by Melody Harding

On a brisk evening in Autumn 1999, my dad and step-mother took me to Sears to find my first underwire bra.  I wandered shamefully through the aisles, trying to understand this new development. After trying probably 15 to 20 different styles, we settled on two beige Wonderbras in size 36DD.  The band was a bit loose, but finding a 32 or 34 band in small town Nova Scotia wasn’t about to happen. While sitting in embarrassment and shame in the back seat, I examined the confident looking model on the packaging.  She was probably in her 40’s, posed confidently, and looked far more at home in her body than I was.

On this particular day, I was newly 12 years old and had been fitted with the bra designed for women of 30+ years of age.  I had already experienced three years of grief and agony over my changing body. I was taller than the other girls, had put on weight since puberty kicked in, and now I was resigned to “old lady bras” while my peers wore pretty little training bras (or still didn’t need one at all).  I looked older than my barely dozen years on earth and had already felt the eyes of grown men linger on me a little too long.

By 16 years of age I was living in hoodies or winter coats, hiding my figure as best I could.  In gym class I tried to run laps as instructed, all while holding my chest steady under crossed arms.  The breathlessness would soon catch up to me, though, and I would quickly give up and slow to a walk. I felt shame as I watched the other girls lap me again and again, moving effortlessly with their ponytails swinging behind them.

I would stretch and pull at my skin, trying to make my growing chest fit into my bras as long as I could, not knowing how or where I’d find the next cup size.  Eventually I would have to ask for permission to buy one off of eBay, or ask if we could try to find something in Halifax. I hated my body; I hated it so much.  High school is hard enough without feeling disfigured and “weird”.  

While my shame grew, so did my body.  I had been “off the charts” as far as height and weight, right from birth.  I grew to my full height of nearly 5’11” so quickly my skin couldn’t keep up.  My body transformed into one of a young woman seemingly overnight; I found myself covered in stretch marks, and struggled to explain to the little girl I babysat why I had shiny stripes yet her mother didn’t.

I began eating for comfort.  I ate my shame. I ate my boredom, my pain, my frustration, and my anger.  I ate and I dreamed of freedom from these “tumors” on my ribcage.

I approached my family doctor – who had known me since birth – and asked her whether I would be able to get a breast reduction.  She advised that no, I hadn’t stopped growing yet (a devastating thought), and if I had it done before I had children I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed (which I now know is a risk, but not necessarily an absolute).  Believing “doctor knows best”, I resigned myself to at least a few more years of being miserable and disconnected from my body. I did what I could to move on, but the comments and leers brought me back to my hyper-developed breasts on a daily basis.

Eventually I graduated high school and moved to Newfoundland and Labrador, where I pursued a Bachelor of Arts at Memorial University.  My friends were beautiful, proportionate, cute young women, while I wore tops two sizes too big with wide straps, because F (and then G) cup breasts don’t really fit in the strapless or convertible bras necessary for tube or tank tops.  I was too ashamed of my body anyway, but it would have been nice to feel “normal”, rather than the monster who hung around with the pretty girls. My body continued to fight against me and started breaking out in hives, or my face would swell up.  I was eventually diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder which had no known cause. Misery loves company, right? I had my first encounter with anti-depressants during this period, but I felt they were prescribed in such a flippant manner that I felt incredibly uncomfortable taking them.  Plus, the side effects mentioned “weight gain”…

After graduating from university, I moved to Toronto.  I eventually came across a store called Change of Scandinavia.  This was a game changer; I finally had bras that fit me in both cup and band: 34H.  And then 34I… By 2010 I was a full-fledged 34J. My auto-immune condition was still in full swing, and I was diagnosed with endometriosis after exploratory surgery.  This disease messes around with your hormones to a degree and MAY have been partially to play with my growth and development, the surgeon said, but it was more likely to be my genetics and increasing weight.

The years passed and I eventually went up to a 36J, and then a 36K.  My body became thicker, and attempts to lose weight were met with little to no success.

In July 2013 I moved back to my home province of Nova Scotia after about two years of life in Iqaluit, Nunavut.  Before leaving the north I had received confirmation from a psychiatrist that I was dealing with depression, panic disorder, and anxiety disorder.  After settling in Halifax I was also diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome – a condition that causes insulin resistance (food isn’t appropriately used in the body, and becomes stored…as fat…).  “Hopeless” doesn’t do my feelings justice, but it’s the closest thing I can come up with when I try to succinctly describe that period of my life.

