An (In)Complete Guide to Having Breasts*: A Woman’s Cup Compendium

*aka Jugs, Melons, Knockers, Titties, Hooters, Headlights1

If you are a woman (and if you are, hi! hello! this guide is for you!2), you have something in common with almost all women everywhere.  That is to say that you have breasts. Or you will have them someday (I see you, tween readers).  Now, some of you have exceptionally large ones (like, whoa) while others of you have breasts that stopped growing almost before they even started.  But either way, grow they did (or will), and every woman needs a guide; a helpmate, if you will, on the path of estrogen-fueled fat growth (that’s what happens, btw, when your breasts start to grow).  To that end, I offer you these eight pointers (pun intended) for living with breasts.

Before we begin, however, you might be wondering about my qualifications.  What makes me uniquely suited to be your guide for the journey? It’s simple, really.  I have breasts. Not only that but I used to have pretty big ones. We’re not talking double J’s or anything.  They weren’t 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.  

However, it’s not the size of my breasts but rather what happened to them that uniquely qualifies me to take your hand and walk a ways down the path with you.  You see, a few years ago, my breasts mysteriously started shrinking. I know. Weird, right? First it was just a cup size. No big deal. It happens to a lot of women when they finish breastfeeding.  I bought some smaller bras and went on my merry way. But then I lost another cup size. And then another. All told I went from a DD to a B cup in less than three years. 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 a dozen questions, but in the end she shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. The chart note from my annual check up that year reads: “Breast atrophy.  Cause unknown.”

So I have walked through the world with breasts both big and small.  This has allowed me the rare vantage point of having been both a voluptuous woman and a “flat” woman .  This is not to say that I have firsthand experience with every sort of breast in the world or every sort of experience that a woman might have with her breasts.  But I’ve had, perhaps, more than most, and I should like to think that I will be a companionable and competent guide to you as you press on in this very confusing journey.  Let’s get started!


Signpost ahead!  Stay vigilant!

(Or: Did you think those things were yours?  That’s funny.)

Ok, so every woman reaches this signpost at some point in her life.  Usually earlier than later. You’d been living your life, minding your own business, for the past however-many years (depending on when you started puberty and believe me, tweens, not everyone starts in second grade like Susie Sandoval did) believing that your body was yours.  As far as you had always known, your arms, legs, torso, breasts, butt, brain and so forth, were yours to do with as you liked. How could you have known?

When I was ten, I was perched on the back of our brown and white-striped 80’s-style sofa with my nose in a book when my mom marched out of the laundry room clutching a tired-looking grocery bag in one hand.  She took a deep breath, looking like she was about to tell me that my dog had died, and announced in a resolute voice that she and my father had decided it was time for me to start wearing a bra. Before I could even open my mouth to say “WHO SAY WHAT NOW?  You and Dad WHAT?!?,” she simply proffered the grocery bag, which, it turns out, was full of hand-me-down bras from my also-early-to-bloom older sister, and walked away.

It is a waypost past which every woman must walk.  Whether delivered by the comment of a classmate, the smirk of a boy with the subtlety of a skunk in heat, or, as in my case, the kind voice of an insistent mother, it is the moment we learn something crucial about our bodies.  It is the moment we learn that something we thought was private is in fact quite public. Something we thought belonged only to us evidently belongs to everyone.

Image result for men catcalling

This is a significant moment in every woman’s life — even if she doesn’t realize it at the time.   This is the moment at which she understands, perhaps for the very first time, that there are people who believe that her body — and in particular her breasts — belong to them.  That they are theirs to comment on, look at, disparage, praise, or even grab at will.  For this reason, we must stay vigilant. They do not belong to men. Admittedly your mom might need to encourage you to wear a bra to, say, gymnastics practice if you are already a B cup and bouncing around with abandon in your leotard3, but that’s understandable.  Commendable even. Anyone else having a say?  Not so much. But they’ll try. Oh, they’ll try.


We love them!  We hate them! Or maybe we hate you?  Tough call.

This is a tricky one, even for the most seasoned of us breast bearers, but I know you’ll be able to track with me.  Here’s the deal: Men appear to both love and hate our breasts. At the same time.

