I never really loved my body, but never hated it either. I never went on restrictive diets (or stopped eating chocolate and cake) and always hated the gym; so, I didn’t have any reasons to complain about why I didn’t look like a Victoria’s Secrets Angel.
But my relationship with my breasts was a bit complicated: from trying to suppress their development into a full cup C in my teen years, by wearing double vests and adopting a bowing posture while walking, to showing them off in low cleavage outfits in my early twenties. My breasts were a symbol of my femininity – the one I tried to hide and the one I wanted the world to see. When I started working in academia, my breasts were quickly hidden under loose shirts and blouses. ‘You would look cute in tighter tops,’ a colleague said. But no, I didn’t want to be judged for putting my femininity on display.
When I was diagnosed with what my doctor called ‘the stupidest form of breast cancer’ (ductal carcinoma in situs) in my late thirties, I thought in a way that I deserved it. I felt my breasts were taking their revenge for not loving them or showing them off enough all these years. I got angry. My body was betraying me; so I hated it with every fibre of my being. The unfairness of it all made me feel lost and frustrated. I kept wondering if I will ever feel like a woman again or will I always have scarred breasts and ugly special bras on?
Nipple removal surgery was a nightmare. It was so invasive. I lost a part of myself and felt disfigured. I didn’t cry when I saw the stitches. I didn’t cry when I saw the scars, the radiation tattoos, the fake nipple or the implants. I didn’t cry when I had two failed nipple tattoo sessions, which were supposed to give me a confidence boost. But I cried when I saw my naked body in the mirror for the first time after the repeated breast surgeries. It was my own body, but somehow, I didn’t recognise it. I could not come to terms with what I had in front of me. I missed my breasts, I missed my body, I missed being me. I started wearing double vests again and avoided tops that could potentially reveal any of the scars. I grieved, for I thought my femininity was brutally taken away from me.
It was during the Covid quarantine that (after many meditation sessions) I decided I should not compare how I look now to what I used to look. My breasts were not the enemy – they were the part of my body that saved my life. Once I transformed the negative thoughts I had into more positive ones, I realised that I should be proud of those scars and radiation tattoos. They will always be there to remind me that I won this battle. My breasts are a symbol of femininity because femininity is an empowering notion, synonymous with strength, resilience and bravery. And I have demonstrated all of these throughout this journey.
So today, when I look at myself in the mirror, I appreciate what I see. I see a survivor who is happy with how she looks in low cleavage tops!
Annita Ventouris, PhD is a senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire. She holds a PhD in psychology from UCL.