What’s driving the growing number of women upsizing their breasts?
Lucy* had breathed deeply through the anaesthetic mask and tried to count to 10. When she woke up, her once “completely flat” chest held a pair of E cup boobs. They were bandaged and zipped into a compression garment, but when she looked in the mirror, she remembers thinking, “Oh my god, I love it. They’re ginormous.”
But Lucy felt like she had been hit by a bus. She couldn’t sit up. She couldn’t stand up. And certainly couldn’t go to the bathroom. “I didn’t understand how invasive it would be,” she says, “it was so nuts.” For two weeks it was “gnarly” and she needed to be nursed. Then she needed a wheelchair. For four weeks she couldn’t drive or dress herself, because she couldn’t lift her arms.
We talk about “boob jobs” a bit flippantly, forgetting they are relatively major surgical procedures to healthy bodies. Having one means making a lifelong commitment to breast surgery, as the implants will almost certainly need replacing, ideally every 10 years. Lucy’s isn’t a horror story either. She was lucky. There were no complications and she healed well. Her only ongoing issue is a weakened pectoral muscle on her left side.
More and more women around the world are choosing to get bigger boobs. In the latest global statistics released by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, breast augmentation (implants) was the most popular procedure for women, with 1,601,713 undergoing this surgery in 2020. While this is a 9.5% drop from 2019, the deficit is more than accounted for by Covid disruptions – cosmetic procedures overall dropped almost 11%. Interestingly, breast reductions were down by a whole lot more – 29%.
In Aotearoa, the numbers are less clear. “No one knows exactly how much cosmetic surgery is being performed in New Zealand, as national statistics for the industry are not collected,” reads the NZ Association of Plastic Surgeons’ website. It appears neither the industry nor the Ministry of Health has bothered to count. Perhaps it is considered too frivolous to be of importance. Yet the association acknowledges there has been a “big rise” over the past decade.
Lucy had been dissatisfied with her natural breasts for years before thinking “Fuck it, I’m getting my tits done!” She was young, 23, and felt free and brave. Perhaps even reckless. Lucy’s boyfriend was “not into it” and told her so. “’I don’t care, I’ll be hot,” she told him, “Don’t worry about it, it’s not your concern.” She laughs. The rest sounds like a bit of a whirlwind: an internet search, taking out a personal loan, flying to Thailand, meeting the surgeon, and a week later, flying home with a changed body. For Lucy, taking control of her breasts felt empowering. “It was something I was doing for me,” she says, “I wanted to feel more feminine.”
Six years later, Lucy sends me, a very breast-curious journalist, before and after pictures. The pink cherry blossom emojis covering her nipples seem to be the only consistent feature between the two images.
The second wave of feminism, which rose and gathered momentum through the 60s to the 80s, fought against the renewed domesticity of women after the war. The 50s housewife transformed into the powersuit-wearing businesswoman of the 80s. They rejected traditional femininity, instead padding their shoulders to mimic the male physique.
But feminist movements have continually shifted. The 2020s has seen femininity wholeheartedly embraced by trashy, pink trends. There was Bimboism, now there is Barbiecore. Powersuits have made way for pink velour tracksuits, shiny acrylic nails and obvious artificiality. Puffed up lips aren’t trying to look natural, and neither are big perky breasts. Instead, femininity is shown to be “fake” – a product of money, labour, performance and culture. And it is celebrated.
Senior sociology lecturer Dr Carisa Showden sits in front of a wall of books. She’s Zooming me from her sunlit home office, but can usually be found quoting Cher in gender studies lectures at Auckland University. Showden sees these new trends as following on from third wave feminism, a reclaiming and doubling down on feminimity, to value it and re-imagine what it could be. “What we hope feminism means,” she says, “is that we don’t need, or want, to be just like men.”
