Silicone City

The rise and fall of the implant—or how Houston went from an oil-based economy to a breast-based economy.

Timmie Jean Lindsay does not look like an experiment in medicine, social, and sexual engineering. Sipping coffee at a McDonald’s near Channelview, she looks like a lot of other grandmothers from the blue-collar town. She is 63 years old, a substantial woman in a nice print dress, with thick glasses and short tinted red hair. People who don’t know her story might search for a clue in the two rather adventurous earrings dangling from her left ear. People who do know about Timmie Jean will not be able to keep their eyes off her breasts. She is the first woman in history to have received silicone-gel implants.

Her story begins back in March 1962, when she showed up at the charity hospital to have her tattoos removed. It was the only way she knew to remedy the rough hand life had dealt her. Timmie Jean had run off at fifteen to get married, given birth to six children, and then at thirty, found herself divorced, stuck in a dead-end job, and struggling to keep her kids. The tattoos had become nothing more than a daily reminder of all the wrong turns she’d taken in her life. They were red roses, one over each breast, climbing like twin vines from her cleavage, and she wanted them gone, as if erasing them could erase her past.

But, after surgery, the doctors weren’t quite done with Timmie Jean. They had an intriguing proposition for her: Would she like to have better breasts? Doctors at the Baylor University College of Medicine were trying to come up with a special kind of device, an implant that would make a woman’s chest look young again. “They just looked at me and decided I was the perfect candidate,” she says. “You can imagine after six children I was a size 34 Flat Feet.” “Why not?” she thought, though when it came time for the operation, she refused to look at the glistening silicone-filled orbs they intended to put into her body. “Out of sight, out of mind,” she says. “If I looked at them, I might worry about them being inside me.” The doctors told her they would make her a full C cup, and for Timmie Jean, that was all she needed to know.

She stayed in the hospital four or five days after the surgery. Her chest felt like a ton of bricks was lying on it, but she was worried about losing her job, so she made herself get up and get back to work. It wasn’t until six weeks later, at a bar, that she became aware of the momentous change in her life.

Timmie Jean had picked out a pretty crop-top to wear, but that night it hung out over her breasts in a way it never had before. “The men just—well, that was a boost to my morale, she recalls, dusting off the 33-year-old memory with a broad, satisfied smile. “I thought I would never meet anyone. I thought I would never marry again. But, boy, things began to look up after that.” In fact, by New Year’s Eve, Timmie Jean was happily remarried and a new chapter in her life, and the life of the breast, had begun.

Of all the symbols of modern Houston—the oil derrick, the building crane, the designer skyscraper—the breast is the most unlikely. The ultimate emblem of femininity—it yields, it nurtures, it entices—the breast would appear to have no more than decorative use in a place that has always been known as a man’s town of big deals and big deeds, where self-invention has achieved the status of religion. Houston, it has always seemed safe to say, isn’t soft on anything.

But whether locals recognize it or not, Houston is in the grips of one enormous breast fixation. Boobs are ubiquitous here: Plastic surgery ads featuring young women with bountiful bosoms figure prominently in the local health and fitness magazines (“Summer’s here. Time to look your best”). Upscale topless clubs occupy prime real estate in the Galleria area, and their billboards line almost every freeway into town. Stories of women suing in local courts, contending that their implants cause disease, make headlines regularly and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees for Houston attorneys. Along with doctors and lawyers, the breast supports architects, designers, chefs, G-string purveyors, medical researchers, courthouse clerks, even hospitals. In Houston, you see, the breast that has invigorated the economy is not real but man-made, one that perfectly reflects the city’s obsession with sex and commerce, technology and individuality.

Pride may keep Houstonians from admitting that this peculiar union of erotica and entrepreneurship reveals a shift from an oil-based to a breast-based economy. But they couldn’t disagree that Houston’s relationship with the breast makes for a modern morality tale, one that says a lot about the fantasies and ambitions of the city, and how those dreams have changed the way women look around the world.

On the day of her implant operation, young Melissa Lovell envisioned herself storming the Victoria’s Secret store in the Galleria. “Open Up!” she would holler. “I’ve had my boobs done!” She didn’t care that her girlfriends told her it was a sexist operation that could make her sick. Melissa was enraptured with the idea of throwing away her bunchy Miracle Bra and the hateful Wonder Bra—the one with the pads that fell out at the worst possible moment. She longed to pour herself into a real bra, one with strong wires and lacy cups.

The impetus for this fantasy, indeed for Melissa’s surgery, was her mother, Cyndi, a starkly beautiful divorcée in her early forties who has enhanced her own breasts four times—three times with silicone implants and, more recently, with sacks filled with saline, which is the only implant now approved for general use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For Cyndi, the decision to have her breasts augmented had been easy. She had always been flat-chested, and after giving birth to

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