Once again, this damn app TikTok has flipped my whole world upside down. From making me realise I had hourglass syndrome to now discovering that I also fell victim to a male surgeon’s non-consensual medical decisions was, to put it lightly, soul-destroying.
After yet another infinite scroll through my FYP—I think a tech detox is long overdue for me now—I came across a video where I was at a loss for words, and not in a good way. The clip, by user @thedowntheredoc (real name Marcy Crouch), a woman’s health PT, author and public speaker, was a visceral reactionary response to an article in Today titled After breast reduction surgery, I wanted to be a B or C cup. My doctor ignored my wishes. Crouch continued in horror by explaining the details of the article as well as the victim in question. After hearing that word, ‘victim’, I sat up in shock as all the memories of my own surgery hit me like a ton of bricks. It happened to me too.
Beccy Bingham, the author of the Today article and the breast reduction patient in question, detailed her incredibly traumatising experience. Her words rang so loudly in my head as I related to her story. She explained her reasoning for the surgery, which, much like my own, was for health-related reasons: the size of her breasts were severely impacting her daily life and she finally decided to go ahead with the operation.
Bingham explained how she repeatedly stressed her preference of going for a B or C cup size. Her surgeon, on the other hand, would often respond with just a nod of his head. However, when she arose from her surgery, she came to discover that her doctor—while she was under anaesthesia, might I add—had taken it upon himself to go against her wishes and her consent and not reduce them as small as she had requested. “That’s when he told me I was going to be a D cup and added, ‘I felt like your husband was really mad at me’,” Bingham wrote.
“I was shocked that he mentioned my husband. It sounded like he made a choice about my larger breast size based on my husband’s possible preference. It was gross to think that a doctor decided how I would look based on what he thought my husband wanted. When I got to the car, I started sobbing,” she continued. I clung on to every word she wrote. This was so similar to my own experience—well, minus the husband. Anger and hurt began to swell within me as I realised what had happened.
In retrospect, my experience was quite humiliating—or dare I say—even violating.
Like Bingham, at a cup size of H, I was suffering from an infinite number of related health problems, too many to even list down. At the young age of 16, I had developed so many back issues that I had to regularly partake in physical therapy exercises. It was constant agony but for me, it didn’t stop there. There is a part of me that is ashamed to admit this particular reason, but it affected me so deeply and severely—thereby ironically affecting my experience with the surgery itself: being sexualised.
I’ve always had big boobs. It was almost a decade ago now that they popped out of my chest at the young age of 14 and it was horrible. I never felt like a person. They were always a topic of discussion and I fucking hated it: ‘Wow, Monica I wish I had your boobs’, ‘Haha give some to me’, ‘How do you even run with those?’, ‘Can you sleep on your stomach?’, ‘I’m so glad I don’t have to wear bras like you’, ‘You should be happy, men love big boobs’. There was even a time when a man yelled at me in the street, screaming ‘biggest tits in the world’—not that I should have to explain myself, but I was wearing a turtleneck.
I also recall a time at school when I was nervous about meeting a fellow group of boys—hello awkward teenage phase—and a ‘friend’ at the time shared, ‘I don’t know why you’re nervous. You have big boobs, they’ll love you’ or something to that effect. Much like the viral TikTok sound, I was too stunned to speak. No matter what I wore or how much I covered up, I was always sexualised—forever the ‘whore’. The endless number of times men would stare at my chest when they would talk to me… It used to disgust me to my wit’s end.
My natural form was something so societally sexualised that I couldn’t just exist in it in the way other girls could. And in that way, the last shred of teenagehood innocence was robbed from me. The many memories I have of my mum telling me to pull up my shirt or cover up because male family members were coming around have made their mark on my mind. It, once again, appears crystal clear that no surgery of any kind can heal your internal pain—at 24, tears are still fighting to leave my eyes while recounting these ghosts of my past.
At 21, I nervously rode the lift up to my surgeon’s office who I had yet to meet. Unlike Bingham, I was paying for private care—a total that came up to an eye-watering £6,300 (approximately $8,400). For some stupid reason, it gave me such a false sense of security. ‘This will be the best of the best’, I thought and he was. This was an acclaimed surgeon in an acclaimed clinic, I felt so lucky to have had him but now I realise it wasn’t perfect. Not by a long shot.
