I Used to Judge Women Who Had Plastic Surgery -- Until I Had It Done Myself

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

I was born with two different ears. One sticks out, missing the fold that my other ear has. It’s a genetic family trait—showing itself in three of us. When I was little, I would do things like tape my ear back hoping it would stay that way, or I would sleep on that side of my face hoping that one morning I’d wake up with my ear looking just like the other.

But as I got older, even as a teen, I accepted the fact that my ears were different—and it wasn’t that big of a deal. I wore my hair in a ponytail and little hoop earrings every day, not caring who noticed that my ears weren’t symmetrical.

In my twenties, all sorts of plastic surgery shows were emerging and quickly became popular. Women, primarily, first increased their breast size or got liposuction, attempting to eliminate cellulite. Then came lip injections and butt implants. Soon there were non-surgical options that swore to melt away unwanted fat and smooth wrinkly skin.

I scoffed at all of these. I just didn’t get how in the world someone could be so unhappy with their appearance that they’d be willing to go under-the-knife. After all, if I could be confident with my two different ears, why in the world couldn’t a woman be okay with her B-cup breasts? Weren’t there bigger issues to worry about in life than physical appearance? I couldn’t imagine being willing to risk my life to go under the knife for cosmetic purposes.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties that I understood why plastic surgery shouldn’t be something any of us look down our noses at. I was in the midst of raising four kids, working, and living life when everything came to a halt. I had breast cancer. The first time I heard my breast specialist say “mastectomy,” my heart sank.

For someone not at all into trends, fashion, or makeup, I was devastated to learn that opting for a lumpectomy meant a higher risk of cancer recurrence—not to mention the likelihood that the surgeon wouldn’t be able to remove all the cancer cells this way. I ultimately decided to have a bi-lateral, direct-to-implant, skin-and-nipple-sparing mastectomy. It took me months to be able to say the M-word out loud—because it was scary.

Friends and family were incredibly supportive. Many of them told me they’d make the same choice if it were them, adding, “They’re just boobs.” I tried to reason with myself. I didn’t need my breasts for feeding babies—since all my children were adopted—and we were done adding kids to our family. I also wasn’t that into looking a particular way in a swimsuit. In fact, I was flat-chested in high school and learned to accept that I’d never have voluptuous breasts like the ladies on magazine covers.

However, when faced with the option of being breast-less or getting implants, I couldn’t bring myself to reject plastic surgery. Cancer chose me, for whatever reason, and now I had to make a decision about my appearance. I decided that I was only thirty-five years old and that felt too young to be without boobs.

The first time I walked into my plastic surgeon’s office, I was surrounded by glistening and gleaning. Everything was shiny and white—with a sparkling, massive chandelier hanging over the waiting room, glossy brochures fanned out on modern end-tables, and luxurious sofas and chairs. There were others in the room around me, quietly chatting with one another or flipping through magazines.

What blew my mind? There wasn’t one single physical appearance type of woman, despite what I thought I’d find. There was, strangely, quite a bit of diversity—age, gender, height, race, weight, body type, and physical features. I also assumed I’d find lots of “plastic” looking women—with too much lip filler, incredibly tiny waists, and rounded butts. Surprisingly, everyone in the waiting room looked ordinary. I was immediately filled with guilt. I’d spent too much time mentally body-shaming strangers based on preconceived notions.

When it was my turn to meet the doctor, I was a nervous wreck. I reminded myself that the surgeon was there to help me—that she was part of my cancer healing. When she breezed into the room, she was warm and confident, listening to me ask questions and answering thoughtfully and thoroughly.

I was certain she’d also suggest some stomach or thigh fat-sucking—or an ear fix—to compliment what would be my new boobs. After all, I was sitting there wearing my classic ponytail, jeans, and a plush wrap provided by the nurse. Per usual, I was only wearing mascara and lip balm—my sun spots and forehead wrinkles clearly visible. There had to be some things she saw that could use a good upgrade.

Once again, I was wrong. She was completely professional and empathetic to the fact that I was sitting there as a cancer patient. I didn’t want to be there, and we both knew it. She asked me what I wanted and presented me with several options. I left the office empowered, not shamed or fearful.

Over the following two years, I visited her office a handful of times. Once to have the surgical drains removed from my chest. Again later to have my “foobs”—also known as fake boobs—checked out. I returned for a one-year follow-up and a two-year follow-up. Each time, I sat in the same waiting room, learning more and more about why people choose plastic surgery.

I understood that the surgeons and nurses helped women with breast reconstruction after surgery. They offered “Mommy Makeovers” for those done having children. They assisted people who had struggled their whole lives with heavy breasts, performing breast reduction to relieve back and shoulder pain. Online testimonials shared the stories of patients who had rhinoplasty so they could breathe better, drastically improving their quality of life.

I also learned that a healthy diet and exercise can’t change everything as I’d previously believed. (Think Judy Blume bust-increasing chants.) Yes, these are important for overall health, but they aren’t miracles. Sometimes plastic surgery is the only option, or the best option. If a person chooses this — for whatever reason — that’s okay. That is their choice. What someone else chooses to do with their body doesn’t impact me in any way.

Looking back, I realize that I was judgmental about women who chose plastic surgery because I assumed they were snotty, superficial, and, deep-down, self-loathing. However, what I learned through my own plastic surgery experience is that if a person can afford the surgery and it’s what makes them happy, why not?

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