The secret one woman spent most of her life trying to hide
Clare Dea spent most her life hiding a secret she wanted no one to know. Now, she shares it with the world. Photo: Clare Dea
Clare Dea’s date saw her shaking uncontrollably so he drew closer.
She rested her fragile body against him, thinking she’d set herself “free” after plucking up the courage to reveal a long kept secret.
A day later, Ms Dea got a text message that made her cry herself to sleep.
It read: “I know you really appreciate honesty. My ex-girlfriend of eight years has asked me back and so I think I’m going to go back to her.”
Ms Dea’s eyes filled with tears every night for the next eight months, but her upset had very little to do with the breakup.
Rather, she was terrified of how others would react to the secret she’d been hiding.
“I felt like I was being punished for telling the truth because I created the security blanket of being a liar since I was 15.”
She lied to keep people from knowing the truth about her left breast.
Even while in a four-year relationship, Ms Dea found ways to avoid the “elephant in the room”, especially during sex.
“I just creatively turned the lights off and tried to move his hands away from places where I didn’t want him to touch.”
Then one day, in an acting class, Ms Dea was taught “the truth will set you free”.
So she firmly decided “the next guy I was going to be with, I wanted to tell him”.
She vividly remembers the night she put it all on the line.
“We were on a third date and he was wooing me with pineapple pizza.”
The man she was seeing had spontaneously asked that they both disclose to each other any illnesses they had.
“It’s my big moment,” she recalled saying to herself.
After decades of hiding, Ms Dea was suddenly “really excited” to share her story.
Slowly she began to cry, as the then 28-year-old revealed she had a rare birth defect.
Born without her left pectoral muscle, Ms Dea’s left breast could not develop naturally.
She suffered from Poland’s Syndrome – a congenital condition that affects between one in 10,000 and one in 100,000 people. It’s three times more common in males than females.
“During the hours of me sharing with him he was really lovely. I was shaking and crying and he held me.
Ms Dea was consoled as she revealed the truth about her condition. Photo: Getty
“It was one of the most difficult conversations I’d ever had in my life.
“I woke up the next morning feeling like the truth set me free.”
As she was getting ready to be a bridesmaid in her friend’s wedding, Ms Dea got that breakup text, sending her into despair.
“I was a mess at the wedding and all of my friends were like, ‘Why are you such a mess?’
“I’m like ‘this guy’s gone back to his ex’ and they said, ‘Oh you were going out with him for three dates, it’s not a big deal’.
“I couldn’t tell them the truth. It wasn’t until years and years later that I actually told those girlfriends the truth of why I was such a mess.”
Since she was a teenager, Ms Dea thought of herself as a “one-breasted monster”.
“I just believed that having this condition made me a freak and I believed that if my friends found out about it, they would think that I was a freak, too.”
When she was about five, Ms Dea remembers going to the doctor and her parent’s being told “we suggest you don’t put her into ballet class. It’s probably not best with her condition”.
As a child, Ms Dea wasn’t so self-conscious about her body. Photo: Getty
Ms Dea dreamed of becoming a professional ballet dancer so she continued taking classes despite the doctor’s advice.
Poland’s Syndrome started taking its toll on Ms Dea when she hit puberty and her “right breast got big really quite quickly”.
Every school lunchtime, Ms Dea raced to the girl’s toilets to re-stuff her bra with “cupping, padding and tissues”.
“I was obsessed with them looking even because ballet was all about looking even and looking perfect.”
She started losing all self-confidence and in turn lost a lot of friends.
“I went from being one of the really popular girls in school in year 7 and 8 to year 10, walking around the schoolyard alone, not really knowing who my friends were.”
She was no longer the “bubbly, confident” person everyone knew her as.
At age 15, Ms Dea underwent a muscle transplant where the latissimus dorsi from her back was implanted in the left pectoral region alongside a breast tissue expander.
“I would go to the surgeon every six months and they would pump up this left breast.”
She made sure no one knew.
And while her mum had a “quiet conversation” with her dance school principal to ensure consumes fit her properly, Ms Dea admits her ballet “just went down the drain”.
“All I could think about was the costumes.”
“Were the costumes looking good? How did I look? Could they see the padding? Did it show?” she would ask herself constantly.
She auditioned for the Victorian College of Arts in year 7 and was told “my body was deformed and I wouldn’t be able to make it as a ballet dancer”.
Eventually she stopped taking ballet.
Even after Ms Dea got a full breast reconstruction at age 21, she said she was still so ashamed.
“It didn’t matter now that I had these breasts I just still felt like a freak. It was like the insides of me still were quite repulsed.”
In her latter teenage years, Ms Dea developed a passion for musical theatre, and focused on refining her skills at dance, singing, and acting.
Ms Dea never became a ballerina and today pursues other passions. Photo: Clare Dea
Her performing career took her to India where she was a cheerleader in the Indian Premier League cricket.
“I had 40,000 people watching me dance in next to nothing. They were holding up signs, cheering my name while inside I just felt like a freak.”
What bothered her the most was the many compliments she received about her breasts as they were regularly on show.
“I would wear low cut tops and I would show them off in the way that I didn’t want anyone to think I wasn’t perfect and normal.”
It wasn’t until she saw a therapist at age 28– after the notorious breakup text – that her mindset started changing.
“I slowly started to have a few conversations with good girlfriends and with lovers and then I slowly started to share it with the world.”
She recalled being at an entertainment industry event when the “most transformational thing” happened.
There, she shared her Poland’s Syndrome publicly for the first time.
At the end, a woman approached her and whispered in her ear: “I got Poland’s Syndrome too and I’ve never told a soul”.
“I’ve never met a female in my life with Poland’s Syndrome and I think that was why I felt like such a freak,” Ms Dea said.
“I started having so many people who were gay and having secret abortions and were raped … telling me their story.
“I guess I was coming out and they started feeling like they could come out, too.”
Hoping her story will inspire others, Ms Dea, now 37, created cabaret show Devil Woman starting on September 23 at the Melbourne Fringe Festival.
“I’ve just spent years writing songs, writing talks and finally now I actually have all the pieces of the puzzle.
“I really believe this is like a TED talk on steroids.”