a DD/E bust size made me into a spectacle. Other things began to make sense now, too.

It made sense that my first steady boyfriend made it a point to tell me he loved “who I really was, deep inside.” It made sense that I never enjoyed a man’s touch until after the surgery, and that I never had sex until afterwards, either. It made sense that all men might not be pigs. In a moment of inspiration, I wrote my surgeon a note: “Would do it again in a heartbeat. You changed my life for the better. Thank you.”

I accepted myself and celebrated. I made up jingles that I sang around the house, “Big boobs grown out of control. Lop. Lop. Off they go,” and vowed to run a marathon — something I could never do before. My body redistributed itself (from the surgery or the running, I’m not sure). My feet shrank two sizes, and I suddenly shopped in the petite section of the store. On one anniversary of my surgery, a girlfriend and I had a “more than a mouthful and a handful is a waste” party. My personal Hallmark Holiday: August 13. Chop. Chop. Hurrah.

But some things still remain: I always warn a man before he sees or touches my breasts, even now, fifteen years later, when the scars have flattened and become less obvious. Warning them is my testimonial — my prelude to intimacy. I sometimes tell myself that I’ll marry the man, who, when we have “that” conversation, shows that he truly understands by kissing the scars instead of the breasts. That man hasn’t appeared yet; I don’t think he will.

I deliberately jog without my glasses. I’m almost blind without them, but I can see enough to see the curb, the cars, and maybe a large rock or two in the road. People think I’m nuts, but they don’t understand. If I don’t wear my glasses, I don’t have to see the details of the guy who might scream something obscene, the truck that could honk from two feet in front of me, the bicyclist who would grab me as he rides by. This is my legacy. I still don’t buy shirts with front pockets, and the silky and clingy materials will never work for me. In fact, my only regret is that I didn’t have the nerve to take a larger role in my own remaking. I wish I had been encouraged to speak about the size I wanted for myself. Perhaps I did have my say when I told the doctor to “take them all off,” but had he granted my request, I would probably be less happy now.

Recently, I heard about a diabetic who had to have his foot amputated. It surprised me to learn that the boy had asked if he could keep the severed appendage. He thought the foot was an inextricable part of himself, a piece of his body that sustained and supported and helped to form the person that he was. The loss of the foot, he believed, would inevitably make him someone different, someone else. If he could continue to own the foot, that piece of his body that made him whole, then he could still, somehow, be complete.

I prefer to see things differently. A foot is only a foot. It was a detached and disembodied part of the self, a diseased piece of flesh that he is better off without. Losing the foot meant saving the rest. The scars will keep the memory near, and, in remembering the loss, he will always be reminded of the real goodness that remains.

Copyright University of Nebraska Press 2001

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