[CREATIVE NONFICTION] I Feel Bad About My Breasts
“And my girlfriends, the ones with nice big breasts, would go on endlessly about how their lives had been far more miserable than mine. Their bra straps were snapped in class. They couldn’t sleep on their stomachs. They were stared at whenever the word “mountain” cropped up in geography…It was much worse for them, they tell me. They had a terrible time of it, they assure me. I don’t know how lucky I was, they say. I have thought about their remarks, tried to put myself in their place, considered their point of view. I think they are full of shit.”
I suppose I have what Nora Ephron would deem “nice big breasts.” They are big, and they are breasts, and it seems that people associate big breasts as being nice breasts, but I’ve never seen it this way. Big breasts aren’t nice. They are an inconvenience. A torture device. A sex object, no matter how I feel about them, or the rest of my body, or sex, at any given moment. They enter the room before the rest of me has a chance to catch up, and so I am automatically defined by them. Like all things that especially afflict women – street harassment, rape culture, mansplaining, lower pay – I didn’t ask for this shit. And speaking of shit, I’m not here to argue with the late, brilliant Ephron (who helped pave the way for someone like me – a woman, a feminist woman, a Jewish woman – to write a confessional essay of her mien), but to reject one woman’s argument as totally baseless because it doesn’t align with your experience, is well, shitty.
I always knew I would have big breasts. I come from a family of them: my mother, her sister, their mother. It seems fitting that this particular genetic trait was passed down through the maternal side of my family. My paternal side is full of small-breasted thin women who practice yoga and run effortlessly. When I first learned that exercise could be a pleasant experience for me as a young twenty-something, (after years of traumatizing gym classes steered me away from the very idea of it), I wore two sports bras at a time to keep my nice big breasts under control while I jogged or lifted weights or kick-boxed or anything, really. Nothing is perky, nothing defies gravity, none of it comes easy.
So, it’s a maternal trait, this one, and so before I even had breasts of my own I knew I would inherit my mother’s. I remember looking at her bras, thinking I had never seen anything so outlandishly enormous in my life. Unlike my peers and unlike Ephron herself, I was never excited about developing. I remember staring at my naked body in the mirror when I was all of 8 years old, and I started to notice some weirdness taking form in my body. My body shape was changing; I was started to get hips. “Is it normal that my tummy sticks out, but my waist goes in and then my hips go out?” I remember asking my mother. Yes, of course, she told me. It’s all part of puberty. Ugh, wasn’t that supposed to be for teenagers? I was still only a kid.
I was still only a kid, but I was a kid who was starting to receive attention from men. There was the owner of our local pizza place who would always tell me how beautiful I was and kiss my cheek. I vividly remember having this simultaneous, twisted feeling of wanting to stay in the car and avoid him forever, and also wanting to bask in that attention, soak it up. It felt womanly. I think this was around the time I started wearing my first bra.
It looked like a sports bra, but it was white and shiny, with no padding or support. It was probably the lack of support that was most uncomfortable, actually, and one day while sitting in my fourth-grade class, I took a pair of scissors from inside my desk and slowly, gradually, cut the whole thing off my body. I slid it inside my desk, threw it away in secret later with a bunch of crumpled papers. Another simultaneous, twisted feeling of wanting this foreign thing off my body, but its removal was performative, a production; certainly not nearly as surreptitious as I imagined it was.
Having boobs started to feel more normal in middle school when everyone else started developing. For as much as I hated my breasts, I was ecstatic to get my period; I spent the summers after fourth and fifth grade pretending I already had it. At a fifth-grade pool party, I dramatically ran out of the pool and told a teacher I had gotten my period. I had to wear a pad for the rest of the day and quickly realized I had made a huge mistake: I was stuck wearing an uncomfortable diaper-thing, and I couldn’t even swim. My friends surrounded me in excitement, though, and I felt cool, older like I was making a sacrifice for all of them by needing to lounge by the pool instead of cannonball-ing in with the rest of them. The following summer, I befriended an older girl who did have her period, and nice big breasts, and acne, too! The acne intrigued me. I knew by then acne was undesirable, but it still felt mysterious and unfamiliar to me and thus really grown up, like a smoker’s cough. I told her I had my period, too. I tucked away this little lie, nearly forgetting about it (and conveniently swimming in the pool all summer, due to my negligence with said lie), until one day she ran up to me in the locker room and asked if I had any tampons on me. I dug through my duffel bag with an air of importance and certainty, until (of course) coming up short. After that, I carried around a small, stolen stash of my mother’s tampons in my bag with me for the rest of the summer. Even the act of stealing them from her bathroom was involved – I had to wait until she was doing laundry in the basement so she wouldn’t see or hear me doing it and ask questions. But homes have creaky walls and floors, and moms hear and know everything, and she asked me about it anyway. I told her I wanted to keep some at camp “just in case.” I was 10. She raised an eyebrow.
