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SocietyJune 10, 2019

Too much of a good thing? Why young women get breast reductions

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Large breasts can be great, but they can also wreak havoc – mentally, physically and sexually. Erin Gourley talks to university students who want to reduce their cup size by going under the knife.

This story was first published in Critic Te Arohi, the University of Otago student magazine.

“I found my old bra the other day and I could put it over my face. Each boob was bigger than my head,” Dominique told me. She had a breast reduction when she was 17. “It was the best thing I ever did.”

Big boobs are seen as an attractive feature, like having long legs or nice teeth. But they can ruin your life. All of the women I talked to have seriously considered getting a breast reduction because their breasts have negatively affected their lives. Sexism, spinal problems, and physical restrictions are common features of their stories.

Isabella was wearing a heat pack on her neck while I interviewed her. “I have a chronic neck/back problem,” she said. “It’s exacerbated by the fact that I have to wear a bra all the time. It puts a lot of weight on my neck.” When her neck problems began, her osteopath said she would probably need a breast reduction.

Dominique started going to the physio for back pain when she was 14. She thought it was normal, until her mum pointed out that her breasts were the cause of the problem. “The strain that they put on my neck has been contributing to almost daily headaches and my lower back aches at night,” said Phoebe.

It’s not surprising that excess breast tissue affects the spine. Breasts are not symmetrical. Their different weights tilt the entire spine out of alignment and make it difficult to have good posture. After Dominique’s surgery, the surgeons weighed the tissue they had removed. Two kilograms from her left breast, 2.5 kilograms from her right breast. “And I was still a D-cup after surgery,” she said.

Men act confused when women tell them that they’ve had a reduction. April has a theory: “Since guys sexualise boobs, they compare them to an extra big penis. And they’re like ‘I wouldn’t get my penis restricted if it was too big.’ But it’s such a different thing.”

She pointed out that penises don’t fuck up your entire spine. “If a guy’s penis was causing him constant pain, medical issues, and he was struggling to find underwear and trousers and he couldn’t run anywhere, I actually think he would consider getting surgery,” Isabella said.

“My yoga instructor once said to me ‘men have their restrictions too’. Like, are you telling me that a man’s sad penis is analogous to my oversized boobs?” April describes herself as “a bit of a hippy naturalist”. But she struggles with the physical restrictions that her breasts present. “I do my yoga naked in the mornings. But I go into downward dog and my boobs hit me in the face.”

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Jacqui was competitive in a number of sports, but her breasts made it hard to continue. The sports she enjoyed caused “constant pain and discomfort”. She tried losing weight to reduce the size of her breasts, but it didn’t help. “I couldn’t lose any more weight and still have the energy to be active,” she said. Isabella’s breasts also held her back from being able to exercise. “I stopped running. I stopped swimming. I stopped jumping up and down.” All of the women I spoke to had bad experiences in high school PE. “You cannot go for a run.”

Jacqui also describes “unwanted attention” as one of the reasons she decided to get a breast reduction. In her first year at Otago University, she overheard a student outside her room saying “she’s literally just tits on legs”. That incident formed a pattern that she had got used to since puberty. “At school, a group of boys started a group chat about my boobs.”

“I didn’t date in high school,” Dominique said, “I thought, I know my boobs are the only reason you like me or are asking me out. And I felt completely sexualised.” The women I spoke to have all had uncomfortable experiences around men – boys asking them to get books down from top shelves so that they could look at their breasts, obvious staring on the street, unwanted groping in town, strangers adding them on snapchat and asking for pictures of their breasts, even inappropriate comments from teachers at high school.

“You get really sexualised at a young age,” April said. “You start hanging out with guys and they’re just attacking your boobs. They get fetishized.” April often feels uncomfortable in relationships. “Sometimes I’m dating someone and I just think: you are way too obsessed with my boobs right now.”

Dominique remembers a moment in year nine when an old man stared at her as she walked to her bus stop. “His eyes were instantly on my boobs and followed me as I was walking past him.” Even after the surgery, she gets comments. “I could never look you in the eye before,” a guy at school told her after the reduction. “Boyfriends always say: ‘I wish I could have seen you with big boobs,’” she said. “Only one guy, out of every guy I’ve been with, has not said that.”

