Understanding Body Dysmorphia – should there be an age limit on surgery?

I’ve spoken before about vetting people psychologically for surgery before they go ahead and go under the knife – because I think that age and psychological welfare are important things to be considered when offering surgery to anyone. I say this because I was one of those vulnerable people – and I’m so glad that the surgeon who saw me had the sense to turn me down – a devastating blow at the time, but one that I am so thankful for now.

When I was 16 or 17, my Body Dysmorphia took over massively (before I even knew what it was or that I had it). I got to the point where I was fixated on two things – my boobs and my ‘acne’ (I did have acne, but it was very isolated and I had a very small amount of it compared to others my age).

I was in another stressful, quite important transitional period in my life, moving from school to college. I was convinced that the college I’d picked would be best for me, academically and socially, and it’d been a nightmare to get in, but once there I found myself just as isolated as I had been at Secondary School. Here, everyone stayed in cliques so it felt impossible to make new friends outside of the people I knew before – the opposite of what I wanted. I felt all wrong in so many ways – just as I had done at school. I wanted a certain look – thick curly blonde hair – but my dark mousy brown hair was still thin just two years after my eating disorder and although I dyed it blonde it never lightened to what I wanted it to be.

I don’t know how or why my boobs became such an issue for me. They just were so small and I saw the popular girls at college tended to have big boobs. Where I’m from, at school and at college, sex and who you were having it with (and how much you were having) was everything. Nobody wanted to even kiss me, let alone have sex with me, and this was a marker of how attractive and acceptable I felt I was. These girls oozed confidence and were full of jokes and banter – a persona which I just didn’t feel able to adopt myself. But these were the popular girls – the girls that chatted endlessly and went out all the time and I think that, more than how they looked, made them attractive to lads more than their boobs – I just didn’t see that at the time. Ironically, when I look back and picture those girls in my mind, I really wouldn’t want to look like them now.

Every girl or woman I looked at, my eyes were drawn straight to their chest, like a randy 13 year old boy. I analysed their size against my own, almost always insignificant in comparison. I purchased numerous push up bras and chicken fillets and on nights out I always wore low-cut tops with a ridiculous amount of padding and scaffolding underneath them, almost to convince myself and others that I did in fact have the boobs I wished I had.  I was labelled a ‘slut’ and my friends and family all used to make fun of me ‘always having my boobs out.’ Ironically, they saw it as a display of over-confidence rather than a manifestation of my deepest insecurity. I spent almost every waking hour of every day contemplating how I would ‘sort out’ my boobs. I constantly imagined life with my new boobs, surrounded by admirers – lads queueing up to have sex with me, too many party invites to cope with, loads of envious friends. Of course, that was all rubbish. A new set of boobs would certainly not make that sort of impact on my life. And looking back now, all of those things are so trivial and unimportant – of course they’re not trivial or unimportant in a teenage mind.

I set about working out how I could get a boob job. As with most cases of Body Dysmorphia, I became fixated on them and couldn’t rest until I had them ‘fixed’. I researched the NHS criteria, which I didn’t fit. I had too few savings – my life savings – to afford the op – and obviously my part-time job at John Lewis would not be accepted for the 0% finance offer so many of the companies offer. Despite this, undeterred I scheduled an appointment at MIA for a consultation with a surgeon. My parents were horrified and my Mum insisted on coming with me to the appointment.

The sales consultant (dressed up as an ‘assessor’, all perfectly-coiffed hair and boobs herself) was very keen to get me through the door to the surgeon – pound-signs glinting in her eyes. I filled out a form and waited to be called in by the surgeon. As my name was called, my mum shot up and came in behind me – something which at the time I was angry about but now, I am so glad that she did.

The surgeon asked me why I wanted the surgery. I didn’t tell him I thought it’d change my life. I just told him I wanted to feel more confident – what woman doesn’t? We weighed up size and he measured my current size and showed me the implants. As I held them in my hand they felt so big – I couldn’t imagine them actually being under my skin. He explained the procedure and the choice of under or over muscle and my mum grimaced. He expressed a little concern at my young age and then he asked me if I had any mental health problems. My heart dropped as I smiled and said I’d had an eating disorder a few years ago (ages ago in my 17 year old head!) but I was fine now. I was on anti-depressants but I was feeling better (another lie).

From behind me I heard my mum say ‘Well, no, you have had a lot of problems recently too.’ She went on to voice her concerns about my mental health, to talk about how I was very down about how I looked and how it hadn’t actually been that long since I’d recovered from Anorexia.

The surgeon shook his head and said ‘There’s no way I can operate on you.’

My face must have visibly fallen and he went on to explain why – it was a massive risk for him, but it was also not perhaps the best thing for me. Because I wasn’t ‘stable’ emotionally speaking, I could change my mind once the surgery had been done, and as a prominent surgeon the professional repercussions for him posed a risk to his career, in addition to being ethically questionable given my current and previous mental health issues.

As soon as we left the building I began sobbing uncontrollably. I’d been working up to this day for months, contemplating my illusion of an ‘amazing life’ and my increased popularity, all of which was now shattered and completely out of reach. Mum consoled me and apologised but said: ‘I had to tell him; I couldn’t not have him know how fragile you are.’ I was angry with her but I knew she was trying to do the right thing to help me. After a while, I realised that she was completely right (always humbling to have to admit that your mum was in fact right!). But she was.

Looking back now, I’m so glad that surgeon turned me down, and so glad that my Mum intervened as she did. My boobs are not the best, they’re nothing special, they really are pretty small. But I quite like them. I am petite and if they were even one cup size bigger, I’d be looking a bit top-heavy.

I’m not criticising anyone who has had surgery here – a lot of my friends have had boob jobs. But they did so with clarity of mind and went in knowing what they wanted to do. When asked, they don’t regret it and are pleased with their new boobs. They had their surgery in their early twenties, when they could make an informed decision about it.

Please, if you are under 20, and are reading this desperately wanting to change who you are and how you look, hold on. It seems like the most important thing right now – being liked, being popular, being attractive to your peers. But those things aren’t really that important – what’s important is you! Hang on a few more years, and see what they bring. I promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


Did you like this post? There’s more on Understanding Body Dysmorphia here.

Tough Cookie is a blog for support and inspiration during recovery from Anorexia. Eating disorder recovery can be tough – but so are you!


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