As we speak, our own faces are played back to us. Small yet ever present. For Showden, the thing that’s “kinda great” is the refusal of naturalisation – the pink, glittery acrylic nails that point to the artifice of it all. “The artificiality embraces the fact that of course it’s work,” she says, “It is really drawing attention to these sort of ideals that we got through magazines, through television shows, through Tiktok, through Instagram, through advertising – and refusing to pretend that there aren’t expectations on us about how we are supposed to look. Showing that work is an effort to push back.”
“They’re quite obviously fake,” says Lucy of her breasts. “Anyone can tell.” On her Instagram, perhaps our most public construct of identity, she is just about always smiling, and just about always at the beach in a bikini. She has been “super open” about her surgery from the start. Given the transformation, and the new size of her breasts, “people were gonna notice, there was no way I could hide it”.
Lucy noticed too. Her new boobs changed the way she viewed herself. “I couldn’t stop looking in the mirror,” she says, “I was like ‘amazing, I’m so hot’, which is such a contrast to how I viewed myself before.”
To my eye, her boobs are big, but not unbelievably so. Perhaps because I’m persistently bombarded by surgically and digitally altered bodies, my grip on reality is a bit skewed. Still, there are obvious artificial boobs around – usually on Instagram. Someone I follow was inspired by Pamela Anderson to augment her breasts. She often wears a t-shirt with the slogan “I ❤️ Big Boobs”. It isn’t just the boobs, but also long blonde hair extensions, eyelashes like Bambi, over the top manicures and lips that look like they’re straining to contain the fillers. All wonderfully fake.
For Showden though, artificiality seems to be coming up short of its revolutionary potential. “It tends to look a lot like what femininity has always looked like – recouping certain features that have been imposed historically. Reinforcing that high emphasis on embodiment, especially through breasts, or the hourglass figure. They are standardised figures that get re-trawled.” Instead of expanding femininity, or breaking down the gender binary, these aesthetics seem to magnify traditional constraints. Why do the new femininities regurgitate old patriarchal images?
There is a lot to be gained through breast augmentation. Many women report an improved quality of life. They feel more popular and respected after breast augmentations. They apparently have more, and better, job prospects. Insecurity and shame, which once pervaded sexual encounters, give way to confidence. There are psychological, social and economic gains to be had through enlarging one’s breasts. Perhaps these women aren’t victims, they’re savvy.
Having tens of thousands of dollars to spend on cosmetic surgery allows some to buy individual empowerment, but can reinforce oppressive norms. It would be hard to find anyone who doesn’t put effort into their appearance. Almost all women have a bra which, apart from offering support, volumises, lifts, and reshapes breasts in much the same way an augmentation does.
There is always pressure to look a certain way. Sometimes it’s explicit. Lucy was told (by men) that she would be more attractive with bigger boobs, and these comments reinforced feelings she already had. “Sometimes,” she says, “when I start thinking about the concept of having surgery to change the shape of your body to appear a certain way, or make yourself feel a certain way, it is quite bizarre.” It’s a sentiment she expresses multiple times. The conflict between her freely-made choice and its influencing factors will perhaps never be resolved. Breast augmentation is a complex negotiation.
Our bodies though, don’t exist only as fodder for feminist musings. They are flesh and bones and blood. Surgery is a physical trauma, and breast augmentation is not without its dangers and side effects. You are, after all, slicing through skin and muscle, then shoving a synthetic foreign object inside and stitching the wound shut.
The body isn’t always happy about having synthetic foreign objects inside it. According to the US Food & Drug Administration, 20% of women who have had breast augmentation will need to have an implant removed within 8-10 years. Within 18 years, 69% of implants will rupture. Sometimes, the body forms a hard scar tissue around the implants, known as capsular contracture, which can be painful and cause deformities. The risk of capsular contracture is up to 81% for silicon implants, and 41% for saline filled implants. Breast Implant Illness, little-understood and not clinically recognised, is experienced by many women. It appears to be an autoimmune response to the implants, causing fatigue, cognitive problems, burning pain, dry eyes, anxiety and joint pain. Studies show that after having implants removed, 69-89% of patients feel better. The immune system responding to implants can also cause lymphoma, a cancer. This is rare, the worst possible risk is estimated to be one in every 2,207 women with textured implants. Still, cancer is cancer.
