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Are Women Just a
Bunch Of Boobs?

by Kathy Cannon

illustration/Marty Kelley

My friend, I'll call her Tina, is finally getting something she's wanted for a long time--a boob job.

A strong-willed, personable, attractive woman in her thirties, she knows what she wants and how to get it. She recently divorced, and she's making many changes. A new hairstyle wasn't enough.

After two children, her breasts have shrunk to a "B" cup, and the Wonderbra just isn't doing it for her. "I just want what I used to have," she told me. "Besides, how is that any different from your diet and exercise routine?" she asked when I disapproved. "Aren't you trying to hold on to your youth and remain attractive? Isn't it the same thing?"

I didn't have an answer at that point, but now I do.

EXERCISE AND DIET MAKE me stronger and healthier, improving my chances of living longer--breast implants don't. Risking my health to conform to society's standards of beauty seems wrong, although it's not a new concept--women have changed their physical appearance and suffered severe health consequences as a result throughout history.

The Chinese practice of foot binding is a classic example; it was done for centuries, with the first recorded in 950 A.D. The practice wasn't banned until the early 1900s. Small feet were considered beautiful, so at age 3 or 4, all of the girl's toes, except her first, would be broken. Once broken, the toes would be turned under, the arch would snap, and the foot would be wrapped tightly, restricting its growth to only a few inches. Feet that were bound extremely well were called "golden lotus" and measured only three inches.

The Chinese thought small feet would bring a woman a happy marriage, and marriage was a primary concern for a family with a daughter. Since women were unable to work, they were a liability and brought financial loss to the family; the only way to recoup these losses was to marry her off. An old Chinese saying claims that before a girl's marriage could be arranged, the future father-in-law would first check the size of her feet before he would approve. Binding a girl's feet improved the chance she would marry; at the same time, it also insured that she would never be able to walk properly, essentially crippling her for life.

In another part in the world, distortion of a woman's neck was deemed incredibly beautiful to Mongolian tribes on the Asian continent. At age five, a girl was fitted with her first neck ring; every few years, a ring would be added, eventually extending her neck up to 5 inches higher. As rings were added, the vertebrae in the neck stretched and the muscles weakened. If the rings were removed, a woman would suffocate unless she could find support for her neck. Theories abound about the origins of neck stretching, but the main reason was simply that a long neck was a symbol of beauty and social rank.

ANCIENT ORIENTAL AND MONGOLIAN tribal customs aren't the only historical examples of manipulations of women's bodies. From the mid-1800s until the early 1900s, women wore corsets, as "wasp-waists" were the rage during this period. Corsets, some designed with two pieces of steel along each side, were fastened so tightly that they drew a woman's waist to between 14 and 18 inches. Again, society considered women useless--as simply objects of beauty. In fact, corsets were originally designed to hold women up because they were thought of as too fragile and weak to do so themselves.

Minimizing the waist to such small proportions greatly restricted a woman's movement and made her virtually unable to do much of anything at all, forcing her to be the "useless" person that she was thought to be. Wearing corsets so tightly also deformed a woman's internal organs and made it difficult for her to take deep breaths. Whether a woman wore her corset or not, she would breathe shallowly because of this damage, making her more likely to faint or get the "vapours." In effect, a corset made a woman even more fragile and less capable of handling physical or emotional stress.

Women's roles have changed dramatically--we're not fragile, weak females anymore. We are no longer a liability to the families into which we are born. Our place is no longer necessarily in the home. We can work, have careers, and make our own decisions based on what we want out of life.

Although we've taken great strides in so many areas, why do we still continue to conform to what society considers beautiful? Isn't it bad enough that we wear make-up, shave and wax, scrub and buff, pluck our eyebrows, exercise and moisturize, among other things? For the sake of being attractive, we also surgically alter our physical appearance, and jeopardize our health. Why do we reduce ourselves to simple "objects of beauty," when we are really so much more than that?

BREAST IMPLANTS, ALONG WITH tummy tucks, liposuction, nose jobs, face-lifts and other surgical procedures, reinforce that only what society considers beautiful is acceptable--the "perfect woman" never ages, never wrinkles, never sags, has large breasts, pearly white teeth, a small waist and a nice little butt. We really are a bunch of boobs if we continue to let society tell us what is beautiful and we accept that image as the ideal.

The perception of what a woman "should be" influences a woman, not just emotionally, but physically as well. On a recent Oprah Winfrey Show, the guest was medical intuitive Caroline Myss, Ph. D., author of Anatomy of the Spirit. In her book, she makes a few important points, including the idea that people are more than just their physical bodies--that we are mind, body, and spirit. Women, she says, seem to forget this often and suffer for it.

All the expectations and demands of what a woman "should be" drains her body of energy. "Where will a woman get weaker?" Dr. Myss asked of the audience. Her answer was simple--"in the places that make her that woman." She claims that the rise in women's cancers is caused by this stress to their body--the stress to be a "complete" woman and meet society's expectations.

The "complete and perfect" woman must have large breasts. According to an article by Dr. Alexander G. Nein, a plastic surgeon in Nashville, over 2 million women have had breast implants, and the number of enlargements has tripled over the past five years. Women in their twenties and thirties are most likely to have breast augmentation because their breasts aren't "perfect"--they're too small, they've shrunken after pregnancy or they're uneven in size.

IN ABOUT AN HOUR, a woman can have "perfect" breasts. In breast augmentation surgery, doctors usually place the implant under the skin and outside of the pectoral muscles, covered only by skin and a thin layer of fat. The implant can also be placed under the pectoral muscles. This method, though, makes the breasts appear unnatural for the first few months. Once the swelling goes down, the muscles and implants settle and the breasts look better; the pectoral muscles act as a bra to support the implant. Surgeons and patients rarely choose this method because the results are not visible immediately. Whatever method is used, normal activity can resume in a few days, and upper body exercise can resume within weeks.

