Like most teenage girls, Mackenzie Langan loves to shop, but those shopping trips used to often end in tears.
Mackenzie, a high school senior, is petite, standing at about 5 feet tall. But her bra size was a 32-H, so she said finding outfits that fit well was a constant challenge.
"It’s nice to have big boobs and a lot of people think that I’m so lucky,” she said. “But like I have back pain, I have shoulder pain, I have like swelling on my shoulders. I have trouble finding clothes. I have all these problems."
So Mackenzie made a drastic decision to go under the knife for breast reduction surgery on her 18th birthday.
“Someone told me that I was going against God, who gave me a gift, and I shouldn't be doing this, I’m too young to get this surgery, I shouldn’t be considering plastic surgery at my age,” she said. “And to them I would want to say, I don’t care. I don’t care about your opinion because at the end of the day, it’s my body.”
But Mackenzie is far from alone. Breast reduction surgeries have increased 157 percent in the United States from 1997 to 2013, according to statistics from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Some attribute this to studies that have found girls today go through puberty earlier, pointing to the obesity epidemic or hormones in the modern diet. Other experts say this uptick is simply because the surgery has been perfected to prevent scarring and has become safer.
With younger and younger women seeking out the procedure, questions are being raised about whether teenagers like Mackenzie are old enough to understand the potential risks to having the surgery. Risks include scarring, loss of nipple sensitivity and losing the ability to breastfeed.
But for Mackenzie, the benefits outweighed the risks.
“The risks are scary,” she said. “[But] I’m so ready to take that chance, just take a little leap of faith because I really-- it’s going to be worth it in the end.”
She said her breast size had taken a physical and emotional toll on her since her early teens. She suffered constant back pain, chafing and bleeding caused by bra straps, and says that her breasts made it difficult to play the sports she loved.
“I think that the worst part about this for me socially and like that aspect is just walking down the street or walking down the hall at school,” Mackenzie said. “But like being known freshman year as ‘the girl with the giant boobs,’ having guys date me because I have boobs… And it gives me a lot of self-confidence issues because I feel like I can’t trust people.”
I want to look like normal, I want to look like a normal girl,” she added.
Mackenzie and her mother traveled to Boston Children’s Hospital to meet with Dr. Brian Labow, one of the best known adolescent breast surgeons in the country.
“We see patients as young as 12 or 13 years of age, so middle schoolers, but that is rare,” Dr. Labow said. “The average age of the patients in our clinics is about 18 years of age.”
Labow is one of only a few surgeons who specialize in teen breast reductions, an area that comes with special sensitivities.
But Labow says, “you can have a patient who is 15 or 16 be perhaps more emotionally mature than someone who is 18. It's not just the age that is going to dictate that.”
But part of the equation is also the physical toll—the constant shoulder and back pain that plagued Mackenzie.
"It’s not just teen angst,” Labow said. “[These patients] clearly don’t have the same quality of life. It is a big deal.”
“These are amongst, if not, the happiest patients that I could take care of,” he added. “I would say 99.9 percent are ecstatic but it is a very high satisfaction rate for these patients.”
Luckily for Mackenzie, her insurance covered the procedure. Otherwise, it would have cost around $10,000 – nearly three times as much as the cost of an average breast implant surgery.
After the four-hour surgery, Labow and his team said they removed about a pound of tissue from each breast, turning her 32-H breasts into a more comfortable 32-D. Labow said Mackenzie might have to worry about breastfeeding down the road, but for now, the surgery will dramatically increase her quality of life.
“That’s going to be a big difference for her,” Labow said, “And I think she will particularly notice it in her upper back, shoulders, neck area. So she’ll feel lighter right away.”
Two weeks after her surgery, the day her bandages came off, Mackenzie was out shopping for senior prom dresses for her new figure. Since her breast reduction, her dress size has gone from a size 8 to a size 0.
“I didn’t really feel any different until I went to the doctor today and I looked down and I was just like, ‘Oh my God, they’re gone,’” she said. “My back pain is gone, which is like the best thing ever. I can sit up straight without crying, because my back always used to hurt. And I just feel like a completely like new me, and it’s great."