When I told her the story for the first time, I stood in a warm bath as steam rose around me. My voice echoed against the tiled walls. It felt like a kind of christening, my words naming something that had not fully existed before I spoke it and that naming had finally made mine.
It was a bizarre sensation, to look at my breasts for the last time. There would be some of the same tissue, yes, and a new nipple cut from the old one, but the breasts I had spent so many years wishing different, their particular weight, would be gone forever. In the surgical theater, the body is sacred only to its inhabitant. It did sneak up on me, the strange feeling of sacredness, as my surgeon squeezed and measured and scrawled on my breasts with a marker on the morning of my surgery.
When I had my earlobes sewn up at 32, I didn’t feel a thing — not physically or emotionally — until I stood up afterward and looked down at the metal tray of tools beside my surgical bed, where the little gray lumps of my earlobes still lay, like two chewed pieces of gum. “Oops,” the surgical assistant said. “I’m not supposed to let you see those.” She folded them in green paper that lined the tray, which she then crumpled and threw in the steel waste bin. It tugged something in me, maybe my body’s basic instinct to keep itself intact. I suddenly wished I had asked to keep them. On the morning of my breast surgery, I was glad I wouldn’t have to see my discarded parts thrown in the trash.
I was also glad for the sweet nurses, with their impeccably made-up faces and lilting voices. I was used to being in majority-female spaces, but these were often full of feminists, queers and trans and nonbinary people. The surgeon’s office was unabashedly feminine and steeped in the cozy assumption that everyone who entered was on the same page about beauty — how to define it and sure that they wanted it. Every time I stepped off the elevator, I felt like an interloper. If they had glimpsed my hairy legs, I would have felt guilty, exposed as a feminist Judas in deep cover.
I found it an oddly comforting space. The implicit consensus precluded 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 perkier and more youthful,” or when one of the nurses squeezed my wife’s shoulder and promised her, “You’re going to love them!”
Which is all to say that the culture of cosmetic-surgery offices, and perhaps the industry as a whole, aligns with the second-wave feminists’ take: an endorsement not only of patriarchal beauty standards, but of patriarchal social structure. I understand the temptation to extend this assessment to the patients who elect to participate in the 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. Over all, the prevailing emotion was one of triumph and pleasure. It seems clear to me now that any feminist position on cosmetic surgery that doesn’t take women’s relationships to their own bodies into account actually objectifies them.
I’d hated my body for years, felt both obscured and exposed by it, and subjected it to many acts that others wanted irrespective of my desires. These cumulative burdens had consumed an inestimable amount of time and energy. In large part, they had defined my relationship to myself. All the years of therapy and recovery and writing and reading and conversations with friends had changed that. I no longer hated my body. My experience in the world no longer felt so defined by my corporeal form. To physically change my body felt like an important way to concretize that work. It was not, as some might assume, a substitution for psychological change but rather a physical consummation of one that had already taken place: a ritual commemorating my reclamation of my body, once and for all. I didn’t want it to be a subtle process.