Let’s start with the love.  I doubt you need evidence. Breasts are literally everywhere; an endless homage to men’s love for them.  Billboards, magazine covers, park benches and the backs of city buses. We emblazon them on literally everything.  Need to sell some hex wrenches or a baseball glove? Just throw a boob on it. Beer? Throw a boob on it. Cars? Cockroach Spray?  Plumbing Services? Just slap a busty woman next to your brand name and it’s sure to sell. We’ve even got things like “breastaurants” (think Hooters) and “bikini barista” joints with clever names like Mugs & Jugs and Natte Latte because, you know, apparently sipping espresso and downing some fries is best done with some décolletage.4

But wait!  Don’t forget that men hate them, too.  I told you it was confusing. See, if you use your breasts to do something men consider untoward, like breastfeeding, say, all bets are off.  Men don’t like that. Nursing women get kicked off of airplanes, out of department stores, churches, restaurants, you name it. In July of 2018 a woman was kicked out of an aquatic center in Mora, Minnesota for breastfeeding in a public space.  The staff at the pool even went so far as to call the police, who eventually convinced the mother to leave, despite the fact that Minnesota state law allows women to breastfeed “in any location, public or private,” and “irrespective of whether the nipple of the mother’s breast is uncovered.”  

If you haven’t seen this in action, just wait a year or two.  The topic will inevitably resurface, as it always does, and you can see for yourself as our talk show hosts weigh in on whether or not folks “need to see that” and our elected representatives debate at length over whether women can be charged with a misdemeanor (she can’t, btw) for exposing her nipples during the act of breastfeeding a child in public.

See what I’m saying?  They love our breasts and they hate our breasts.  And if there is one woman who knows this better than anyone else, it’s Janet Jackson.  Depending on your age, you may or may not remember the SuperBowl halftime show in 2004 but it was a doozy.  Let me brief you: Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake were performing together and it was being broadcast live throughout the country.  During a planned move, Timberlake was supposed to pull part of Jackson’s costume off to reveal one side of her red bra. But he accidentally pulled the whole thing off!   So everyone who was watching (143.6 million people) saw Janet Jackson’s nipple for 9/16th of a second. Go grab the stopwatch you got for Christmas in third grade and see if you can get it to stop at 9/16th of a second.


Did Justin Timberlake get much flak for pulling off Jackson’s bra?  Not really. He was still invited to perform at the Grammy’s the next week and he went on to… well, you know what he went on to.  He’s a legend, right? But the country all but lost its collective mind over Janet Jackson. Her invitation to the Grammy’s was rescinded.  Radio stations across the country refused to play her songs and her music was blacklisted by Clear Channel Communications which owned both Infinity Broadcasting and Viacom, home to CBS and MTV.  The halftime “wardrobe malfunction’ resulted in over 540,000 complaints filed with the FCC, more than any other event in television history, and permanently changed the way we watch live TV with a censorship ruling that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2012.  Dang, right?

But guess what else happened?  At the very same time that all these viewers were filing complaints with the FCC and going on about the “declining morality in America,” — which is how Senator Zell Miller of Georgia described it, both on the floor of the United States Senate and in an editorial in Salon — the phrase “Janet Jackson Superbowl” was on its way to becoming the most Googled search term in history.5   The exposure of Jackson’s breast caused her personal popularity to plummet but it was still the video everyone had to have.  Men (and admittedly some women as well) might have hated Janet Jackson after the Superbowl. But they still wanted to see her boob.6

This juxtaposition of breasts glorified and breasts vilified is incredibly confusing.  Ultimately it reveals that there is a problem with the story men like to tell themselves.  Wanting to see breasts emblazoned on anything and everything from coffee mugs to mud flaps while at the very same time crucifying the bearer of such beautiful breasts for using or exposing them (or having them exposed for you) in ways that they do not approve tells us perhaps the truest story.  It tells us that maybe men don’t actually hate breasts at all. Maybe they just hate women. Tricky, no?

See, men believe that our breasts exist for their pleasure, their joy, their boredom, their masturbatory needs, their depression, anger, excitement, fatigue.  Take the Janet Jackson nip sitch. If our men truly loved women, it might have been expressed in concern over the deep embarrassment Jackson suffered during the Superbowl and its aftermath.  It might have been expressed in a circling of wagons around Jackson as she had to defend herself again and again and again and answer to the folks who lambasted her for her wardrobe malfunction.  Instead the exposure of her breast is one of the most viewed videos in internet history and Janet Jackson herself was burned at the stake for it.


