You do not want your daughter to fear her natural self or any other self she chooses. You do not want your sons to closet and shame women.
She wants to know if it hurts. Your daughter, on her way to 3, extends a finger, hesitant. “Is it a boo boo?”
You are cuddled together on the couch, her brothers finally returned to school after four snow days and a two-hour delay. She smells of lavender baby wash. “No. It’s all better now.”
She is a compact version of you except for her hair. It is strawberry blonde, leaning toward red, like her father’s. She is soft and warm in your lap, dressed in pinks and purples. “Can I touch it?”
You are literally navel gazing. She has pulled your shirt up to stare. Your belly button is ringed by bubbled, roping scar.
Her finger makes contact. You feel the warm brush of its miniature tip as a tingle two inches left of where she’s touched you, a curious after-effect of tightened skin and displaced nerve endings.
“The other ones?” She looks lower. You shift the elastic waist of your gray yoga pants to reveal the scar running hip to hip. It ropes at either end. Her finger grazes its edges. You pull your shirt higher, unclasp your bra. She touches the line under one breast, then the other and you fight not to draw away, not to hide the evidence of your renovations.
“What about this?” She wants to see your nipples. This time you do hesitate. “It has a drink in it? It has milk?”
“No, there’s no more milk.”
“Can I try anyway?”
You start to say no, but her mouth is already puckered, and you remember the comfort you both derived just months ago when she still took her meals from your body. You quiet your mind and smile consent. Her lips whisper past each nipple, and she sighs, satisfied. Your breasts are just breasts to her. No matter that which inhabits them is unnatural. Their synthetic refilling is not objectionable to your child like her doll when you washed the scribbles from its head. They are still her heartbeat pillow, her reassuring handhold, her head cradle when her eyelids begin to droop. They are still breasts. Your breasts. Her mother’s breasts.
You pull your shirt down. She cuddles close, unaware how this exchange has healed you. She holds you as you hold her.
After three pregnancies, your body was a painful wreck of skin. You dreamt of reclamation. One day, when you feel brave enough to voice the desire, you speak of plastic surgery with one of your most trusted friends. She frowns and says, “But you don’t really want that.”
But you do.
Still, you swallow that seed of doubt and the other seeds she offers. “Breast implants don’t lay the same as real breasts. They don’t feel the same.”
You hear her statements as a judgment against you instead of as her own insecurity; her concern that you are not cherishing yourself. You change course, agreeing, “I wish we could be happy with the bodies we have.”
The truth is, you are not happy. While you see that you are still beautiful, you cannot seem to accept the constant tenderness of your overtaxed skin, the way all clothing chafes it. The way intimacy requires distance for enjoyment to trump discomfort. Yet you whisper to your reflection, “This desire is born of vanity.”
Then, the renovations.
Necessity paves the way for your reinvention. One day you are sitting on your couch feeling under the weather when you hear a pop. Your stomach gushes forward. You lift your shirt to discover your innie is now an outie. It is hard to walk. You can’t stand up straight. You feel as though your stomach is tumbling out, like you are falling and vomiting simultaneously. You are unable to eat, to lift your toddler, to hug your children, to think. When you lean back, a ridge juts out of your middle in a pronounced arc. You begin to refer to yourself as a “reverse dinosaur,” a poor joke to ease the tension of falling apart. No one ever laughs.
The first doctor you consult sends you to a plastic surgeon. The plastic surgeon sends you to a general surgeon. The general surgeon sends you home after telling you the procedure you need is abdominoplasty, but he will not recommend it.
Your mother has been staying with you for the last week because you were instructed not to lift anything over five pounds. If you do, a loop of bowel may shift and be caught in your hernia with life-threatening results.
When the general surgeon tells you he considers abdominoplasty risky and unnecessary because there is a 50% chance you will re-herniate, you hear that there is a 50% chance you will be able to cook meals and hold your babies and make love to your husband. Unfortunately, the plastic surgeon you consulted with will not repair a hernia of this type, and the general surgeon has washed his hands of you.
You locate a second plastic surgeon who is willing to make the repairs. His office offers a discount on breast implants if done at the same time. You sit on that information for a full week before asking yourself, “And why not?” If your abdominal wall is to be stitched back together and the excess skin on your stomach removed, why should your breasts remain sad balloons? They, too, had swelled and shrunk with pregnancy, the skin left striped, loose, and mobile.
Mind and body agree viscerally. Your pregnancies were not externally beautiful as you were told they would be. You ballooned painfully, jagged purple lines appearing on your stomach in the night, in the morning, in the middle the day. They burned and bled no matter how much or what type of butter you slathered on them.
