When I told him the story for the first time, I stood in the hot bath as if steam were rising around me. My voice echoes through the tile walls. It felt like a kind of baptism, my words give the name of something that didn’t exist completely before I spoke and that name finally made me.
It was weird. Feeling we have ‘Run out of gas’ emotionally. Some will be the same tissue, yes, and a new nipple cut from the old, but the breasts that I have spent so many years in different, desiring their specific weight, will be gone forever. In the surgical theater, the body is sacred only to its inhabitants. It overwhelmed me, a strange feeling of sanctity, as my surgeon squeezed and measured my breasts with a marker on the morning of my surgery.
When I had my earlobes sewn up at the age of 32, I didn’t feel anything – not physically or emotionally – until I got up later and saw the metal of the instruments near my surgical bed. Can’t see the key tray, where there were small gray lumps in my ears. Still lying down, like two chewed pieces of gum. “Oops,” said the surgical assistant. “I will not let you see them.” He wrapped them in green paper, lined up the tray, which he then crushed and threw into a steel trash can. It drew something into me, perhaps the basic instinct of my body to sustain itself. I suddenly wished I had kept them. On the morning of my breast surgery, I was glad I didn’t have to look in the trash.
I was also happy for the sweet nurses, with their flawless faces and soft voices. I used to live in places with a majority of women, but it was often full of women, queers and trans and non-binary people. The surgeon’s office was unabashedly feminine and immersed in the comforting assumption that everyone who entered was on the same page about beauty – how to describe it and make sure it Want. Whenever I got off the elevator, I felt like an interloper. If they had seen a glimpse of my hairy legs, I would have felt guilty, exposed as a feminist Judas in a deep cover.
I found this a wonderful resting place. The clear consensus prevented any tension in the environment, and I felt that I had no desire to challenge the doctor when he said, “They will become much more attractive and younger.” Or when one of the nurses squeezed my wife’s shoulder and promised, “You’re going to love her!”
Suffice it to say that the culture of cosmetic surgery offices, and perhaps the industry as a whole, is in line with the second wave of feminist perspectives: not only the quality of paternal beauty, but also the patriarchal social structure. I understand the temptation to extend this diagnosis to patients who choose to participate in the industry. But as I write this article, I’ve talked to a number of self-made gynecologists who have felt no harm or remorse about their surgeries – from thigh lifts to abdominal fragments to vaginoplasty. Overall, the dominant emotion was one of victory and happiness. It is now clear to me that any feminist stance on cosmetic surgery that does not take women’s relationships into its own body actually objects to them.
I hated my body. Over the years, I have felt confused and exposed by it, and have been subjected to many tasks that others wanted regardless of my desires. These combined loads used up a lot of time and energy. For the most part, they praised my relationship with myself. All the years of healing and recovery and writing and reading and talking to friends changed that. I no longer hate my body. My experience in the world no longer seems to be defined by my physical appearance. Physically changing my body felt like an important way to concretize this work. It was not, as some might think, a substitute for a psychological change, but a physical fulfillment that had already taken place: a ritual that reminded me of the restoration of my body, once and for all. I didn’t want it to be a subtle process.