I can distinctly recall the overwhelming sense of shame that I felt, as I stared back at my 15-year-old self’s imperfect reflection in the dance school mirror. All I wanted was to be a musical theatre star. There I was, diligently standing in first position ready to jump, turn and kick my way into a career on the stage. Dance shoes, tights, maroon coloured leotard and hair slickly tied back. However, all I could see in that mirror was my one breast. Just one. The right one. The left? Nothing. A hollow cave.
I was born with a rare congenital condition called Poland’s Syndrome. As a result of this, the left-hand side of my body is smaller than the right. I was born without my left pectoral major muscle, hence my severely lacking left bulb. My year 10 school year was the worst year of my life. My one breast had ensured that I had lost all confidence in myself. I was so ashamed of my lopsided body. I felt like a freak – every lunch time I was rushing to the bathroom to stuff my bra and make sure the headlights were even. “A one-breasted monster” was what I used to call myself.
At age 15, my family who were now very concerned about my mental health and my aspirations to be a performer, decided to invest in major surgery to help me look more “normal”. I was booked in for a muscle transplant, taking my latissimus dorsi from my back in order to create a left pec. They also inserted a breast expander. I would visit my surgeon regularly so he could blow up my left boob. When my right side got bigger, I went back to the trusty needle so they could be even. I eventually possessed a fantastic set of equally weighted breasts!
Even with beautiful looking breasts, I still felt like a freak. My relationship with my condition hadn’t changed. I made a pact with myself that I would never tell my secret to others. I just wanted everyone to think I was normal. How would I ever be a successful performer or girlfriend if I wasn’t perfect? I kept my fake boob a secret for a very long time. I was in a relationship with a man for four years and we never spoke about it. In the bedroom, I did everything I could to ensure sure he wouldn’t find out.
Ironically on the other hand, I spent my days and nights working as a promo girl which meant that I had no choice but to show off my bits and bobs. Armed with fake smiles, spray tans, and hair extensions, no one would have known there was anything abnormal. I was the perfect Barbie doll in human form. I tried so hard to be what I thought the entertainment industry wanted; I even got a nose job, so I looked better “side on” at auditions. I was the epitome of beauty on the outside, but completely empty on the inside.
Eventually however, my anxiety and shame ate at me and I lost confidence in all my performing aspirations. I decided to put aside my own dreams and focus on helping other creatives live theirs. This way I wasn’t the one in the spotlight. Yet as much as I loved helping others, over time I began to feel like a fraud in every way.
It was time to start being honest, even if it was agonising.
By the time I was 28 I still hadn’t confided in anyone about my condition. I clearly remember the night I finally confessed that I had Poland’s Syndrome to a new lover. The floodgates were opened and out came all my suppressed feelings of shame, guilt, sadness, anger and fear. I had opened Pandora’s box and I spent the next eight months every night crying myself to sleep. I needed help.
Over time after getting professional help and gradually telling my students, friends and community my story, I built up my courage. I vividly remember sharing my story at an event for the entertainment industry. A gorgeous looking woman approached me at the end and whispered: “I have Poland’s too and I haven’t told a soul.” This made me realise how much my story can help others. I had people who were gay, raped, had secret abortions suddenly confide in me as I was slowly “coming out” to the world.
Hoping to continue helping others, I wrote a book about my experience. However, even when the book was published, I realised I still wasn’t completely honest with myself and others, so nervously I started writing a one woman show to help others transform their shame into beauty. I am now sharing my body, my voice and my truth with the world. I genuinely hope that this helps others share theirs.
• Clare Dea is a performance artist, keynote speaker and author. Her show Devil Woman will be playing as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival from 23 to 29 September
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