And after, your body exhaled, but did not snap back as promised with healthy eating and exercise. Fifty pounds gained, 75 lost. Seventy-five pounds gained, 80 lost. Seventy-five pounds gained, with effort, 100 lost. But the skin remained, empty and painful.
In your sensory existence, you celebrate the weight lost of body with the exception of your chest. There, you feel unprotected. The mirror reflects an absence you mourn. You feel out of balance. Even after eight years you have not adjusted to breasts that are light and empty. You want heavy and full. You want.
After your surgery, you shuffle along a hardwood floor at an angle, pulled down by your tightened skin. Pain sleeps under the influence of Hydrocodone and Valium. You move into a shaft of sunlight. The forest of your mind clears. You straighten as much as you can, feeling the heaviness of your breast implants pressing right where the weight should be. Your legs tremble but you remain upright, joyful tears traveling down your neck into your reestablished cleavage. When your mother asks why you are crying, you tell her, “My breasts.”
“Do they hurt?”
You choke on a sob, shake your head no. “The weight of them,” you say. “I missed it so much.”
She nods and holds you as you cry.
You know you would go through it all again just for that feeling.
But your journey is not ended. There is the return home. Your unveiling. Your reentry into a city with a rural, small town feel. The women you surround yourself with primarily identify as natural, crunchy mamas. Many of them are homesteaders who peddle essential oils for healthy living. You love them and their wares. You choose these women again and again because they are compassionate self-starters. They are a womb for your emotional and spiritual growth, a feminist action group advocating acceptance of every woman’s natural state. You expect breast implants are antithetical to what they stand for, with exception of cancer survivors.
Without being given cause or meaning to, you internalize shame. You were never shy to change in front of your children. You were happy to share their bath. “This was your house,” you would say as they looked at your body with interest. “You lived here.” Your children would press their tiny fingers into your folded-over navel. Take hold of your breasts and drink their fill. They would drape their bodies over yours, skin to creased skin. Together, you would breathe.
Now, you hide yourself. You dress and undress behind closed doors. You bathe alone, telling your darlings they are so big now. There is no room to shower together. You keep them at a distance, afraid for them to believe the changes made to your body are a reflection of sexuality and an acceptance of the pervasive media standard for female beauty. Part of this stems from a remark the plastic surgeon’s office manager made at your post-op appointment. “You look like a Barbie doll,” she said. “You look perfect!”
Meanwhile, your crunchy mama friends listen to your story and celebrate that you have taken care of yourself in the way that felt right to you. You listen, but you can’t hear this affirmation. You always found Barbies frightening.
Before you had children, your body was a war zone. Yours was a body of excess curves that showed up in your tween years. Your mother was terrified of your sensual beauty. She saw your pubescence as victimizing. She was certain you would be ravished by men forcibly and told you numerous times to expect to be raped.
In her fear, she took these ideas further. You became a target for her insecurities, a constant recipient of lamentations that your body took after hers with your miniature waist, perky breasts, big hips, and thundering thighs. It was horrible for your body to be so appealing, your measurements often echoed by hormonal teen boys in movies.
You recall this while soaping your augmented breasts one day in the shower. You turn off the water and oil your body from top to bottom feeling every curve in between. You think of your daughter beyond age 3, when she will grow breasts and hips and feel into her own sexuality with the sensual grace of youth. You think about hiding yourself, about setting the example, about priming her to be a victim, teaching her to hide, to be ashamed that she is female, that she is sexual, that she is human. To think she deserves judgment or owes what any man demands because of her genitals, her shape, her garments.
Clarity blooms. You do not want your daughter to fear her natural self or any other self she chooses. You do not want your sons to closet and shame women.
You turn off the water. You think back to that moment on the couch where your daughter recognized your body as your body. You step out of the shower and towel off but do not close the open bathroom door. Your sons come running around the corner. The elder covers his eyes but steals curious glances at you through his fingers. The younger stares without embarrassment. Your daughter reaches for your scars and you wait for her to trace them before pulling on your clothes.
You may never love these scars, but you will come to accept them as your daughter does. Regard them with periodic curiosity. Remember yourself before renovation and decide that after is not better, but neither is it worse. It’s who is inside the body that matters.
Shawna Ayoub Ainslie writes on issues of race, place and survivorship. She holds an MFA from Indiana University. Her work can be found in The Huffington Post, Medium, [wherever]: an out of place journal, and Art Saves Lives, International. She is a writing instructor and coach in Bloomington, IN who blogs regularly at The Honeyed Quill.