When Your Breasts Gotta Code Switch7

Ok, ladies, this one is pretty straightforward.  If your breasts are big, you’re going to need to minimize that abundance in certain situations.  This shouldn’t be too hard to figure out but here’s a quick cheat sheet if you need help figuring out when and where to minimize that rack…

  • If you are walking alone at night
  • If you are walking alone during the day
  • If you are walking with friends, day or night
  • If you are walking down the sidewalk and there are cars on the street that might have men in them who might be capable of rolling down their windows
  • If you are hiking, jogging or just being a human alone and see a man on the trail or in the park
  • If your breasts are so big that they threaten men because they take up too much space.  Remember that space is reserved for men. You’ve got to stay small, girl. Pull that chest in.8
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On the flip side, if you don’t have much up top, no worries.  You can totally fake it if you want. Here’s your list for how to code switch…

  • Learn how to push those babies out, girl.   Butt out, back arched, chest forward.
  • Look into your bra options.  Your larger-busted friends don’t get to mess around. They’ve got to go in for strength and support and not much else.  But you’ve got more wiggle room… literally. There are basic push-ups, gel push-ups, molded and non-molded push-ups, removable mold push-ups, plunge push-ups and even push-up extremes which promise to “increase” your bust size by a full cup.  
  • Hold up, though.  Don’t forgot that once you look like you’ve got bigger boobs – even though you don’t – you’re going to need to refer to the section above and pull back a bit when your circumstances call for it.  Try to keep up.

See, here’s the thing:  According to research, the ideal cup size according to men in the United States is a C cup.  After that, some are down for a D cup and some for a B. But that’s really about it. And since there are a lot of women in the U.S. who fall outside those stringent perimeters, there are a lot of women who are going to need to code switch with their breasts and you might be one of them.  


Taking Matters into Your Own Hands

(Or: Should I Get a Boob Job?)

In 2015 there was an ad campaign by a group called DOCTORS Plastic Surgery with banner ads on subways and city buses in New York City.  It depicted a thin white woman in a tank top holding a pair of tangerines in front of her breasts.  She is pouting. Next to that there is an image of the same woman smiling. This time she is holding grapefruits in front of her breasts.  The tagline reads: “Breast Augmentation9 Made In New York –  $3900.”

What does that ad campaign tell us?  You’re smart. You already know what it tells us; that grapefruit-sized breasts are better than tangerine-sized ones.  Now, you and I know, intellectually at least, that this isn’t true but it’s hard to hold the line sometimes, isn’t it?   I guarantee that at some point each and every one of us has wondered if a different size might be better. I mean, how could you not with advertisements like that?  I understand. I’ve been there. But when you find yourself looking in the mirror and imagining what you would look like if you could lop your breasts off altogether or putting tissue in your bra to beef up that bulk, here are some things to consider so you know what you would be getting yourself into:

Females accounted for 92% (yes, that’s a LOT) of all cosmetic procedures in the United States in 2016 and the number one procedure was — surprise, surprise — breast augmentation.   The United States has the highest breast augmentation rates in the world. American women collectively forked out over one billion dollars last year for breast enhancements.10  

But contrary to the New York City advertisement, typical implant surgery actually costs roughly five to ten thousand dollars after all is said and done, not thirty-nine hundred.  The implants themselves will last about twenty years, give or take. But then your tatas will need additional attention and/or replacement, which is usually more costly and complicated due to the buildup of scar tissue from the first surgery.  Risks for both surgeries include bleeding, infection, leaking, rupturing, kinking of breast tissue, pain, and loss of sensation.


The Cat-Call

Saddle up, girl.  This one can be really confusing.  A cat-call is something nearly every woman experiences at some point in her life.  Before we dive in, here’s how the Oxford English dictionary defines cat-call: “A loud whistle or a comment of a sexual nature made by a man to a passing woman.”  

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I know, that doesn’t seem very confusing, does it?  A sexual comment. But let me give you a quick example of the confusing part.  When I was a sophomore in college I was on a walk with a friend when a car rolled past and a male voice shouted, “Hey!  Nice titties!11”  Now, since my breasts were then DDs and my friend’s barely a B, it was clear to both of us who the intended recipient of this particular cat-call was.  

