In the novel Middlesex, there's an extended metaphor featuring the image of a crocus. The narrator of the story, Cal, is intersex. Presumed to be female and raised as such, they live out their childhood as "female" until being involved in a car accident. In the ensuing commotion, paramedics unclothe Cal and realise the ambiguous nature of their physical presentation, something Cal is only vaguely aware of in the hazy, muted way that children are of perceived aberrations beyond their scope of understanding.
Cal refers to their genitalia throughout as "the crocus", shying away from any explicit description of quite why they look "different", leaving it to the reader's imagination to fill in the blanks.
This is the reason I now sport the image of two crocuses over my sternum; one budding and one blooming, with a few foxgloves creeping up onto my chest.
I’m not about to claim the experience I detail here is remotely equivalent to that of an intersex person. But the crocus in Middlesex resonated with me because I too grew up with a part of my body which I knew was a deviation from the norm, without being able to put my thumb on exactly why.
I have tuberous/tubular breast deformity (TBD), which is the charming name given to a congenital abnormality where the breasts don't develop properly. There are no official statistics on the prevalence of the condition among the general population, but a 2016 study published in Aesthetic Plastic Surgery indicated that about 50% of women seeking breast augmentation present with it in some form.
Typical characteristics of TBD include: herniation of the breast tissue into the areola, unusually wide cleavage, and a complete lack of underboob due to the inframammary fold being much higher on the chest than it ought to be. Asymmetry is common, and breast milk production is often minimal or nonexistent. Breasts become conical instead of round. It’s hard to picture if you’ve never seen it but if you have tuberous breasts, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
I wish those poke-your-eye-out pointy bras from the '40s and '50s had remained in fashion – clothes shopping would have been a lot easier.
An acquaintance of mine, during my first year of university, asked if anyone in the group we were sat with had ever heard of tuberous breasts. I still remember his words verbatim, as he brandished a picture on his phone of a girl who looked exactly like me.
"It's the most clapped thing ever. Makes your tits look like udders. My friend slept with a girl and clocked in the morning that she had tuberous breasts and he was absolutely disgusted. Look, it's so grim."
Over a rousing game of Ring of Fire, I had just discovered I was apparently deformed. All things considered, not the best start to my evening.
Cut to six months later. I pop to see my GP about a lump in my breast, and while I'm there he confirms the TBD diagnosis and suggests I might be a candidate for free correctional surgery on the NHS.
My breasts were deemed so ugly by my doctor that he believed our national healthcare system, which is barely keeping itself afloat as it is, ought to pay for me to have a breast augmentation. Delightful.
Converting a tuberous breast into a regular one isn't an easy feat. Due to their propensity to sag, a lifting procedure is commonly required alongside implants and an areola reduction. Usually, the fold underneath the breast needs to be completely burned away due to being so high in the chest, and reformed an inch or so lower. Often patients need to undergo a tissue expansion, where drains are inserted into the breast and filled up with fluid over weeks or months to expand the tissue, a procedure typically reserved for mastectomy patients.
Like any surgery where you're cut open and have silicone inserted under your skin, the recovery is pretty brutal, and implants still need to be replaced every 10-15 years, which meant I'd have the pleasure of doing it all over again by my mid-30s. And again. And again. Etc.
In the end, I decided against it. I didn't feel quite distressed enough to be cut open, cauterised, and stitched back up. I also felt like I'd be somehow letting myself down if I underwent cosmetic surgery. Bovine comparisons aside, my tube boobs (there it is again) marked me out as unique in a certain way. Not exactly a way I found particularly positive, but still.
But despite this decision, I knew that something had to shift under my shirt. I didn't want an alteration, but some sort of distraction would be much appreciated, thank you.
Which is why I opted for the tattoo instead.
I admit it might have been better, if we're going down the body positivity route, for me to make an attempt at getting the hell "over" my tuberous breasts. I’m a thin, cis white woman. Some people have it a lot harder than I do, as beauty standards go.
But all the feminist rhetoric in the world could not make me appreciate how I looked without clothes on. I didn't do this to please potential critics – anyone with a real problem with raised areolas isn't going to be attracted to me anyway, and I'm better off without their negative judgement. I got my tattoos solely for me.
If you have TBD (or even just a part of your body with which you are deeply uncomfortable), consider getting a tattoo. Now, when I look at my chest, I don't think about my boobs. I'm more focused on the artwork. Instead of honing in on my perceived flaws, I see something beautiful.