I took off my shirt. “Wow, you’re not as big as I thought you were—your boobs make you look bigger,” he said. Okay? I wasn’t sure how to respond but don’t worry, it got worse. Following the measurements, I stated my preferences to go down to B cup size—I had seen hundreds of breast reduction surgery storytimes on YouTube to know it was possible to go down that much. Heck, I had been planning this day for six years, I knew what I wanted. He disagreed, but not for any medical reason.
“You’re not like this okay,” he said, sticking up his index finger. Is he actually saying I’m—? “If you lose weight (and I think you should) you’ll be flat and back in my office for a boob job,” he spat out, interrupting my thoughts. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing but like so many of us are conditioned to behave, I didn’t say anything. I just laughed uncomfortably. He was talking to me this way while I was half-naked. I remember my cheeks turning red as I turned to put on my shirt, but honestly, I didn’t really think too much about it afterwards. ‘He’s just blunt’, I convinced myself. It is only now that I realise how degrading that was.
Flash forward six months to the surgery and the agreed-upon cup size was C. He came in to mark me up just 20 minutes before the operation and said, “You know what? I’m going with D instead.” I stood there—once again half-naked—and stated “No, I’d still like to go with C please.” My mum, who was in the room, agreed. I awoke from anaesthesia and deliriously, from the medication, wept the whole day at how happy I was at the difference. It felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders—quite literally.
But after some serious sobering up and many months of healing, I realised I was not a C. Not even close. My surgeon still hadn’t listened to me. It’s such a strange experience when you really understand how wrong that is. You’re unconscious and someone is making decisions about your body at a time when you physically can’t consent to anything. I was trying to escape being sexualised through this operation only to end up being sexualised through the operation itself. A man made the decision that it was better for me to have bigger tits simply because it looked better to him. And I paid the price for it.
Not just financially, but mentally.
It was like any other typical night. There I was, scrolling on TikTok at 1am (on a work night might I add), laughing at Homer Simpson videos, liking women shitting on abusive men, favouriting vegan recipes to try later and getting sucked into booktok, when a video with over 3 million views—that would make me rethink my entire teenage life—popped up on my FYP. User @elless420’s voice rang out, “How old were you when you learnt that this second boob area here—you know how some fat people have this going on—that is from sucking in your stomach, like all through your childhood and teens […] Fuck.” Me? I was 24.
I shot up in bed, mouth agape and lifted my shirt to see my own, highlighted by the blue glow of my phone screen. It’s not terribly prominent (or as prominent as it used to be) but it was definitely there, I had always wondered what the hell it was. What was this strange bump? A slow realisation seeped in, that something I was insecure about was actually caused by the insecurity itself. Despite actually being midsized—and with that, comes an untold amount of privilege that fat people are not granted—I grew up, as many do, in a household where I was fat-shamed. For a lot of us, this is where it all begins—the indoctrination and internalisation of fatphobia.
One of the infinite ways this toxicity manifested in me was sucking in my stomach. The least harmful one, right? Or so I thought. I did it all the time, 24/7. It was instinct and it was constant. Rather than buying clothes in my actual size, I would squeeze myself into jeans many sizes smaller, sucking in my stomach like my life depended on it. Walking so tightly I couldn’t catch a full breath, my lungs forcing my belly to relax just to receive an ounce of air before I would suck it right back in—lest anyone saw my natural form. This habitual practise didn’t just happen as a result of insecurity, but I distinctly remember being told by my mother as well as many ill-intentioned aunties (if you’re brown, then you know) to actually suck it in—‘it’s good for your abs’ they said. Well, now those early toxic years have reared their ugly head as I discover I have ‘hourglass syndrome’.
This video led me into a spiral and I scoured the app for more people speaking on it. Another video stitching the one above had also amassed over 3 million views. 20-year-old Olivia detailed her same horrified reaction to the original video, “I saw her video and it fucked me up. I’ve been sucking in my stomach since I was in seventh grade. […] I looked it up. It’s called stomach gripping or hourglass syndrome. It’s permanent. It doesn’t go away and it causes breathing problems—worse for asthmatics, which I am, and I had no idea—and it causes your lower ribs to move inward and it [gets] stuck that way.” She proceeded to state that the bump or ‘second boobs’ are scar tissue and went on to demand people to stop telling young girls to suck in their stomachs.
