"Thirty-four double D," she said, and smiled.
I looked at her across the brightly-lit dressing room. "You're kidding me. Are you sure?" From his lookout point in the stroller, my tiny wisp of a 1-month-old started to cry. "I'll be back with some options for you to try on," she laughed, and closed the door behind her.
My breasts stared at me, all of their 34DD glory reflected back at me underneath the ugly fluorescent lights.
I have always considered my breasts to be my greatest asset. Suddenly, we were strangers.
I'm a curvy girl. Curvy in the "nice boobs and ass, so don't look too long at my stomach and thighs" kind of way. I hated the rest of my body, but my boobs? They were the only thing that I could count on.
At 22, my breasts had a front row seat to every first date that I went on. They spent their youth boosted and propped and flaunted and adorned in drop necklaces and wrap dresses and lacy things that I paid too much money for. They screamed young and unafraid and brave and self-confident. They were my armor. They were my calling card. They were my superpower. They were a visual reminder that my femininity and my feminism could coexist.
I was married in a strapless wedding gown, and honeymooned in a halter sundress. The last years of my 20s coincided with my first years of being someone's significant other, and I devoured the opportunity to discover what it meant to be sexy, self-aware and feminine beyond casual dates and tight jeans. I watched with a healthy mix of fascination and terror as my body changed to accommodate the tiny bean that was growing inside of me. The irony of having large, full breasts at a time when I felt too sick and tired to properly use them was not lost on me. Still, I welcomed the optical illusion that a swollen belly created, slimming everything else in comparison. I wore dresses that didn't hide my figure. For the first time in years, I wanted to show off the curves that screamed that I was a woman, an adult, unafraid of a sexuality that I had matured into.
Until suddenly, the breasts that had empowered me in my 20s and revisited me in my early 30s failed me miserably after my first son was born. I sat on a worn couch in the lactation consultant's office, gritting my teeth as she poked and prodded my pale skin. The tiny rivers of icy blue veins mocked me from beneath my expensive nursing bra. There wasn't any milk there. There never would be. My breasts could no longer be counted on. After weeks of being drawn viciously into the shaft of a breast pump, exposed at countless doctor appointments, cried over, yelled at and cursed, they no longer belonged to me.
Instead, they belonged to everyone else. "Try harder, position the baby with his mouth like this, squish your breast like this, here, let me show you." My feminism had always included a f*ck-you style of self-confidence, but for the first time, my breasts weren't working in anyone's favor. "Your nipples are too big too small too flat too mismatched to your baby's mouth so really what else are they good for?" What else are they good for? They had been good enough for me, until now. Until now, when I suddenly hated them. They looked amazing in a wrap dress, but I didn't want to wear one. They were finally large enough to really flaunt during sex, but I winced when my husband touched them. And the dirty looks that came my way when my 20-something cleavage peeked out from a tiny camisole at the college bar were nothing compared to the smirks that I got when I pulled a bottle out of my diaper bag and filled it with powdered formula. My breasts had failed me. People were staring. Mom-shaming was the new slut-shaming, but without the morning-after high.
In college, I would have dared you to look twice. In my 20s, I was one of five civilian women working for a large urban police department, and though I wore sensible, button-up shirts and an ever-present glare, I was seen as nothing more than a set of boobs. If a man had told me back then how I should use, not use, expose, not expose or feel about my breasts, I would've filed a sexual harassment complaint against him. Oh wait. I did.
And then a human being is born from your flesh, and suddenly your bodily autonomy and sexual identity no longer belong to you. From the moment a boy snaps your bra strap in the junior high lunch room, you learn to set boundaries for how your body will or will not be treated. In the moments after cold 14-year-old hands trickle across your ribs in a halting attempt to reach second base, you learn how you will talk to yourself about desire and discretion. In the hours that you spend wrapped with your partner in a bed that you bought together, you learn how to ask for what feels good. You grow into a sexuality that is fiercely private, and perfectly honed, and fought for after embarrassing breakups and pictures that you wish you could take back and years that you are unabashedly thankful for. And when you finally think that you deserve to say you have it all figured out, that your breasts and your body belong to you, they don't anymore.
Perhaps that is where the story begins. When your love affair with your body becomes foreign and familiar, all at once. Your breasts belong to you, still. Even now. Especially now. You reclaim them the moment that your stomach muscles relax as you ease your tired and torn body onto your husband's for the first time after you have birthed. You reclaim them when you feel the tiny flutters of excitement as you slide into a new, lacy, surprising something instead of your old maternity pajamas. You forgive them as you realize that your baby is healthy and attached and loved and fine, even though his milk did not come from you. You reinvent them, as you learn how they look underneath clothes that you can run in and twirl babies in and play Legos in. You welcome them, as they finally fill with milk after your second child is born, and prove to you that they are capable, and useful and overflowing with hope. You thank them, as you remind yourself that people are only staring because they're not used to seeing women breastfeeding in public. You laugh about them, because you had no problem showing them off at a dance club, so you should be brave about using them to feed your baby in a shopping mall. You are proud of them. Thankfully. Finally.
And suddenly, you realize that your breasts and your feminism, your motherhood and your sexuality, your self-worth and your self-doubt, are all tucked carefully together into two 34DD cups. They belong to you. These breasts are your history. Your hope. Yours to use or not use, as you desire. Isn't that what feminism really is? The right to choose how you use your body? The right to demand that your body is treated with respect and concern? The right to decide who touches, who uses and who has an opinion on your body? The right to decide if you use them to feed a baby or don't use them to feed a baby? The right to decide if they make you feel sexy or if they slow you down when you run? Your breasts belong to you.
"Here are a few pretty ones that might be a good fit," she said, as she returned with a handful of new bras. I smiled at my reflection in the mirror and closed the fitting room door behind her.