I was lucky enough to receive a family doctor pretty quickly, thanks (??) to my multiple health conditions.  This physician found out pretty quickly that I desired a breast reduction, however he confirmed that there was still a Body Mass Index (BMI) criterion in place.  At a BMI in the high 30’s, I wasn’t eligible. Until my BMI was 27 or less, surgeons wouldn’t consider me, he explained. I imagine there were tears of sadness, frustration and deep-rooted pain at this point – at least when considering my teary track record.

I tried various ways to lose weight: calorie restriction, keto, no processed foods, salads only…  More than once I Googled laxatives, “fat burners”, weight loss drugs, and found myself reading how-to posts on pro-eating disorder websites.  I thank my lucky stars that I didn’t delve into that realm, but I was dangerously close to it.

All of this came down to my one desire: breast reduction.

The years ticked away, and the weight loss attempts piled up.  Gyms, eating methods, rules and restrictions… I gave one of the anti-obesity prescription medications a try, but was not able to tolerate the side effects.  In early 2017 I asked my doctor to refer me for gastric sleeve surgery, knowing that in Nova Scotia the wait list is upwards of eight to nine years. When the day comes, I will determine whether I need this tool, but for now I am still working on managing my health and weight through less extreme measures.

One day in February of 2017, my mom emailed me and advised that her doctor felt her arm and hand tingling/numbness was due to nerve damage, likely because of the shoulder compression and disfigurement caused by the weight of her breasts and pressure of her bra shoulder straps.

That was it.  I’d had it.

No one was doing anything to change the criteria; I had known since high school that BMI was an inappropriate measure of health, yet here it was 2017 and it was still being used as a way to screen out individuals who desperately needed access to reduction mammoplasty…  individuals like myself that have great blood pressure, healthy lungs, excellent blood work, and are at least somewhat active. I knew the research was showing more and more that risk depended on WHERE an individual’s excess weight was held (a big belly is generally considered to be more dangerous than weight held across the body, but every body is different), and I set out to inform the Department of Health and Wellness’ health minister of this.

I wrote the minister, explaining my mother’s situation, what I had gone through over the years, and pleaded for change.  Twelve weeks passed before a response was received, and the response was merely a set of instructions on how to appeal a decision from MSI (Nova Scotia’s provincial health insurance).  The problem is, I advised, that I can’t get a referral. To get a decision to appeal, I need to be referred to a surgeon. I don’t fit the criteria, so why would my doctor refer me?

Soon after this exchange, I took a deep breath and hit ‘send’ on my email to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (NSHRC).  I explained my history, my arguments, and probably a lot more history than required (I am quite free with my words, as you can tell by now!).  My complaint was accepted, and there began a two year back-and-forth process between myself, the Department of Health and Wellness and the NSHRC.

On May 21, 2019, a press release was issued by the NSHRC, advising the public that a settlement had been agreed upon.  Much of the settlement is confidential, but it explained to the public that the “BMI of 27 or Less” criterion would be removed effective immediately.

Cue frenzy!  Cue media requests!  Cue ABSOLUTE JOY. Not only have I found myself in a position to be evaluated for surgery, but hundreds of women in my province – including my mother – now have access as well.  To be evaluated on MY health, MY needs, and MY fitness for surgery, rather than having to fit under an arbitrary mathematical equation designed by a statistician in the early 1800’s?  Well; that’s pretty damn priceless.

My surgery consultation is scheduled for the end of September, and my mom’s physician is referring her today.  The feedback I have received from women across the province – young and old – has been intense, humbling, and so, so positive.  Men are reaching out to share their support, too, and I’m hearing from people all across Canada who agree it was time for change.

I am but one person.  Look to the people around you; ask for support, network and dig for persons that can aid you in your mission.  Lean on the individuals who believe in what you are doing. Most importantly, KEEP GOING. Change only happens when you persist.  Be respectful, know your stuff, present your evidence (peer reviewed studies are your friend!), and keep on believin’. Believe in your goal, and believe in yourself.

(I think this is where I’m supposed to mic drop)

Keep going, friends.