Although both these videos went viral, they were not the first ones to report on the condition in the TikTok sphere. The health issue was originally discussed by user Marie Soledad who detailed their experience with misdiagnoses from medical professionals, family members and others in their life on the shape of their stomach. Discovering hourglass syndrome, Soledad decided to share what she learnt on the platform and gained over a million views in the process. Now, I know what you’re thinking—you heard the word permanent and you’re panicking because that’s exactly what I did too. But we aren’t going to get all our information from TikTok because well, it’s TikTok. So, don’t freak out just yet. I’ve done the research for you.
Stomach gripping essentially refers to the process that occurs when you suck in your stomach. Basically, what happens is an activation of the upper abdominal muscles. This occurs when you’re pulling in your diaphragm in the opposite direction that inflates the lungs. So, sucking in pulls the diaphragm inwards and subsequently pulls the lower ribs inwards as well. Doing this, repeatedly over a long period of time, produces the hourglass syndrome.
It takes the appearance of a smaller waist (I’m telling you now, it’s not worth it) as well as an ‘up-turned’ belly button, a horizontal crease situated across or above the belly button. This reportedly occurs as a result of an abdominal muscle imbalance. Basically, your upper muscles become in a state of constant constriction, leaving your lower muscles lax, and thus pulling your belly in an upwards direction. While we have been told that engaging your abs (especially during exercise) is an important part of activity—there can be dire consequences if not done correctly or in the right environment.
A detailed report conducted by The Washington Post with numerous scientists unveiled not just the obvious mental detriment such action may cause, but the subsequent physical implications on your bodily health aside from something as superficial as appearance. According to Heather Jeffcoat, president-elect of the Academy of Pelvic Health Physical Therapy, this forces pressure on the pelvic floor leading to potential “incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse,” she told The Washington Post.
Julie Wiebe, a clinical assistant professor in physical therapy at the University of Michigan-Flint, told the publication that the motivation to suck in the stomach has come from hyperfocus on abdominal work in fitness alongside the societal pressure for a flat and thin stomach area. Wiebe, agreeing with Jeffcoat, stated that it extends even beyond the pelvic floor and causes long-term pain issues in your lower back and hips as well as constriction in breath. Basically, taking deeper breaths will prove more difficult with this condition. And in fact, it goes on to highlight that muscles which are overly tensed are actually less responsive and thus, actually limit your body’s ability to take in the impact of your exercises. That’s right, it might have an adverse effect on your ‘gains’.
The potential back pain that can occur is a result of other muscles working overtime to make up for the lack of support from the constricted diaphragm. When the diaphragm doesn’t descend downwards (as it should) into your belly—breathing into your lower torso—then it puts the neck under strain as it tries to compensate for the lack of breath. This plays a critical role in neck and shoulder pain.
“I’m not saying don’t ever engage your abs again,” Wiebe continued in the report. Rather, we must “understand that they are part of a functional whole, and they’re intended to play on a team, and they need to be appropriately engaged for the task you’re up against.”
You’ll be thankful to know—I definitely am—that it’s not permanent. It can be healed. It is possible but it takes serious work, especially if you’ve done it for years. The first step, according to the experts who spoke to The Washington Post, is awareness. Recognise when you’re stomach gripping when you don’t need to be. If it’s ab day at the gym, then go for it—engage them, but you shouldn’t be overexerting them when you go to dinner, chill at home or try on your outfits. Let that belly relax. That’s the next step to reverse the damage.
Essentially, you have to retrain your muscles. This is achieved through consistent belly breath work and abdominal massage. If you find this difficult to begin with, then start on all fours and let your belly naturally fall; when you take those relaxed breaths in, take note that it should fill your torso and not your chest. If you feel your shoulders rise, this is a sign that you’re not belly breathing. Focus on really relaxing the stomach area and letting that air fill it. Once you’ve mastered this beginner move, you can move on to more advanced exercises or practice even while sitting or standing.
There are loads of resources available online on what to do to help ease this problem and retrain your muscles; however, if you are experiencing severe symptoms it’s, of course, best to contact a professional. While we now know we can physically fix the problem, we need to do the same mentally. I’ve gone on a long and tumultuous relationship with my body, and as I have gotten older, I have realised the horror of its impact on my health; what I was putting myself through to ‘look’ healthy rather than be healthy—just the way I was.
I hope you are there with me on this journey of unlearning such toxicity in both health and beauty. I’ll wear my fucking jean size and bodycon dresses and let my food baby hang. I will never suck in my stomach again. And if you don’t like it? Well, you can just fuck off.