Perri Butcher, 58, who is having NHS breast reduction surgery after her bust increased due to the menopause
Ticking off another day on her calendar, Perri Butcher smiles with nervous excitement. But she’s not counting down the days to a winter holiday or an evening out with friends.
Rather, she is looking forward to the NHS breast reduction surgery that will, she hopes, rid her of the embarrassment and pain her oversized bust causes her on a daily basis.
Over the past decade, since beginning the menopause, Perri’s bust has grown in size from a 34C to a 36E. With each cup size, her levels of discomfort and self-consciousness have increased accordingly.
And she’s not alone. It’s estimated that one in five women will experience a noticeable rise in their cup size around the time of the menopause — with many increasing by two sizes or even more.
Female celebrities of a certain age illustrate this midlife phenomenon.
During her recent stint in the I’m A Celebrity jungle, it was impossible not to notice Carol Vorderman’s ballooning cleavage, while fellow presenter Judy Finnigan’s bust has also noticeably inflated during the course of her TV career.
The subject of innuendo and salacious jibes in Carry On films, in real life, however, a heaving bosom can have serious physical and emotional ramifications.
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While demand for breast augmentation surgery has never been higher, with 9,652 procedures carried out last year — mostly on younger women desperate for larger breasts — at the other end of the age spectrum, women like Perri are equally desperate to shrink their bosoms.
‘It’s taken two years of begging, jumping through hoops and seeing specialists and physios, before I was finally accepted for an NHS breast reduction,’ says divorcee Perri, 58, an administrator from Hove, East Sussex.
‘Now it’s just weeks away and, while of course I’m nervous about having surgery — and I know I will be left permanently scarred — it will be worth it to have a better quality of life.’
But what, exactly, is responsible for this menopausal body change?
During her recent stint in the I’m A Celebrity jungle, it was impossible not to notice Carol Vorderman’s ballooning cleavage
According to Giles Davies, a specialist breast surgeon at Spire St Anthony’s Hospital, Surrey, there are a number of factors.
‘Hormones are one of the main reasons women’s breasts grow as they age,’ he explains. ‘As the menopause approaches, oestrogen levels drop — sometimes quite steeply — and the breasts go through a process called “involution”, where the glands that produce milk shut down, and breast tissue is replaced by fat.
‘That’s when you start marching up the cup sizes. And breast fat is extremely resistant to diet and exercise: once it’s there, it’s very hard to get rid of.
‘Add to this the fact that many women will have experienced a loss in elasticity in their breasts after having children, so they are droopier — the medical term for this is “breast ptosis” — and the nipple may lose height and start to point downwards.’
Pictured, Carol Vorderman in a gown that shows off her curves, at the Pride of Britain Awards
In addition to hormones, Mr Davies says the UK’s obesity epidemic is a contributory factor.
‘Women are getting fatter and heavier because of their diets and a lack of exercise, and they are prone to gaining weight in their chest and tummy areas.
‘Of course, it’s a vicious cycle. The bigger your breasts, the more likely you are to find exercise painful and embarrassing, so you’ll avoid it.
‘As the scales increase, so does your cup size.’
A mother of two daughters, now aged 26 and 29, Perri breastfed both her children for five months, and says her breasts returned to their former size and shape — until she hit the menopause.
‘I’m naturally very petite — 5 ft and a size 12, with size two feet,’ says Perri. ‘And, until ten years ago, my breasts were perfectly in proportion with the rest of my body.
‘I’ve always walked, swam and looked after my figure, so I was completely unprepared for this change I felt I had no control over.
‘It didn’t happen to my mum, who’s now 80, but she told me that my maternal grandmother had the same experience as I have.
‘It started with me noticing that I had fat spilling out over the sides of my bra — something I’d never experienced before.
‘Soon, my 34C bras were too small and I was forced to buy a bigger size.
‘Time and time again, I found myself in my local department store being re-measured, unable to believe that my bust had grown again.
‘Today, I’m a 36E and my bust is totally out of proportion with the rest of my body. I’m so top heavy, my top half doesn’t match my bottom half.’
Perri, pictured age 23, described herself as naturally 'petite' and said she was 'completely unprepared' for the change her bust has undergone
A former smoker, Perri suffers from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), a lung condition that affects her breathing, and she says the weight of her breasts has a knock-on effect.
‘They are so dense and heavy, they press on my ribs and leave me breathless — not to mention the permanent back, neck and shoulder pain from supporting their weight,’ she says.
‘I have to sleep in a bra, and put one on as soon as I get out of the shower, as it’s too painful to go without even for a few moments.
‘The skin on my shoulders is marked with deep grooves from where the straps dig in.’
As well as the physical effects, Perri is restricted when it comes to how she dresses.
