Like many women, I grew up having my body frequently commented on — and not always in a positive way.
That was tough, particularly during my teen years, as I waited for breasts which simply never grew.
We Aussies love boobs — a lot apparently. In 2018, more than 20,000 Australians decided to get breast implants.
Breast augmentation is Australia’s (and the world’s) most popular cosmetic surgery procedure and if the statistics are anything to go by, the desire for bigger breasts isn’t going away.
I know many people who have fake boobs and in recent years I started to notice more women getting them done.
So in 2020, after toying with the idea for years, I finally decided I too wanted to get breast implants.
But first I needed to know more.
‘Every girl wants to look in the mirror and feel confident’
I reached out to some of my friends with implants and I met Vanilla Browny — a sassy, 25-year-old tattoo model and content creator for the adult entertainment industry.
Like me, Vanilla also grew up feeling like her body was out of proportion to her breast size.
“I was 19 when I got my implants and I guess for me, I wanted to get them done because I wanted to feel more like a woman,” Vanilla says.
“Growing up, people bagged me out for not having big boobs, because obviously having big boobs is meant to be more feminine and sexy.
“Every girl wants to look in the mirror and feel confident and good about themselves, so for me it was about creating a more aesthetic and proportionate shape to my body.”
She was “super happy” with the result and says she felt better about herself.
“I was also telling all my friends about them and how affordable they were now with all these new payment plans. I loved them.”
Perth hairdresser and mum of two, Ricci Jess, is a former fashion model and was also 19 when she got her breast implants.
“I think it all started in Year 8 and I would walk past these Year 10 boys and they would call me ‘invert’. I didn’t even know what that meant!” Ricci says.
“It got to a point where I had tried every contraceptive pill to make them bigger and I tried putting on weight, but it would go everywhere but my boobs.
“I was a model at the time and while I was doing a show and we got to the bikinis, I had to keep sending the other girl out because I just couldn’t fill out any of the swimwear.
“That was the final moment for me, I thought this is it, I’ve finished puberty and they’re not going to get any bigger, I may as well do it now.”
Both women did extensive research into breast augmentation surgery and were assured by their surgeons their implants were completely safe.
They were warned about the potential risks of the surgery, but apart from that, there was nothing to worry about and their implants were likely to last a lifetime.
“My surgeon told me they had new silicone implants to market which were completely safe and indestructible,” Ricci says.
“I trusted him, so I went ahead with it.”
Unlike Ricci and Vanilla, Roxy Malek wasn’t interested in getting breast implants.
But after undergoing a double mastectomy in 2010 and as a newly single mother to a newborn child, implants were her only option for breast reconstruction.
“It was my plan to use my stomach muscles to rebuild my breasts, but after I got my second breast taken off, that’s when my marriage breakdown [happened] and I no longer had someone to support me while I was recovering from the surgery,” Roxy says.
“That meant implants were the best option for me at the time.
“After getting a mastectomy you are really flat-chested and I was only 34 years old, so I was worried that I would never find a partner if I looked like that. Stupid really, but yeah.”
Not long after my own consultation with a cosmetic surgeon, I came across a post online about Breast Implant Illness (BII).
The post was asking if anyone else had experienced it and me being me, I decided to find out more.
What I found blew my mind, as I discovered hundreds of pages and groups from around the world dedicated to women talking about how their implants were making them very sick.
BII is not a medically recognised condition and America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it doesn’t have definitive evidence to show that breast implants are causing the symptoms women have reported.
The FDA says the most common symptoms patients with breast implants have reported include brain fog, joint pain, fatigue, hair loss, rashes, as well as mental health symptoms such as anxiety and depression.
In Australia, there have been calls for further scientific research into the causes of these symptoms and how best to treat them, and some plastic surgeons have raised concerns that BII is being used to market breast implant removal.
Ricci, Vanilla and Roxy all say that after a few years post-surgery, they started to experience unexplainable, autoimmune-like symptoms.
