The reduction of mass (and) pain

I developed very early. One day I was a girl, the next, a woman. It pretty much happened overnight. Without any warning. Without explanation. It just happened.

My body had always been a bit of an anomaly to me so to add more ‘meat’ into the equation was really just adding insult to injury. As the days went by my hips got progressively wider, my bum gradually more padded and my boobs steadily larger. For a long time I struggled to accept that I had a woman’s body. I struggled to accept that I was ‘curvy’. But I eventually came to terms with the fact that my hip-to-waist-ratio is quite disproportionate. I didn’t come to terms with my chest size.

I’m not a ‘small’ lady, in any sense of the word. I never have been. I’m 5’8, a size 6/7 shoe, a dress size 12/14 and have very broad hips and shoulders. So having big boobs wasn’t something that unduly perturbed me in my teens. It seemed pretty unremarkable for a tall, ‘hour-glass-figured’ girl to have a pretty big rack. But, at their largest, my boobs could only be caged in a 30J/JJ bra. They just wouldn’t stop growing. In my last couple of years at High School I was wearing a G cup. And about a year after that, they went up even further, to a J. At 17/18 years old I had to buy my underwear from a specialist, expensive shop more commonly sought after by mothers and more mature ladies who are ‘usually’ associated with a bust size like mine. I couldn’t just nip down to New Look or Primark with my friends. Shopping for lingerie was not something I enjoyed. I definitely didn’t feel feminine like I should have.

They were so out of proportion with the rest of my body it hurt. Physically hurt. It got to the point that I was on such a strong cocktail of painkillers that I was completely out of it all the time. I was taking 4 different kinds every single day (some of which I took 3 times daily) including 2 different kinds of codeine. It was the kind of stuff that people take after operations, it was that strong. I took them so often, for such a long period of time, that if I try taking them now for say, pain relief for a broken foot, it makes me vomit. My body just can’t take any more. I was in constant pain. I couldn’t move without feeling like I was being stabbed in the back by seven different people, all with a knife in each hand, twisting them in turn. It got so bad that Doctors thought I might have a slipped disk so I had to go for an MRI scan. Luckily, my spine was ok. But if I hadn’t of had the surgery, it might not have been ok for very long. The pain was one thing, but the psychological impact that my boobs had was another. I wanted to love them. Really, I did. But the constant heckling I got from random people on nights out – and even during the day – made me burst out into tears regularly. I was stopped in the street after work – on my own – at 4am – and asked if I would prostitute myself. I know that the problem wasn’t solely the size of them, but also the fact that we see boobs – more accurately – BIG boobs – as purely objects of sexual fantasy and objectification. I was nothing but a walking pair of t*ts. I covered up, all the time. I would NEVER show cleavage, because if I did, I may as well have just walked about with my top off. The comments would be 100 times worse. So I never wore anything without a high neckline and always tried to wear loose fitting clothes. No matter what I wore though, they were so big and so out of proportion with the rest of me that you couldn’t help but notice them. You just couldn’t. It wasn’t something that I could hold against people because they were right there. But the pain they brought me was the deal breaker. They literally made my life a living hell. No matter how I sat, lay down, back straight, hunched, curled up in bed, I was ALWAYS in pain. Not even the concoction of Codeine and Co could help the situation. It made it incredibly difficult to exercise and even just live comfortably.

I was miserable. For the first time ever in my life, I loved my body. I just wished the top part wasn’t so out of proportion with the rest of it. I felt unbalanced. Not the whole, best version of me. I reached a point where I wanted to rebel against them. I started doing photo-shoots in lingerie. I felt so uncomfortable and it felt like they went on for days (luckily most of them were with a photographer I had worked with plenty of times before and trusted) but it was such a feeling of accomplishment after I did it. Kind of like when you have a sip of alcohol for the first time and your parents have no idea. The only photos I ever liked from these shoots were the ones that seemingly minimised the size of my bust. The ones where I had managed to pose in a way that concealed them and didn’t portray just how big they were in the flesh.

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This shoot was never supposed to be a lingerie shoot. I went to it to create some ‘fashion’ style images and the photographer remembered that they had this gorgeous full length coat. I tried it on and the makeup artist concurred with them that it would look nice over lingerie. I wanted to be sick in my mouth at the thought of it but they assured me that I could stop at any point and that we wouldn’t be doing anything ‘trashy’. They didn’t force me into it in any way – I just didn’t want to be a killjoy and say no. As we progressed they both lifted my spirits by being really enthusiastic and telling me that the shots were awesome. This gave me confidence and I gradually moved the coat away from its position across the majority of my bosom and this image was created. It’s ironic; this is probably the most terrified and uncomfortable on a photo-shoot that I’ve ever been but it’s one of my most popular images to date. I don’t think the reality of how scared I was is evident on my face. That must be a good indicator of how good I was at hiding it and keeping it in. The bra I’m wearing in this shot is not padded. Not even a little bit. This also wasn’t when my boobs were at their biggest.

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This was the kind of image that I set out to create that day, not a boob in sight. Just how I liked it.

There are lots of women for whom a J cup set of bangers is perfectly normal and correct within the parameters of their own body. But not for me. I saw a few different Doctors who all said the same thing – ‘these breasts are too big for your body and they’re causing damage to your back.’ Before a breast reduction will be performed your body mass index (BMI) and weight etc. are taken into account and looked at. I was a ‘healthy’ weight for my height and so losing weight to see if my boobs would become smaller wouldn’t achieve anything other than making me unhealthy. I had already lost a fair bit a couple of months prior due to illness and there had been no change in the ol’ size-of-the-boobage department.

So, at 19 years old, I was told that I would receive a breast reduction. It’s very uncommon to be offered this operation at such a young age but my case was an extreme one. This along with the day the surgery was performed are some of the most memorable and happy moments of my life. I can honestly say that I have never looked back after having it done. The healing process was quite lengthy for me, it took about 3 months before I really felt strong again. I got an infection in one side which, in comparison to others, was minor but still took a lot out of me. I had to undergo a course of antibiotics which was rather draining after a pretty major operation. I’ve lost sensation in one side and the scars which sit right against my chest wall are very uncomfortable to touch but it’s not something I notice much. My areolas are not the round shape they used to be (they have to cut them right off during the operation then reattach them) due to the scar tissue but it really doesn’t bother me. It never has to be honest. If anything, it reminds me of how ecstatically happy I was when I came round from the anaesthetic. Of how I couldn’t wait to pull my top down to have a look. I have a scar running right round the nipples, all the way down the front of my breasts and underneath. They faded pretty much completely within about 9 months though. Not that I was bothered about scarring in the first place, I’m covered in stretch marks so I’m pretty used to it and I think that scars tell a story – because they do. I feel whole now. In proportion. Happy. Like I have the boobs I should have always had – they suit my body. They suit me. It was almost miraculous – I stopped having any back pain just days after the operation. I had absolutely no need for those horrific pain killers anymore and I could live my life without pain! I still get the occasional twinge – but it’s just that, occasional – and it does get pretty sore if I’m standing for long periods of time but I think that’s to be expected considering how much strain it was previously under. They removed the equivalent of a bag of sugar from each breast. I can’t remember exactly but it was around 3kg in combined weight. I have a much happier relationship with fashion and lingerie now, I’ve got a much greater choice when it comes to choosing where my undergarments come from – I have freedom. Most importantly – I’m now safer from developing a spinal condition. It’s no longer under immense pressure daily and I can live free of worry of what I’m going to develop as I get older.

I LOVE MY BOOBS!

Leyah hearts (9)

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About Leyah Shanks

Positive body image activist and advocate for mental health.

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