‘I was brought up to dress modestly but, in my 20s, 30s and 40s, I enjoyed wearing strappy tops and feminine dresses that complemented my figure. Now, finding clothes to fit me is a nightmare. If I buy a size 14 to fit my bust, it swamps the rest of my body and hangs from my narrow shoulders.
‘Anything fitted draws attention to my bust, which I don’t like, but loose clothing makes me feel dumpy and matronly. I can’t win.’
One very unwelcome consequence of her growing bust, Perri adds, is the male attention it has earned her. ‘I’m a 58-year-old mother, I don’t want to be leered at by men in the street — it makes me feel vulnerable and self-conscious.
Perri, pictured left, aged 51 with 34C breasts and right, aged 57 with 34DD breasts, said her breasts are now 'totally out of proportion'
‘Recently, I was a restaurant with a friend and a man made a sleazy comment about my breasts as I walked past their table.
‘Other diners heard and I was so mortified that I insisted on leaving immediately.’
According to Dr Natasha Bijlani, a consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital, Roehampton, Perri’s self-consciousness and low self-esteem when it comes to her post-menopausal body are not unusual.
‘We live in such a visual society, bombarded with airbrushed images and messages about how our bodies should look.
‘It’s a myth that this pressure only affects young women — older women are just as vulnerable to it.
‘Any body change that we feel we have no control over, and which is at odds with the “perfect” body is going to affect our confidence and sense of body image, irrespective of age.
‘Women with bigger busts may feel “matronly” and that their body doesn’t reflect their youthful mental attitude and outlook.’
Sarah Herbert, 51, a teacher from east London, said her husband thinks her breasts look 'fantastic' while she finds them 'annoying'
Dr Bijlani says the attention a bigger bust brings can also be difficult to cope with.
‘If you’ve always been modest in how you dress and act, then suddenly you have this very visible cleavage, you may not welcome the attention that can accompany it, and can even find it quite shocking. Even well-meaning compliments can be misinterpreted as being threatening.
‘Because of fluctuating hormone levels around the time of the menopause, women’s libidos can take a dip so they don’t feel particularly attractive or sexy, anyway. Mix that with male attention about their body, and it’s not a pleasant experience for them.’
Sarah Herbert, 51, a teacher and writer from East London, has experienced this clash of opinion when it comes to her breasts.
She admits: ‘My partner, Richard, 40, thinks my 34F boobs look fantastic, but I just find them annoying and cumbersome, and can be quite self-conscious.
‘Before I had my son Sam, now seven, at the age of 43, I was a 32C and saw myself as a small-bosomed and proud woman.
‘Weighing 9 ½ st with narrow shoulders, my breasts “fitted” my body and I liked them just the size they were.
‘I never craved a bigger bust like some women.
‘My breasts increased to an F-cup when I was breastfeeding, then shrank back down to a DD-cup, never returning to their old size.
‘In the past couple of years, I’ve started to go through the menopause and they have grown again, back up to an F-cup.
‘Clearly, pregnancy then menopause, in quite a short period of time, has taken its toll on my bust, and I have mixed feelings about it.
‘I try to look on the positive side — that my breasts are still full and not empty sacks of skin — but, really, I mainly find them annoying and a body part to be “managed”, rather than feel proud of.’
Now feeling self-conscious, Sarah has thrown out all her favourite tailored shirts, along with the delicate lace bras she used to love to wear.
‘Anything that buttons up is now a no-no, and I jokingly refer to my structured support bras as “boulder holders”,’ she says. ‘They are sturdy and unattractive, with thick straps and multiple hooks.
Sarah, pictured aged 41, said her bust size has increased from 32C to an F cup - making her self-concious and forced to spend money on expensive new bras
‘And they are so expensive, I feel like I’m being penalised for having big breasts.
‘I avoid fitted clothes because I worry they make me look tarty and send out the wrong message about me. Yet loose-fitting clothing makes me look fat all over.
‘I now make excuses not to exercise, too, because I have to wear two sports bras to hold my breasts in place, but I still feel self-conscious about them — not to mention physically uncomfortable.’
With just weeks to go until her breast reduction surgery, Perri is hopeful that her days of taking painkillers and feeling self-conscious are almost at an end.
‘Recently, some of my daughter’s friends had breast augmentation surgery, and I just couldn’t understand why.
‘Women on TV and in movies may make having bigger breasts look glamorous and attractive but, once you reach a certain age, the reality is very different. I hope they don’t go on to regret their decision to go under the knife.
‘It’s become normal for me to be to be in constant pain and worry about what I look like when I’m out and about, but that’s no way to live.
‘My surgeon is going to reduce my breast size from a 36E to a 36C — and I can’t wait to feel like the old me again.’