I first realised something was different about my body when I was 13-years-old. In the changing rooms before a PE lesson, I looked around at the other girls getting changed and realised that, unlike me, they'd all developed breasts. Or, at least, breasts that were the same size.
Although I'd ticked off all the other teenage milestones (I was going through puberty and had started my period), seeing the girls getting changed at school left me worried. My boobs didn't look like theirs, because only one of mine had started growing. By that point my smaller boob was still only an A-cup, but the larger side had grown to a B. Not knowing much about breasts at the time, I decided the best thing to do was see my doctor, to check everything was okay.
On the day of the appointment, I was in and out in five minutes. "It's fine," my GP said with a careless wave of his hand. "Everybody has one breast bigger than the other, you just haven't finished growing yet. It's normal."
From then on, anytime my larger boob grew but my smaller one didn't, I'd go back to the doctors. I saw at least five different GPs but each appointment ended with the same flippant hand gesture. "Once you go through puberty, your boobs will even out" was followed by "Don't worry about it." But how could I not worry?
I started finding ways to hide my boobs or pad out the side that still hadn't grown. I'd stuff socks in my bra on the smaller side, or wear bras that were way too tight, hoping they'd squash the larger side in, giving me a more even appearance.
By the time I was 15 I was desperate to try anything, even reading online how soldiers in the war grew boobs from where the guns they carried repeatedly hit against their chest – as apparently this stimulated boob growth. So, I started hitting myself on the chest each night before I went to sleep. Every morning I'd wake up and eagerly check if it had worked, but of course, it hadn't.
As my one boob kept growing and the other didn't, I tried harder and harder to hide my chest from everyone around me. Even in summer I'd wear turtlenecks that covered me up completely. But I couldn't maintain that 24/7. One day on a trip to the pool, my friends and I were pulling on our swimming costumes and they pointed out my boobs. "You know one of your boobs is bigger than the other, right?" asked my friend. That's when I realised other people were aware of my difference too. It felt like a gut punch.
It wasn't just my friends that were noticing either, other people at school had started to as well – including the guys I fancied. I remember finally building up the courage to tell my crush I had feelings for him, only to be rejected with the line, "I only go out with girls who have big boobs." Ironically, I actually did have a big boob, but I couldn't exactly tell him that.
When I turned 17 I decided enough was enough. I'd been going to the doctors at least twice a year up til then, I'd been through puberty and I still didn't have two equal-sized boobs. Although by then I'd accepted my body (I realised that no matter what I did, my smaller boob wasn't going to magically grow three cup sizes overnight, so I learnt to embrace it), I still needed answers.
I Googled 'one boob' and a lot of weird things came up. But after scrolling and scrolling, I finally found a photo of someone's chest that looked just like mine. The caption read: 'Poland Syndrome.'
I'd never heard of Poland Syndrome (PS) before, but when I clicked the link on the photo I learned it's a muscle deformity named after the doctor who discovered it, Alfred Poland. For most people PS only affects their hands, but PS can also affect the chest, like it has in my case.
Although I was able to find out more information than I had to begin with, other than the one photo I couldn't find anything about other women having PS. Just like I did at school, I started thinking something was drastically wrong with me, why did I have something only men had?
I went back to the doctor, this time armed with my research, and showed him what I'd found. "This is what I have," I insisted. He had no idea what I was talking about, but promised he'd look into it. A couple of days later he called me back, and to my surprise, he agreed with me. He didn't apologise, nor did he acknowledge the years of stress and upset that I'd been through, and I couldn't help but wonder if things might have been different if I'd seen a female GP.
My doctor officially diagnosed me with PS, and told me that from what he'd read, it's not genetic so it won't be passed down if I decide to have children in the future. Other than that he didn't know much more about the condition, so he sent me to a breast specialist who'd be able to give the information I wanted.
When I arrived at the specialist's, he started prepping me for scans and telling me about the free boob job I was going to have. Only I didn't want a boob job – and nor had I gone there for one either. I just wanted some answers. But when the specialist realised I didn't want to change my breasts, he told me I'd wasted his time.
Just like I'd been dismissed before, my decision not to have a boob job was brushed off as well. Every time I went to the doctors, they'd remind me, even if I was there for a stomach bug or a migraine. "Don't forget about your free boob job!"
The constant reminders about that "free boob job" made me feel like I was broken, that I needed to be fixed. I started questioning the self-confidence I'd spent years building up.
But it wasn't just the doctors spurring on the voice of worry that had crept into my head. Never seeing somebody with my body on TV or in magazines, or modelling the clothes I wanted to buy only further reminded me how different I was. I couldn't find bras that fitted me properly either and I had to shop in the mastectomy section at M&S – which is hardly ideal when you're a teenager. Most mastectomy bras are designed for older women and they certainly aren't sexy.
I remember once heading into the changing room with a full basket, but the shop attendant stopped me just before I could close the curtain to try them on. "You're too young to be getting those bras," she said loudly. "These bras aren't for you." My mouth hung open and I could barely get a word out, due to the sheer embarrassment I felt.
Shopping online wasn't any easier either, and still isn't. I have to order clothes in different sizes and styles, and then end up returning almost everything. I understand that for brands making clothes for women with one boob is quite niche, but if I could see the clothes on a model who at least looked like me, I'd have a better idea of how they'd fit my body.
When I try on certain clothes I can't help but imagine how they'd look if my boobs were the same size too. Low cut tops are a no-go, and my boob just flops out anytime I try a peekaboo top. I just want to wear what other 24-year-olds wear; stuff that makes me feel attractive and powerful.
Desperate to make a positive change, and knowing I couldn't be the only woman out there with Poland Syndrome, I took the plunge and shared my story online. I wanted others to know they weren't alone and began posting about PS on YouTube and Instagram.
As soon as I did, my inbox was flooded with hundreds of messages from women around the world. They'd tell me I'm the first person they've seen talking about PS, and how they're no longer embarrassed by the way their body looks. Some of them wouldn't have even known they had Poland Syndrome if they hadn't have found me – in the same way I likely still wouldn't, if I'd not seen that Google image all those years ago.
Many asked how I feel confident around men and how I 'get them to like me'. The truth is, if a guy doesn't like me for who I am, then he's not the one for me. Since being rejected by my college crush all those years ago, I've had two serious boyfriends and dated in between. I used to tell men about my breasts before we got intimate, as it meant I could avoid awkward questions later on, and they were always accepting. I've been with my current boyfriend for a few years now and honestly, I've realised guys really don't care.
As more people started reaching out, I decided to set up a WhatsApp group where everyone else could share their stories too. There's about 150 of us in the chat now, some have had a boob job and some haven't. Some had a boob job and regretted it, so had their implant removed. Others are coming to terms with being told they're not eligible for surgery.
Even though I'm confident in my decision not to have a boob job, I don't want others like me to feel pressured into getting one. The group is a great way for us all to support each other on that and we're always open to new members. Through speaking with these other women and realising how much I'm helping to inspire them, I've learnt to love myself even more.
When I was younger, I was so worried that strangers would stare at me and ask questions. Now I'd welcome anyone who wanted to know more, after all its just another opportunity to raise awareness about PS.
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