It’s no secret we live in a hyper-stylised society. Our obsession with the sleek and chic extends from our clothes to our phones to, unfortunately, our views on the female body. It’s no wonder then that plastic surgery has surged in popularity in recent years. Despite this, decades-old taboos and stigmas regarding these surgeries have found their way through to the modern-day, confusing the dialogue on these procedures.
One such surgery, breast reduction, stands out amongst its peers as being a cosmetic surgery usually undergone for medical reasons. But even though the operation stands out against others in many ways, it still finds itself caught up in a world that simultaneously pressures women to achieve the ‘ideal body’ while also criticising women who strive to improve their bodies.
To understand just how confusing society can be regarding its position on breast reduction, one has to turn no further than The Sun. In September and less than a week apart, The Sun published two articles that touched on breast reduction. The first described singer Kerry Katona as “the picture of elegance” for showing off her surgery scars while the second lambasted Katie Price for looking “terrifying” after her surgery. It’s almost as if the media can’t decide which is more important, supporting women who conform to conventional beauty standards or criticising women who take agency over their own bodies.
Looking to delve deeper into the issues surrounding the procedure and women’s health, I had the pleasure of speaking to Leeds University student Emily Stenton, who underwent the very same operation over the summer and has agreed to shed light on why she underwent surgery as well as on some of the dialogue around it.
What made you opt-in for the surgery?
I used to swim at a national level, and I was really enjoying it, getting really far with it. But then I had to stop training because I couldn’t get to the end of a training session. My shoulders and back were giving me issues which at first, I just assumed it was overtraining, but my posture would be horrendous, and my shoulders just got worse and worse. So I stopped training; started going to the physio which didn’t help and eventually stopped swimming altogether.
I knew that back problems, especially at my age, could be due to my chest. But I never thought surgery was something I wanted to do until I got to uni. That’s when I started to think about body image more. I would be amongst all of my friends who were tiny people. And we’d wear the same sized clothes, but they would look incredible where I would feel like a whale for no reason. In my mind, I never felt comfortable in my own body, I guess. So that’s when I started looking into it when it started affecting my mental perception of myself as well as just my physical health.
Do you think that those body image issues were purely internal or do you feel like there were external pressures on you affecting them?
I think a lot of it wasn’t from other people’s comments but myself. Although I would meet somebody and the first thing they’d see was my boobs. Or the only reason someone would talk to me was because of my chest. Sometimes I would find people not listening to what I was saying. I felt like they were the only thing they’d remember about me, not my personality or what I had to say.
But on social media, I’d noticed that what guys find attractive is, a lot of the time, no curves, small chest, etc. The fashion industry, for example, now tailors just for slim women and if you’re not that, it’s so hard to find something that really suits your body. If compared to being skinny, society didn’t say that having a larger chest or a higher BMI was ugly. Then maybe women wouldn’t feel so bad about the clothes they wear and how they look. The impression I got from social media was that if I didn’t hit societies expectations, I wouldn’t feel comfortable. So the pressures were always there I guess, I just didn’t notice them as much until I came to uni.
Did you have any doubts before you went in?
Of course! Leading up to it, I was horribly nervous. I changed my mind a bunch of times leading up to it. I’d think “It’s not worth it”, “It’s not worth my health”, “What if it damages my boobs?”, but the closer I got to it the more excited I got. I’d think “I’m going to be able to wear clothes and feel good”, “I’m going to be able to get back into exercise”, “I’m not going to have to wear two bras to the gym”.
The whole process was so nerve-wracking, and I met a nurse who went through all the risks with me. She completely freaked me out. I’ve never been under anaesthetic, I’ve never had to stay in the hospital. There was a risk of death, risk of heart failure, all this scary normal surgery stuff. I started to think “It’s not worth it for… boobs”, that was in my head. But I had to look at the bigger picture. It’s not just about boobs; it’s everything; the stigma, my own health.
And did you encounter any stigma around it?
Well, I chose to post it on social media, and most of the response I got was actually positive. There was one, anonymous account, however. He had gone onto my account, taken a screenshot of me and cropped it, so it was just my chest before the surgery. Then he messaged me saying “Why on earth would you do this? You’ve ruined your body. You had amazing boobs, and you’ve ruined them.”
I don’t know why anyone would do that? It was just after my surgery; I was recovering; I was not well. Why would someone go on the breast reduction hashtag, look for someone who has had the surgery, pick them out, and message them criticising them? It’s not like I can or would go back and change it for his sake. The only reason he would do that is to be malicious, to make me feel bad. But that was the only bad thing I received. Other than that, I had amazing feedback from everybody.
If you had a message or any advice for anyone considering the surgery, what would that be?
Don’t let anyone talk you out of it. Don’t let anyone from your past say “Oh, don’t do that because of x and y”. Don’t listen to it, you do what makes you comfortable, what makes you confident. And when you go to the GP about it, just be yourself and tell them the honest truth. If you’ve got a problem and you’re suffering, they will care.
In the UK alone, over 183,000 plastic surgery procedures have taken place over the last five years. Many of these are purely cosmetic while some, like Emily’s surgery, are based in a more pressing medical need. With the media unwilling to provide clear and helpful information regarding these procedures, voices like Emily’s could be vital to spread awareness and knowledge to those that may need it. Everyone deserves a safe surgery and a healthy recovery.
For more information about plastic surgery or breast reduction, resources are available on the NHS website.