More commonly, women experience trouble breastfeeding, up to 12% report changes to nipple sensation, and 11% experience ongoing breast pain. And, as with any surgery, there is the risk of blood clots, bleeding, infection, injury, and pain
These statistics are extremely off-putting, and either buried deep or not found at all on surgeons’ websites. The reality is that many women end up with damaged bodies as a result of seeking a certain form of femininity. Many will never be properly informed, or, by the time they are, they’re in a consultation. Lucy says “it was kinda too late by then.” She, like many others, had already made her decision. She had already been promised by her surgeon’s website that her self esteem, silhouette and proportions could be made “better”.
Veronica Hopner’s office is reminiscent of a doctor’s consultation room, although she is the other, more bookish, type of doctor. On the shelves are leather-bound volumes with her name foiled in gold on the spines. Outside, the Albany campus of Massey University is quiet, students are on break. Neither cosmetic surgery nor feminism are Hopner’s areas of experise, but she was so curious about why women choose to have risky surgery on their healthy bodies, that she ended up writing a thesis on it.
She was fascinated by the feminist discourse around artificiality and empowerment she read in academic journals, but it was nowhere to be seen on New Zealand-based cosmetic surgeons’ websites. Instead, breast augmentation is being sold to women on the basis that it is a solution to deficiency. Breasts considered too small, too saggy, or too far apart, too flat, or in some other way normal and natural, can be “fixed” by surgery. In before and after pictures – the before could look like just about anything, whereas the “after” were standardised – breasts that were large (but not too large), firm, full, and rather upright. A demanding standard, impossible to achieve without augmentation.
It’s here we encounter the majority of thinking around breast augmentation. It isn’t the desire to look artificial, or to point out femininity as constructed. These are rare exceptions. It is instead the proliferation of the idea that natural bodies aren’t good enough, and should be “fixed” through surgery. Breasts though, should still look “natural”. These messages are lightly veiled in nice phrases: “compliment your figure”, “a natural look and feel is achieved”, “balance the proportion between the breast and body”. The obsession with sticking to the natural is so extreme that one surgeon claims “breasts are naturally enlarged” by liposuctioning fat from elsewhere on the body and injecting it into the breasts.
I wanted to ask cosmetic surgeons what women who came to them were looking for when asking for breast augmentations. Of the 10 surgeons I contacted, only one was willing to talk to me. They were a woman, though the vast majority of surgeons are men. While she does perform augmentations, she prefers “implants” which “look natural”. She seemed concerned for women who choose large implants, as they can cause more complications. To her, breast augmentation shouldn’t be conspicuous. Rather, it should be minor alterations only for women who “lacked” breasts. This is the norm for augmented breasts – rarely spoken about, and passing as natural.
Turns out, the joyously artificial breast is rare among breast augmentations – it’s just the most obvious and visible. For Showden, these breasts can work against enforced norms. Even if cosmetic surgery can never be fully liberating, it holds the potential to make us think creatively and critically about norms and expectations. “Taking joy in [augmentation] is probably non-normative,” she says. “I would say in this day and age, taking pleasure in things is the most resistant and non-normative thing you can do.”
In the final photo Lucy sends me, she’s free of the compression garment. The bandages are off. The sky is a bright blue, and the sand under her toes dark. Wind blows hair over half her face, but doesn’t hide her smile. In this photo, I can see the outline of the implants under her tan lines.
Visibility comes with a price. Lucy doesn’t regret her big boobs, “I just loooove my tits so much,” she says. But she’s scared of the inevitable next surgery, and there have been times she wasn’t sure if she’d made a good decision. Men have been forward with their opinions about them, willing to say to her, “oh, I don’t like that.” She has felt stigmatised, whereas before she was judged for having a flat chest. It seems, she says, “we just can’t win”.
* Name has been changed
Gabi Lardies is a cadet in the Next Page cadetship programme, public interest journalism funded through NZ On Air.