“But I could never feel pretty,” Dominique said. Clothing is difficult to find and bras are expensive. “Once you’re above a DD you can say goodbye to cheap and readily-available bras,” said Phoebe. Bras for large breasts (i.e. the kind of bras that you can only find at tiny, captive-market stores) cost upwards of $100. “I always wore ill-fitting bras for as long as possible because I didn’t want to spend another $400 on two bras,” Dominique said.

“I definitely cried in a fair few changing rooms,” Phoebe said. Teenage trends like strapless dresses and button up shirts made shopping trips awkward. Her body leads people to make assumptions about her. “I won’t wear low-cut clothing or tight clothes to situations like job interviews.” April has similar issues. “It’s not easy to be classy,” she said.

“People don’t always act respectfully,” said Isabella. “They seem to think they have a right to comment on your boobs because they’re so big.” Out of the blue, people ask her whether she’s considered getting a reduction, or tell her that her breasts look “massive” when she wears certain clothing. “You wouldn’t say that about someone’s large nose or their acne.”

Other people associate a breast reduction with a ‘boob job’. “A lot of people say you should be proud of your body and surgery is feeding into a toxic cycle,” April said. “But there’s a difference between wanting a nose job and stopping your back from slipping a disc by the time you’re 30.” The surgery is technically cosmetic, but it’s often necessary to stop or prevent ongoing spinal issues.

Dominique said that despite her problems, she understands why others don’t want a breast reduction. “I don’t want to make it sound like I only love myself because I’ve got smaller boobs now – that’s not how it was – but having big boobs made me feel horrible.” Her older sister got the surgery before her, but her younger sister is fine with having large breasts. “And she still feels gorgeous and sexy. So I would never tell her to get the surgery.”

“It’s like getting your appendix out when it bursts or getting your tonsils out,” said April. “It’s a part of your body that no longer serves you.” After surgery, Jacqui is “able to be active without having to wear three sports bras”. She can do the activities she wants to do without enduring constant pain. “I feel more like the person I should be and I have a lot more self-confidence.”

Surgery is not a magic solution for everyone. Undergoing a major operation and spending over $10,000 is not a choice anyone makes lightly. Isabella said, “As horrible as it is to think that my body is who I am, your body is who you are. For over half of my life, I’ve had big boobs. They’d be chopping off part of me.”

“I remember coming to, still doped out, and looking down the bed and I could see my feet,” Dominique said. “I had never been able to see my feet lying down before. It was exciting.” Then the pain hit. Her chest was black and blue and she could barely move her arms for a month. She didn’t regain sensation in one of her breasts for about a year. In contrast, Jacqui returned to full-time waitressing within two weeks.

There are side effects. Fifty percent of women cannot breastfeed after the surgery, there’s a chance of contracting septicaemia (potentially deadly), and nipples can fall off. April has been in to the surgeon twice in the past two years, but she “panic[s] and leave[s]” when they get to the part about breastfeeding. “I’d be okay with a nipple falling off,” she said. “It would be worth it.”

Cost is also a major factor. “It was purely price,” Phoebe replied when I asked why she didn’t go through with a breast reduction. “I would never have been able to afford it if my parents couldn’t pay for it,” said Jacqui. Breast reductions cost between $10,000 and $17,000. Dominique’s grandparents paid the $13,000 for her. April plans to have the surgery over summer and pay with money from her grandparents. “My mum was going to put the money on my student loan but this is more immediate,” she said.

“There’s a massive inequity,” April said. The government funds elective surgery, but there’s a lot of demand. They prioritise the patients who are suffering the most. Dominique was shortlisted as one of 30 women in Canterbury. From those 30 women, they would choose five to get the surgery. A one in six chance was not enough of a guarantee, so she was lucky that she could turn to the private system instead.

The five students I spoke to have gone through a lifetime of bullshit because of their breasts. Some of that is inevitable and genetic, a hormonal glitch that runs from grandmother to mother to daughter, causing spinal problems and chronic pain. But some of the problems are not health-based. Objectification and disrespect are not the result of genes. They’re the result of attitudes. Women should not have to endure groping and staring and unsolicited sexual comments because they don’t want to (or can’t) undergo surgery.

When I asked her what surgery changed for her, Dominique smiled. “It was just so refreshing. I was a hell of a lot happier afterwards.” Her breast reduction solved her health problems and helped her regain self-confidence. When body parts cause us health problems, we fix them. Breasts are no different.

Names have been changed.

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