But when I did actually get my period in 6th grade, I suddenly felt silenced by it. I didn’t quite know how to tell my mom. I felt uncomfortable, awkward, unprepared for the reality of how annoying and inconvenient and painful this whole thing really was. I did eventually tell her, and she helped me navigate my way around pads, and eventually tampons, and the necessity of Advil and a heating pad for cramps. But I didn’t flaunt my period in school as I thought I would. There were a couple of times where I bled through my pants and had to wear a sweatshirt tied around my waist, and it just became another humiliating part of middle school. Just like my nice big breasts.
Which, by the way, weren’t that big at first. In high school, I was still wearing a B, and then later, a C cup. But by the time I got to college, I was wearing a D. I didn’t understand why my breasts continued to grow; while I gained about 20 pounds between my freshman year of high school through my freshman year of college, it all magically seemed to go to my breasts (followed closely by my belly, and thighs, and hips). It was the maternal curse catching up to me: my genetic code required that my breasts be at least a D, no, a DD, no, let’s say DDD, yes, that’s where my magical nice big breasts had to end up before they could finally stop growing.
So that’s where I am now and have been since college. A DDD. Which means the last decade of my life has been filled with moments like these:
-Being on a terrible date with a terrible stand-up comedian, who was a thirty-something adult man, when I was 18. He took me to his own comedy show at an unmemorable bar where beer was served from kegs into small plastic cups. Something compelled me to look at his phone while he went up to perform his set (which was entirely full of gross, misogynistic jokes). The last text he sent read: “I’m hanging out with a college freshman with huge tits.” That was me, the nameless college freshman with huge tits. I should’ve poured that cheap beer in his dumb face. Instead, I went back to his apartment and had sex with him. I wanted to be more than just the girl with big tits, and I thought that was the way. It took a long time to learn that with men like that, that’s never the way, and there never is a way. If a man sees a woman as a walking pair of breasts, he has decided that’s how he is going to see her. He never called or texted me again. I was hurt. I was 18. Of course, I was hurt.
-At a rambunctious and boisterous house party years ago, full of free-flowing booze, and a friend and I decided to take our shirts off and dance around in our bras. As soon as I took off my shirt, my thin and small-chested friend stared at my chest with her eyes widening. “I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have boobs that big,” she said in a voice that very clearly said yikes and phew and thank god I lucked out. I felt an immediate need to put my shirt back on, feeling like my body was inconveniencing and distracting others, but I didn’t want to seem too obvious, so I crossed my arms across my chest. Which, of course, just amplified my cleavage instead of obstructing it.
-Recently, I went browsing around a small boutique with two friends. The three of us chatted amongst ourselves as we perused the vintage garments, all of which were tiny, as vintage clothes tend to be. I found a fairly voluminous dress with a floral pattern that was marked with a size L, and I decided to chance it and try it on. I wasn’t surprised, but was nonetheless still disappointed, when I could barely pull the dress down over my breasts, let alone my stomach and hips. I put my clothes back and left the dressing room laughing it off. “In what universe is this dress a size large?” I joked to my friends, jovially. Suddenly, the shop owner chimed in: “That’s actually a true large based on the standard measurements. I think it’s just that you’re, well, busty.” Busty. Yes. As though I wasn’t aware of this.
-At my college part-time job, a coworker (who was a man at least ten years my senior) added me as a Facebook friend. Our work relationship had always been merely cordial, exchanging niceties in the kitchen. On one particularly festive night, some friends in my dorm and I dressed up and went to a local restaurant that we had heard didn’t check IDs. We ordered neon drinks and rounds of dumplings and sushi, our faces red with winter cheer and vodka and that special, sly feeling that we had gotten away with something sneaky and adult. We brought our cameras and snapped photo after photo, drinks clinking as the camera flash clicked. Naturally, the photos ended up on Facebook that evening. I was notified of a comment left by my seemingly innocuous colleague: on a photo of me and a friend, in which my low-cut dress has slipped just a smidge lower as a result of my second cocktail, his comment read “Wow!!!” I knew, as soon as I read this comment, that he wasn’t referring to our delighted grins or our bright drinks or our eyeshadow applied just so. My ample cleavage was the focal point of the photo, and I was suddenly humiliated by it, and myself, and my body. My skin crawled, but I didn’t know yet that my coworker was to blame for that feeling. I blamed myself. I still can’t look at that photo.
