When I was 10, perched on the back of our brown-striped sofa with my nose in a book, my mother walked out of the laundry room and announced in a gentle but resolute voice that she and my father had decided it was time for me to start wearing a bra. I stared back at her, mouth open and warmth blooming up my cheeks. My parents were talking about my breasts? I hadn’t even talked about my breasts yet — with anyone — and they were just gabbing about my girls like they were the grocery list or gas bill?
That brief conversation by the couch was a watershed moment for me, but I also know it’s a way post by which every woman must walk at some point. Whether delivered by the groping hand of a grown man or the kind voice of an insistent mother, it is the moment women learn something crucial about their bodies: Something we thought was private is in fact quite public. Something we thought belonged only to us evidently belongs to everyone.
When I was a sophomore in high school I remember standing in a fitting room with my big sister and asking her to loosen the straps on the bra I was trying. Switch the hooks, I told her. Make sure it’s on the loosest setting. But no matter what we did, I couldn’t get the D-cup bra to fit. Fighting tears, I stomped out of the fitting room, refusing all offers of larger sizes. I didn’t want one anyway.
As a teenager, it was all very vexing. I didn’t know that my breasts were suffused with a cluster of nerve endings in the nipple that existed to bring me sexual pleasure and help me bond with and breastfeed future children. The only thing I knew, even if I couldn’t have articulated it that day in the dressing room, was that I was balancing precariously close to “too much.” I knew that the rules for a seat at the “desirable” table were stringent. My boobs should be big but not too big. And the rest of me — my waist, hips, thighs and especially my voice, should be small. I was pushing the limits with my unruly breasts and one more cup size would mean I had gone too far.
The voice shouted out the open window of a passing car in Southern California. It was my second year in undergrad and I was out on a walk with a friend. The remark was followed by a long, low whistle and the honking of the car’s horn as the two men inside looked me over before finally speeding away. Since my breasts were then DDs and my friend’s barely a B, it was obvious to both of us who the intended recipient was. I felt my cheeks begin to warm and I stared resolutely ahead. My friend put her hands over her own breasts and said, in a tone that was both bitter and wistful at once, in an attempt to lighten the moment, “Well, they definitely weren’t talking to me!” We laughed awkwardly and continued our walk.
“I knew that the rules for a seat at the 'desirable' table were stringent. My boobs should be big but not too big.”
It wasn’t the first or the last time I have experienced the unsolicited and unwelcome comments, remarks, whistles, jeers and looks of strangers ― and, on occasion, friends and family ― because of my breasts. Many of the women who were in close proximity at the time of such remarks would make their own comments as well, leaving me with no doubt that I was supposed to consider myself the lucky one. I was desirable. I didn’t have the prettiest face or curvy hips, but I did have a nice rack. Without them, I no longer understood my body and the space I occupied in the world. I had the golden ticket ― a secret weapon that I could wield should I ever feel unattractive or uninteresting. Eyes followed me through the grocery store and down the street and in the hallway as I walked to pre-calculus. My overabundant breasts commanded the attention of both the boys at school and the deacons at church, and I understood, always, that I was supposed to be pleased. Men noticed me. Men wanted something that I had. It made me feel powerful and alluring. Forceful and distinctly feminine.
Yet at the very same time, it also left me feeling lewd and deeply ashamed. As much as I wanted to be noticed, I often fantasized about what it would be like to cut my breasts off altogether and be done with them. The cognitive dissonance brought to bear by these feelings of simultaneous delight and disgust was always a double bind.
When I was 32 and ready to wean my youngest child, I eagerly awaited the return of my “pre-pregnancy body.” That is, after all, what all the magazines promise. I assumed, as most women do when they wean, that my breasts would “go back to normal.” And they did shrink back to normal ... and they kept right on shrinking. Like a damned turtle pulling into its shell, they seemed to be pulling back into my body. My breasts, which had once filled DD cups to the point of overflowing, now didn’t fill them at all.
I rallied soon enough. I was still an abundant C cup, after all. I bought some smaller bras and went on my merry way, but within a year I lost yet another cup size. I brought it up with my doctor at my yearly appointment, eager to unearth the source of my shrinkage. She listened attentively, examined me and asked all the right questions, but in the end shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. All told, I had gone from a DD to a B cup in under three years. The chart note from my annual checkup that year reads: “Breast atrophy. Cause unknown.”
When I finally came to grips with the fact that my breasts were not going to re-grow and that I was likely stuck with these B-cup breasts for the foreseeable future, my initial feelings were that of relief. I could find shirts that fit with buttons that didn’t pop. I no longer had to wrangle myself into two sports bras for a workout. Aside from their galling post-pregnancy capitulation to gravity, I found I rather liked my smaller, less cumbersome breasts.
But here’s what also happened: The already growing sense I had of my own disappearing act as a soon-to-be-middle-aged woman, the one I had noted several years earlier as I observed the ways my body is viewed in public spaces compared to my husband’s, was now compounded further still. My relationship with my breasts was changing and so too was my relationship with the world around me. I no longer turned heads when I entered a room. I no longer needed to roll my shoulders and hunch my back in an effort to minimize my abundance when walking alone at night.
“The already growing sense I had of my own disappearing act as a soon-to-be middle-aged woman was now compounded further still by my shrunken breasts.”
One would think this would be freeing and it was, but if my breasts were no longer noticeable, conferring on me a false sense of femininity and power, what were they for? Because without my most noticeable feature, I discovered I felt no longer noticed at all. If the only two options available to me were to be desired for my breasts or not be desired at all, it seemed I was bound to lose either way.
Last year I decided I was done wearing uncomfortable bras — underwire, gel, push-up, you name it. I was done with the digging discomfort and the unrelenting desire to free myself from the bonds of my bra all day, every day. I was done trying to make my breasts look bigger. I scoured the wire-free bra section, fretting over my decision, knowing that without the underwire and padding everyone would know my real size. I knew, intellectually at least, that I no longer wished to collude in my own disempowerment, but I also knew that I would be bidding farewell to whatever final vestiges of attention my breasts still conferred upon me.
I finally decided to do it. I bought the bras and I haven’t looked back. I bought the bras because I discovered something I wish I had known when I was 11. I bought the bras because I finally figured out the answer to the question: Who are these things for?
They are for me. They are portals of pleasure, imbued with innumerable nerve endings that bring me sexual satisfaction. They are conduits of nourishment that I used to feed both of my children. They are soft and smooth and lovely, and they are an Imago Dei, an image of God, both when they were big and now that they are small. Most importantly, they are mine. And I get to decide what to do with them.
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