I was asked to pare this piece down so that it is strictly a personal essay – without the cultural critique. This is my attempt to do so. I’m still unsure which version I prefer but this one is definitely shorter, that’s for sure!
The Double Bind of Breasts
Learning to Love What I Lost
I used to have big boobs.
We’re not talking double J’s or even large enough to cause back pain. But still. They were sizable. The envy of my smaller breasted friends and noticeable enough that men and boys were remarking on them before I had reached my eleventh birthday.
When I was ten, 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, 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 would the grocery list or the gas bill?
That conversation by the couch was a watershed moment for me but it was hardly unique. I know now that it is a waypost past which every woman must walk. It is the moment of discovery. 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: that something we thought was private is in fact quite public. Something we thought belonged only to us evidently belongs to everyone.
* * *
After weaning my youngest child six years ago 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 were about to “go back to normal.”
And they did shrink back to normal… but then they kept right on shrinking. Like a damned turtle pulling into its shell, they seemed to be pulling back into my body. I dug my old bras out from the back of my underwear drawer only to discover they no longer fit. My breasts, which had once filled the DD cups to the point of overflowing, now didn’t fill the cups at all. It was puzzling and I admit that I re-tried each bra more than once over the next few weeks in disbelief.
What happened to my breasts, I wondered. Was this normal? Maybe this happens to every woman after weaning but nobody talks about it? But I discreetly questioned a few close friends and discovered that no, it didn’t happen to everybody. It wasn’t normal. It was just me.
Eventually I rallied. I was still an abundant C cup. I bought some smaller bras and went on my merry way. But a few years later I lost yet another cup size. I brought it up with my doctor at my yearly appointment the next month, eager to unearth the source of my shrinkage. She listened attentively, examined me and asked all the right questions, but in the end she shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. All told I had gone from a DD to a B cup in less than three years. The chart note from my annual check up that year reads: “Breast atrophy. Cause unknown.”
* * *
When I was a sophomore in high school I remember standing in a fitting room with my sister, 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 a new bra anyway.
As a teenager it was all very vexing, trying to puzzle out what my breasts were for. I didn’t know that my breasts were uniquely equipped to help me bond with and breastfeed future children. I didn’t know they were suffused with a cluster of nerve endings in the nipple and areola that would one day bring me sexual pleasure. I only knew, even if I couldn’t have articulated it that day in the dressing room, 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, most especially, my voice, should be small. I was pushing the limits with my unruly chest and one more cup size would mean I had gone too far. If I got any bigger I would lose my seat at the proverbial table and then what would become of me?
* * *
After my visit to the doctor, realizing that I was likely stuck with these B-cup breasts for the foreseeable future, my initial feelings were 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. I could even casually pick up a bra at Target and toss it in my cart next to the sinus meds and throw pillows simply because it was cute. 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. I no longer heard cat-calls when I stepped off the bus and the male gaze no longer lingered when I sidled between tables on my way to the restroom at a restaurant.
One would think this would be freeing and it was. To no longer worry about the gawking and harassment of men was freedom indeed. But without it I no longer understood my own body and the space I occupied in the world. If my breasts were no longer noticeable, conferring on me a false sense of femininity and power, what were they for? What was I for? Because without my most noticeable feature, I discovered I was no longer noticed at all.
* * *
“Seriously, though, what happened to your boobs?”
Twenty years after that day in the dressing room, my sister and I found ourselves in yet another dressing room, puzzling once again over my rebellious breasts. Prior to their postpartum disappearing act they had always been my most prominent feature. They were my “one beauty” like Jo’s hair in Little Women. I didn’t have the prettiest face or curvy hips but at least I had a nice rack. As troublesome as they were, they had always been a significant part of my identity and now they were gone.
But having B cup breasts opened up a world of lingerie that had always before been off-limits to me. Filling out D cups before I was a teenager meant that I had passed right over the push-up phase and headed straight for the women’s support section. Now, suddenly, in my thirties, I discovered a whole new world opening up to me and the choices seemed endless. There were gel push-ups, basic push-ups, molded and non-molded, demi cups, and plunge bras. I stepped into this world with wide eyes and furtive glances around the store. Maybe I had been too hasty as I had tossed my old clothes in the donation bin. With one of these bras, maybe I could still fill out some of my pre-pregnancy shirts and be my old self again. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be my old self but it still seemed worth a shot.
* * *
Like every conservative church-going child of the eighties I knew Amy Grant’s ever popular cover of El Shaddai as well I knew my ABCs. My mom practically wore out the tape deck in her Toyota Camry playing Grant’s Age to Age as she drove us around town to school, church, gymnastics practice and piano lessons. I could sing El Shaddai in my sleep. I still can.
But nobody ever told me what El Shaddai means. It was only this year, by way of a friend, that I discovered one of the most likely translations of the phrase. As a child I knew only that it was a Hebrew name for the God of Israel. Beyond that I figured it was anyone’s guess.
El is translated as “god” or “lord” but the translation of Shaddai is debatable because the origin and meaning of Shaddai is rather obscure. Most English translations of the Hebrew scriptures will translate El Shaddai to mean “God Almighty” but many in the translation community hold this to be inaccurate. One of the more likely renderings is something much more scandalous to our Western ears. The Hebrew word shad or shadiyim means “breast” or “breasts” which would thus render El Shaddai as “God of Breasts” or, more palatably, “God who Nourishes.”
As a teenager in Sunday School I knew without the words ever being spoken what my breasts were for. They were for my future husband. They weren’t for me. They were a gift for him, to be proffered on our wedding night. And I was fortunate. I had a sizable gift to offer. I had terrible acne and a burgeoning overbite but I sure was stacked. The thought that my breasts might be more than just a gift for my future spouse did not ever cross my mind. And that my breasts made me God-like; El-Shaddai-like; that my breasts, specifically, were an Imago Dei, or image of God, was certainly never preached from the pulpit on a Sunday morning.
* * *
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 still DDs at that point and my friend’s barely a B, it was obvious to us both who the intended recipient was. I felt my cheeks flush and my friend put her hands over her own breasts and said in a tone that was both grateful and resentful at the same time, “Well, they definitely weren’t talking to me!” We laughed awkwardly and continued our walk.
Her remark echoed a sentiment I heard from many women throughout my life. I should consider myself lucky. I was desirable. I had the golden ticket; a secret weapon that I could wield should I ever feel unattractive or uninteresting, which I often did. My 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, who held the power to name what was desirable, 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. The cognitive dissonance brought to bear by these feelings of simultaneous delight and disgust was always a double bind. Because if the only two options available to me were to be desired for my breasts or not be desired at all, I was bound to lose either way.
* * *
My relationship with my breasts and what they have meant as I’ve walked through the world with them both big and small differs from the experiences of other women. But when I bemoaned their seemingly unstoppable growth as a teenager and as I’ve come to grips with their more recent vanishing act, I’ve joined my voice with women the world over. I join the transgender woman considering implants, the cancer patient staring down a double mastectomy, and the gender non-conforming person binding their breasts. I join them as together we ask what, and who, are these things for?
Last year I decided I was done with underwire bras. I was done with push-up bras. 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 fretted over my decision, pouring over the websites that promised a revolutionary experience with the purchase of a wireless bra. I wondered just how flat I would look and if the comfort would be worth the price I would inevitably pay. Because without the underwire and the padding and all the extra bells and whistles, everyone would know my true 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 saying goodbye to whatever final vestiges of attention my breasts still conferred upon me.
It was not without considerable effort but I eventually 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 eleven. 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 pleasure. 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.
Want to read the full piece –
with the cultural critique included?
As always, thoughts and feedback welcome.