“My hair was just falling out everywhere and I was experiencing extreme brain fog and would completely forget what I was saying or where I was going,” Vanilla says.
“I also had really bad insomnia and was getting an average of four hours sleep a night, it was awful.”
“I was treated for Rheumatoid Arthritis for 10 years, even though I didn’t have the Rheumatoid factor,” Ricci explains.
“The worst part was probably the mental aspect though — I had really bad anxiety and it was like a constant motor running inside. I felt like I couldn’t function or parent my children properly anymore.”
Yet despite their efforts to find out what was wrong, none of their medical professionals could explain why they were sick and all were told it couldn’t possibly be due to their implants.
While there’s been little scientific research into BII, Dr Jill Newby — a Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor at the Black Dog Institute — has recently released a world-first study into its impact on women’s mental health.
Her research found women who report experiencing BII (whether or not they’ve had their implants removed) have higher rates of depression and anxiety than women with implants who don’t experience BII.
“Our research showed the mental health symptoms were quite variable. Some people experienced panic attacks, fear about their health, severe depression and a minority, but still a significant portion, experienced suicidal thinking,” Dr Newby says.
“I also did a qualitative study that hasn’t yet been published, which found that all of the women felt they weren’t properly informed before the surgery about the risks associated with their implants.
“Some were told about typical risks like contracture of the implants or side-effects of surgery like infection, but regarding the systemic and unexplained physical and mental health symptoms, they didn’t feel they were properly informed.”
BII awareness groups have grown significantly in recent years, largely due to the fact they provide a space for women to feel supported and validated in what they are experiencing.
Dr Newby says there needs to be more awareness of these symptoms amongst health professionals.
“A lot of women probably turn to social media because they feel they’ve had a very negative response from the health professionals they had gone to see for advice.”
“I think we have a long way to go to make sure we’re supporting women who experience these symptoms and concerns about their implants because they are very debilitated by it.”
Informed consent and further research
In September last year, the FDA recommended implant manufacturers include a ‘black box warning’ informing of the risks of developing breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma and the symptoms associated with BII.
American plastic surgeon, Dr David Rankin, has stopped performing breast augmentation procedures altogether and now specialises exclusively on explant surgery — removing implants.
He says the FDA announcement was a step in the right direction and hopes further research will be conducted to provide women with more information before they get implants.
“Every woman has to make a decision for themselves and I would say most women who get breast augmentation don’t have problems and do fine,” Dr Rankin says.
“It’s the patients that have the problems that come to me, and I see what they’re going through first-hand.
“Further study is warranted and if we could get to the bottom of what causes Breast Implant Illness and develop some kind of diagnostic to decide if someone is a candidate for breast augmentation or not, I think that could hopefully bring us to a greater understanding of the risks.”
Life after removing implants
Roxy, Ricci and Vanilla eventually decided to remove their breast implants as a result of BII.
All three women say their health significantly improved after their explant surgery.
“I just felt relieved and like I had a new lease on life,” Ricci says.
“Just being able to take a deep breath for the first time in years, you don’t realise how constricted your lungs are while you’ve got implants.
“While I’ve had some setbacks in my health, no one can take away the massive improvement I know I’ve had since getting my implants out.”
Ricci is now an advocate for Breast Implant Illness awareness and runs a website which recommends surgeons to women wanting their implants removed.
Vanilla says she doesn’t at all regret having hers removed.
“Yes I have scars on my body from the surgery, but … it was the best decision,” she says.
“I want people to know that you don’t need big boobs to be beautiful, you are perfect the way you are.”
Roxy says the pain she had thought was due to the scars from her surgery went away once she had her implants taken out.
“My hair is so healthy now and golden too and the rashes that I had which I thought were due to sunscreen have also gone.”
After hearing the stories of these women and thousands of others online, I decided to not go ahead with the surgery after all.
I have experienced autoimmune problems in the past and the risk to my health was not a risk I was willing to take.
As a mother to four little girls, I’m also acutely aware they’re watching my every move and want to be able to show them I love my body, with or without big boobs.
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