-Wearing a sundress and shopping downtown with my best friend one scalding hot summer day. I didn’t think twice about the dress until I was bombarded with comments about my breasts from men on the street, most of them containing the word “tits.” The hissing sibilance of the final consonant stuck to me like dried saliva, and I couldn’t laugh the comments off, not even from the high school boy who looked at my chest and said, “I love you.” My friend laughed, but it was a sympathetic chortle. She understood why it wasn’t actually funny, but sometimes laughing is easier than crying or screaming.
-Endless sexual partners trying to guess my bra size, almost always guessing too small, and being slack-jawed when (if) I reveal the true size. Step right up folks, tonight’s game is called GUESS JULIA’S BRA SIZE. ARE THESE THE BIGGEST BOOBS YOU’VE EVER SEEN OR WHAT, FOLKS?! Cue the accordion, send in the too-happy clowns doing cartwheels. In recent years, I have stopped revealing.
-I have stopped revealing. I have co-workers at my current job, who, when we have clients in for meetings, will gussy themselves up for the day. Sometimes there is a small amount of cleavage involved, and I don’t blame them for it. I understand it. We are there to perform, in these meetings, and the performance of women at work often involves a bit of sex. It’s innuendo, it’s work appropriate, it’s coy. I used to show a bit of cleavage at work. Now, on these client meeting days, I put on the extra bit of mascara, run a flat iron through my waves. I smile big and pretty. I wear heels that clack-a-clack in a way that says I am a woman, but a business one, take me seriously. Take my pretty and take my business, take them both, please. But my necklines are high, now. I wear sports bras underneath button-down shirts to minimize my breasts. I let cardigans hang loosely over my chest so you can’t fully determine its shape. Maybe this is why my partners always guess wrong. Because I don’t let them see.
-I like to keep my bra on when I have sex. It’s more comfortable that way. For a lot of reasons.
-A couple years ago I looked into breast reduction surgery. I knew there were would be BMI requirements in order to be eligible for insurance coverage, but even then, coverage wasn’t guaranteed. I met the requirements, but just barely. Is this procedure medically necessary? Patient must provide six months of physician-recorded evidence indicating surgical needs.” I put the paperwork, and my needs, aside.
-Many years ago, a man showed me how he wanted me to squeeze my breasts on either side of his cock, up and down, up and down. He came all over my chest. I can tell this same story many times, with different men – only I stopped needing to be told what they wanted. I would remove my bra and perform the act. Send in the clowns.
Nora said: “I didn’t spend my youth staring lovingly at my neck. It never crossed my mind to be grateful for it. It never crossed my mind that I would be nostalgic about a part of my body that I took completely for granted.”
Perhaps when I am older, and I feel bad about my neck, like Nora did, I won’t feel bad about my breasts anymore. Perhaps I will one day be nostalgic that long ago, my biggest bodily concern was how my breasts made me feel sexualized without my consent. How even when I have sex, and when I want to be seen as sexy, my breasts get in the way. They are still an object. My current partner is a wonderful person who never makes me feel objectified unless I want it and ask for it, unless it’s a game we’re playing. But he has still picked up my bras as a joke and shown me how he can fit his entire head into a single cup. He laughs, I laugh. It doesn’t really hurt because I know he is feeling bad about his small head when he does that. But the problem is how we manage to make other people feel bad about their bodies, even while being self-deprecating about our own.
Nora said: “You have small breasts, she was saying; therefore, you will never make him as happy as I have. Or you have small breasts; therefore, you will doubtless have sexual problems. Or you have small breasts; therefore, you are less woman than I am.”
Nora, maybe she was saying (and who the “she” is doesn’t really matter, is in fact beside the point, is, in fact, me and all women and no women simultaneously): “You have small breasts, and I have an overabundance. You have small breasts, and I have objects. You have small breasts, and I have maternalism. I inherited them from my mother and her mother, you see. But both of us have insecurities. I want to have not, and you want to have. Neither of us asked for this. Maybe we will feel nostalgic for our wanting, later. Maybe we should stare lovingly at them now. Or maybe it’s OK to just fucking feel bad about our breasts.”
Julia Perch is a queer and femme-identified editor, essayist, and poet living and working in West Philly. Her work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories, bedfellows, Word Riot, Shape Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, and others. She runs a low-key poetry vlog and deciphers dreams on Instagram, and tweets about The Bachelor franchise from a feminist lens.