My cheeks burned and my heart pounded (you know how that is) and I stared straight ahead and kept walking.  There was a long, low whistle and the blare of a horn and then the car rolled slowly past while the two men inside looked me up and down before finally speeding away.   My friend, in an obvious effort to ease the tension, put her hands over her own breasts and said, in a tone that was both bitter and wistful at the same time, “Well, they definitely weren’t talking to me!”   We laughed awkwardly and continued our walk.

But do you see why it was confusing for both of us?  While my friend was clearly relieved not to have been the recipient of the cat-call, she also seemed sad about it, if we’re being honest.  The men hadn’t paid her any attention at all. Her body didn’t command a second glance and now that my breasts are much smaller I understand and appreciate the feeling of invisibility this exclusion brings.  That’s the confusing part. We don’t want it but we still kinda want it. You see? Our culture has conferred the power to men to name what is desirable and who doesn’t want to be desirable?

As for my part that day I was incredibly uncomfortable, being leered at and spoken to in such a way, but I was also kinda, sorta pleased.  What I mean to say is that it made me feel good even as it made me feel gross. And it wasn’t the first time I had felt that way. When I was a teenager one of my coaches used to make subtle remarks about my breasts with a wink and a smile, a few of the boys on my diving team in high school thought it would be funny to name my breasts12, and more than one man at my church growing up made sly (and sometimes not so sly) reference to them.   

And usually the women who were in close proximity at the time of such remarks made their own comments as well,  like my friend on the walk that day, leaving me with no doubt that I was supposed to consider myself the lucky one.  I had the golden ticket. I had something men wanted. It was a secret weapon that I could wield should I ever feel unattractive or uninteresting, which I often did.   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. I had terrible acne and a burgeoning overbite but I sure was stacked.  Men noticed me. 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 females, we are socialized to desire the gaze and approval of men so it’s hard to know how to react to a cat-call.  Should we be pleased that men are noticing us? Would it be better if they didn’t? Which is worse — being noticed only for our breasts or not being noticed at all?  Honestly some days it feels like a tough call. I don’t want to be invisible. But I don’t want someone yelling “nice titties” at me from a moving car either.13


Ad (vertising)-ing to The Confusion

Did you know that you see as many as five thousand advertisements on any given day?  Billboards, magazines, ads or commercials on your phone, your television, your tablet.  Five thousand. In the 1970s, people only saw about 500 per day. Which is also a lot. But nowhere near five thousand.  That means that by the time you were 8-years-old, before you were cognitively or psychologically capable of comprehending the nuances of advertising, you had been exposed to (this is a conservative estimate) more than five million advertisements.  And one million of those were sexual in nature. What do I mean by “sexual in nature?” You guessed it. Boobs. Breasts are the most prominent and likely feature in sexualized ad content.

Advertisers rely heavily on something known as the repetition principle.  The repetition principle works like this: If something is repeated often enough, even if we know it intellectually to be false, we will eventually be persuaded by it.  Think of Geico. Geico is the perfect example.14  We might despise that ridiculous gecko but by sheer repetition over the last nineteen years, we can’t help but wonder if we, too, could save 15% or more by switching to Geico.  You see how that works? They repeated it so often for so long, it stuck.

So when advertisers endlessly exalt breasts as something that can sell, something that can soothe the rough edges off a mans’ hard day, something that can entertain men while they eat or make their morning commute just a little more scintillating as they blandly stare at the buxom woman emblazoned on the back of the bus, these advertisements repeat ad infinitum a very specific message that pushes into our collective psyche; the message that breasts don’t belong to the women who have them but to the men who look at them.  


A Brief Lesson in Physiology.

(Or, These Things Are WAY More Fun Than You’d Think)

Here are some things that your 6th grade health teacher probably never mentioned.  Here are some things your mom or dad likely forgot to include when they were explaining puberty and sex and all that fun stuff.   Women’s breasts are suffused with a vast network of nerves and a veritable cluster of nerve endings in the areola and nipple.  Why is that good news?  Let me tell you. It’s good news because more nerve endings = more sensation.  In other words, it feels good when someone (or you yourself) touch your breasts.  Better, say, than your belly or your back.