Sounds pretty simple, right?


Breast implants can cause numerous problems, so your first surgery may not necessarily be your last. There are many reasons for additional surgery, including deflation, rupture, infection, shifting of the implant, or calcium deposits.

INFECTION CAN OCCUR NOT only within the first few days after the operation, but also at any time thereafter. Since the implant is a foreign object in the body, it can make an infection more difficult to treat. If antibiotics are not effective, the implant needs to be removed.

Some implants can last for years; others can deflate or rupture within the first few months. Implants can deflate or rupture because of an injury or normal wear over time. If this occurs, the body absorbs the saline, but the silicone envelope has to be surgically removed.

Implants also affect the blood supply to the breasts. After surgery, hematomas--a collection of blood in the body--may occur. Small hematomas can be absorbed by the body, but larger ones have to be drained. Implants also stretch the skin, which hinders the blood supply to the area. When the skin gets less blood, it thins, so an implant can easily push through. If an implant pops out, additional surgery is needed.

The most common problem with implants is a capsular contracture, which occurs when scar tissue forms around the implant. The skin becomes rippled and tight, resulting in a round-looking implant. The breasts may get harder and even painful. Surgeons must remove the scar tissue and replace the implant. Since scar tissue can build up over and over again, numerous surgeries may be necessary.

AS IF THE KNOWN risks weren't bad enough, what we don't know is even scarier. The FDA didn't start regulating medical devices until it became a law in 1976, at which time silicone and saline implants were already in use. Manufacturers were allowed to continue selling their medical devices, but the law made it clear that these manufacturers would have to submit data showing that their products were safe "at some point in the future." So far, the FDA has not asked for the data, and there's some speculation that the research may have never been done at all.

In 1992, the FDA restricted the use of silicone implants to breast reconstruction after a mastectomy. Silicone implants were controversial because they leaked silicone into the body. If saline implants leak or rupture, they are not supposed to harm the body. There are concerns, though, that the saline can become contaminated with fungus or bacteria, causing infection if the bag deflates or ruptures. Also, the bag that holds the saline is made of silicone, and researchers aren't fully aware of the risks of having a silicone encasement in the body.

Much of the research on implants is inconclusive and incomplete. Many questions remain unanswered. For example, some women with implants experience symptoms similar to those associated with autoimmune diseases. Do women with implants have a greater risk of getting an autoimmune disease than those who don't? None of the studies have resolved this issue.

The effects of implants on children are also uncertain; it is not known whether the silicone in a silicone filled, or even a silicone encased, implant can bleed into breast milk and harm children.

THERE IS NO SCIENTIFIC evidence of the risk of developing cancer from implants, which is frightening. For women that already have silicone-gel implants, the possibility of getting cancer cannot be completely ruled out. Follow-up studies are too short to resolve this question.

Even though there's no evidence that implants increase the chances of developing cancer, implants do make diagnosis more difficult. Calcium deposits frequently build up around the implant, and these deposits must be removed to determine if they are cancerous.

Women with implants have more difficulty with mammograms, too. It is harder to do a mammogram because the breasts are squeezed, which can make implants rupture. Implants also can interfere with the mammogram attempts to locate suspicious-looking tissue.

With the risk of cancer unknown and the difficulty implants cause in determining if cancer is present, why would a woman do this to her body?

THE RISK OF CANCER is scary enough without having breast implants. A picture in the October 1998 Utne Reader entitled "One in Eight" speaks volumes--those are the odds of developing breast cancer. All eight women are bare-chested, though that's not the shocking part--one of the women is a breast cancer survivor and has two large scars where her breasts used to be.

In October's issue of People Magazine, a special report on "Surviving Breast Cancer" states that breast cancer remains the most common form of cancer in American women. It's also the sixth leading cause of death, even though survival rates have risen in the last decade because of medical advances and early detection. The need for mutilating surgery to remove the breast has been reduced; new drugs that may even prevent and cure are on the horizon. But as director of the world's largest breast-cancer research program at Georgetown University says, "The story isn't over ... there are a lot of people who are going to die of this disease before we're done."

One woman who faced breast cancer--diagnosed after having implants--is Wanda, a fictional character in Lisa Loomer's contemporary play The Waiting RoomM. This play is about three women from different eras in the waiting room of a doctor's office: Forgiveness from Heaven, the 18th century Chinese woman, has lost a toe because of her tightly bound feet; Victoria, a 19th century English woman, suffers from hysterical delusions of her corset forcing her vagina out, and the 20th century Wanda who is having trouble with her implants.

At the end of the play, all three women share a recovery room together--Forgiveness has lost four toes, Victoria has had her uterus removed, and Wanda's breast cancer has forced her to have her implants removed. In an effort to calm a restless Forgiveness, Wanda tells a story of three stupid sisters--one who thought her feet were too big, one who thought her waist was too big, and one who thought her breasts weren't big enough. Each of the three sisters visits the "magician", who fixes them in return for treasures.

OVER TIME, THE MAGICIAN'S magic turns bad, and the sisters are angry. He replies, "My sign says 'magician', not 'god'--I said I'd make you perfect, but not perfect forever." The sisters smash all the mirrors in the kingdom and tell the other women to come to them instead of the magician when they think they don't look good. When the women came, the sisters would make them look into their eyes and would tell them that they were beautiful--they didn't need the magician. The women in the kingdom didn't believe them at first, but after hearing "you're beautiful" so often, they started to believe.

Although it's only a fairy tale, it's worth a shot:

Hey Tina--you're beautiful, and you don't need a magician. •

FDA info on breast implants:

American Cancer Society:

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