Getting A Breast Reduction Saved My Self-Esteem — And My Love Life

Finally, at 24, my confidence has gone through puberty.

woman with tape measure over her breasts  Voyagerix / Shutterstock

Weeks before I turned 19, I checked into Massachusetts General Hospital terrified that nothing could fix the way I saw myself. I was getting a breast reduction.

Two days after undergoing surgery, I stood topless in my parents' bathroom watching as my mother slowly pulled squares of medical tape spotted with pus and dried blood from my chest.

I waited in Percocet-induced suspense for my flat-chested doppelganger to miraculously appear in the full-length mirror.


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When they were finally uncovered, I hardly recognized the small puffy breasts that fit perfectly inside the palms of my hands. There were lines of stitches in rows around my nipples and a mixture of yellow and purple tie-dyed bruises.

"Much better," my mother smiled at me.

"Really?" I asked.

"Yes," she responded confidently placing her delicate hands on my bare shoulders. "I forgot how tiny you are."

Immediately after surgery, my mother saw me differently; everyone did, except for me.

I had assumed that once I got rid of my breasts I'd instantly feel small and confident. But enduring surgery, permanent scarring, and a 40 percent chance I'll not be able to breastfeed, it turns out, were easy compared with the process of shaking off my old insecurities.


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As a kid, my ballet teacher nicknamed me Olive Oil because I was tall and skinny with long dark hair like the cartoon. By 14, puberty had left me squeezing into 32DD bras. My instant curves disgusted me.

"You are not fat; you’re Zaftik," my mother would say in Yiddish, as she inspected my 5'7" and 120-pound frame. She meant I carried my weight well. Large busts were so common among Jewish women that they'd created a word in the Old Country for exactly what I'd inherited. 

I was perceived as a sensual Marilyn Monroe-type, but I felt completely unsexy. I was physically uncomfortable, weighed down by my top-heavy frame, and unable to find shirts that didn't draw attention to my unavoidable cleavage.


I sported high-necked collars hoping to distract people from noticing that my boobs were larger than my head. I layered sports bras and applied duct tape around my chest a la Christina Ricci’s character in Now and Then.

Surrounded by flat-chested blonds at my New England boarding school, it was impossible for me to blend in. The constant attention and not-so-subtle jokes using my last name, Gerber, a popular brand of baby food, fueled my insecurity.

I dreamed of wearing Lacoste sundresses over 32B wireless cotton bras. I went on breast-shrinking, no-carb fasts during the cross-country season, but starvation didn't alter my breast size. Instead, it left painful and visible stress fractures in my emaciated legs.

My enormous chest dictated more than just my anxious behavior — it controlled my relationships.


My most significant romance was with an on-again-off-again long-distance boyfriend. During our infrequent visits, we'd kiss fully clothed. I can remember stopping his hand as he gently tried to slide it up to my shirt. I could hardly stand to take off my bra in the shower, much less in front of another person.

Although I was terrified of anyone picking up on my shrinking self-esteem, I feared falling too far behind my friends in high school who were already starting to have sex.

When I lost my virginity, I was almost completely dressed wearing a skirt and long-sleeve shirt. I'd just turned 18 and had ditched my latest boyfriend for a blond hockey player who was too shy to pull at my top.

I didn't tell him it was my first time. I felt comfortable knowing we weren't dating and he wouldn't have time to realize how miserable I was with my body.


As I quietly searched for my heels in the morning darkness — looking to escape without waking him — I realized that protecting myself from criticism meant avoiding intimacy altogether.

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After a family friend with breasts smaller than mine decided to go under the knife, I became convinced a nip-tuck would be a quick fix to my growing relationship problems and my distorted body image.

I called my surgeon father in hysterics and begged him to help me.

"Your daughter wants a breast reduction. Who do I know at Mass General?" I heard him say to my mother before hanging up the phone. I had a doctor's appointment the next day.


I had assumed that once I got rid of my breasts, I'd instantly feel small and confident. Rather than alleviate my insecurities, the surgery brought them closer to the surface.

Although most people assumed I'd lost weight and couldn't exactly put it together, I now had physical scars from the reduction — thin lines running up, down, and around my chest that turned bright red when I drank alcohol.

The first guy I kissed post-op was a sweet prep-school graduate. He didn't know me before and I loved the way I looked to him. I felt like I was in seventh grade again — excited by my new breasts, but terrified to show anyone.


When we eventually went back to his dorm room, nothing sounded less sexy than admitting, "I had plastic surgery," mid-hookup. I awkwardly insisted he turn the lights off, still too distrustful to let another person see my body.

It's been five years since my surgery. Finally, at 24, my confidence has gone through puberty.

Heads don't turn on cue the way they used to; when guys do check me out, I'm relieved to see them look me up and down instead of gawk at my breasts. I'm now in a long-term relationship, where I'm not constantly aware of my breasts and, more importantly, I've become comfortable enough in my own skin to achieve real intimacy.

A few months ago, I saw a new gynecologist. During the breast exam, she asked me how long it had been since my reduction. I looked at her confused and unsure of how she could tell.


To me, the scars have faded entirely, and that girl with the duct tape and sports bras, who tried desperately to hide her body, has disappeared.​

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Alyson Gerber is a contributor to YourTango who writes about the intersection of body image and love.