And this is a gift just for us ladies.  In male and female fetuses the nipple and areola develop almost identically and remain the same throughout infancy and into childhood.  But with the increase of estrogen and progesterone during puberty, the woman’s nipple and areola develops further with the growth of her breast and becomes much more sensitive (read: WAY MORE FUN TO TOUCH).   The guy’s nipple and areola, while it contains the same number of nerve endings, remains elementary. Poor guys.

Stimulation of the nipple prompts the production and release of prolactin and oxytocin.  Prolactin is important when a woman is nursing a baby because it promotes feelings of trust and bonding.  Oxytocin is important for sexual arousal and often results in nipple erection. Some women are even able to achieve orgasm by nipple stimulation alone (fun!) and recent research shows that sensations from the nipple travel to the same portion of the female brain as does the genitals.  On MRI the female nipple lights up the same area of the brain as the genital sensory cortex, making them prominent players in female pleasure and sexuality. Wouldn’t that have been fun to talk about during Mrs. McFarland’s My Body, My Way class in the school gym?


And A Brief Note, Before We Wrap This Up, for the Religiously-Raised Breast Bearers

I know all of my readers are not religious and if you aren’t, feel free to skip ahead.  We’ll catch up in a sec.

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.  As a child I knew only that El Shaddai was a Hebrew name for the God of Israel.   Beyond that it was anyone’s guess.  El , it turns out, 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 believe this to be inaccurate.  

One of the more likely renderings is something much more scandalous for church-going ears, be you Christian, Muslim or Mormon.  The Hebrew word shad or shadiyim means “breast” or “breasts” which could thus render El Shaddai as “God of Breasts.”   More palatable, I suppose, might be “God who Nourishes,” but I prefer the former.   I mean, c’mon! A Boob God? Now that’ll preach.

. . .

So there ya go, ladies.  

Your (in)complete guide to living a life with breasts.  Whether you are a cisgendered white woman like me, a transgendered woman considering implants, a gender non-conforming person binding your breasts, a cancer patient staring down a double mastectomy, black or brown, big or small, here’s the thing.  Here’s the one thing I want you know: Your breasts? They belong to noone but you. Are they confusing sometimes? You bet. Do you wish that men behaved better? No doubt. But your breasts are soft and smooth and lovely. They are portals of pleasure, imbued with innumerable nerve endings that can bring you sexual satisfaction (yay!).  They are conduits of nourishment that you can use, if you choose, to feed your children (amazing).  So don’t forget.  Don’t ever forget: Double E or Almost A, they are yours.  They are yours and you get to decide what to do with them.

  1. No, no, these terms aren’t used by women. These are only for men.
  2. Men, you are also welcome here!  When I use the term “men” in this guide, you understand that I don’t mean ALL men.  I’m sure you have never done any of the things described here.
  3. Happened to a friend
  4. Décolletage is the word we use when we want to say “cleavage” in an upscale way.  Basically it’s what comes out the top of your shirt or dress when you push your boobs together. It’s like a butt, up top.
  5. The astronomical number of searches for the Janet Jackson Superbowl video was a leading factor in the creation of YouTube.
  6. It’s also worth noting that it wasn’t simply that we saw Jackson’s breast.   It’s that we saw her black breast. In pulling off her costume Timberlake also pulled out the old Jezebel trope about black female sexuality.  But that’s another essay.
  7. This is a linguistic term meaning the alternating of two or more languages, usually within the same conversation.  But if you didn’t already know what code switching is, girl, you are probably white, and you’re going to need to do some additional work after you figure out this boob thing.  You got it. Keep learning.
  8. But not too far.  Gotta stay sexy.
  9. That’s a fancy phrase for “boob job.”  Sounds better. Less sleazy.
  10. That’s more than the government spent on funding organic fruits and vegetables. By a lot.
  11. Another term used almost exclusively by men
  12. “Twin Peaks” btw.  Originality wasn’t a strong suit.
  13. A moot point these days.  See introduction.
  14. Or that grapefruit / tangerine ad.  You know that your tangerine-sized breasts are just fine but still… when you see that ad every damn day on the billboard by your house, you start to wonder.