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Breast Proof photo

Given: A girl-body will grow breasts during puberty.

Given: Girls will absorb many different messages about breasts in their lifetime.

Given: Breasts are a source of shame and pleasure.

Prove: Your relationship to your breasts is totally fucked up.

Show your work.

My breasts showed up shortly after my first period arrived in February of eighth grade. At night, I’d lay in bed, cross my arms over my chest, and press down. I wanted a flat chest, nothing but bone. Why did the girls in Judy Blume books want breasts so badly? These were my ballet years, and breasts were as fatal to a ballerina as a broken leg to a racehorse. Please, please, go away. I’d look around the ballet studio and see that the very thin girls, the ones for whom light streamed in between their legs when they stood in first position, had small breasts. My ballet teacher told us that sixteen-year-old Judy Garland had to bind her breasts when she filmed The Wizard of Oz so she would appear “younger and more innocent.” Did I imagine that she was looking straight at me? I nodded because I understood. Now that I had breasts, I was the opposite of innocent; I was guilty.

On the way to school, we’d listen to the pop radio station where the jocular DJ solicited listener calls on random topics. One morning, a guy called in and told the story of how his buddy installed a shower door improperly and the top piece of glass slid out of place and sliced off his buttocks. Fascinated, I tried to picture this horrifying mishap, no doubt exaggerated to entertain Dallas commuters. I daydreamed for years about a similar accident befalling me, but instead of losing my butt cheeks, my breasts would be sheared clean off my chest.

I hated my breasts because they were composed of fat, and what was more despicable than fat? I learned that fat was bad at home when my mom served me dinner after Mass on a small plate so that I would eat less. And when my country Grandma joked that it was obvious to everyone that liked to eat dessert (which I did). And when my bayou Grandmother hinted that my body would look better if it fit into smaller clothes. And when my ballet teacher teased me for buttering my dinner roll. And when a kid at school poked my stomach and called me chubby. And when a friend told me she’d never be able to borrow my clothes because they were too big. And when the studio audience laughed every time the fat character named Freddie “Rerun” Stubbs on What’s Happening! danced. When I added all of that up, I concluded that fat was a terrible offense that would snatch away your personhood like a bully snatching the hat off your head. What I wanted, more than anything, was for my appetite to disappear along with the fatty flesh of my body.

My mom bought me two white Maidenform bras in ninth grade, but I outgrew them almost instantly and was too shy to ask for new ones. I didn’t want to stand before a dressing room mirror staring at my breasts in white cups, and I suspected my Mom didn’t either. We tacitly agreed to ignore my breasts, even as they spilled out of my bras. In the middle of sophomore year, my friend Catie lost weight, which shrank her breasts from double D’s to B’s. “Want these?” she said, handing me a paper bag full of custom-made bras that no longer fit her. These bras were stiff wonders of wire, off-white lace, and straps as thick as rulers. They looked like something a grandma from the Old Country would drape over a clothesline on wash day. More brassiere than bra. I hated that they fit me but was grateful they solved the problem of what to do with my breasts. I wore those bras for the next six years.

My parents never said a word about my breasts, and I’m not here to claim they should have greeted me with a “nice tits, kiddo” when I modeled my prom dress with the sweetheart neckline. The silence was a kind of care that swirled with shame. What could we begin to say about the mounds of flesh on my chest? Their unspeakableness proved I should hide them—like addiction or teen pregnancy. I had no language for how I felt about my changing body, my burgeoning self-loathing, or the death of myself as a dancer and innocent. I couldn’t begin to speak about the fear coursing through every fantasy and self-deprecating quip. Underneath every “God, I’m so fat,” was a third rail of terror. I feared attracting sexual attention because of my breasts, but I was confused. I imagined everyone hated them as much as I did, even though I knew that men liked to eat chicken wings at Hooters and look at big-breasted women in Playboy.

In college and throughout my twenties, I picked boyfriends who paid little attention to my breasts. It was easy to hide my body behind their booze and beneath my own dissociation. In half of those relationships, I left my bra on during sex, and no one complained. Once, in a hot tub in a border town in South Texas, a guy I had a crush on cupped my breasts under the steamy bubbles, and I scooted away. He moved toward me, tried again, and I scooted away again. We did this until we arrived back in our original positions next to the ladder. A complete 360-degree chase. He was a nice enough—a blonde guy from Houston who drove an Acura and was headed to law school—but I’d frozen in my fear. Still no language. Still unable to imagine any pleasurable possibilities.

My mom did make one comment, though not until I was thirty-two years old, living alone in Chicago, working as a lawyer, and desperately afraid I would die alone. I called her, crying, in the still-raw bullseye of a devastating break up with a man I thought I’d marry. “You’re going to be okay,” Mom said with conviction and compassion. “You won’t be alone for long. You’re pretty, smart, and you have big boobs. What else do guys want?”

Not until I met my husband in my mid-thirties was I capable of experiencing pleasure around my breasts. In him, I found safety, which turned out to be a prerequisite for pleasure. But listen, the pleasure has never been unfettered. I get around my long-standing disgust of my ungainly breasts by closing my eyes during sex. Sometimes I also hold my breath because I can’t take one more minute of feeling my breasts jiggle. So much proof that I failed at being skinny. I can let go as long as I don’t have to look. For years, after I’d let him touch me and after the rush of pleasure left us spent and drowsy, a cry would well up and spill over. Only then could I grieve all those years I fantasized about the violence I wished on my body.

One of my favorite authors wrote an essay about her breast reduction surgery. From the title and picture alone, I felt consumed by the thickest envy. It took me months to read the entire essay accompanying the triumphant picture of her on the cover of the magazine: shoulders back, white tank top, steely I-take-no-shit stare. Of course, no bra because she didn’t need those anymore. I no longer fantasized about a plate of glass slicing my body, but I wanted a surgeon’s scalpel to make my chest look like hers. I’d go one size smaller, actually. The day after I finally read the essay, a former colleague met me for lunch, and while standing in line for salads, she opened one flap of her jacket like an old-school flasher. “Did I tell you what I did?” she asked. A reduction. Of course. “Look, Ma, no bra!” she joked of her perky new B-cups. That night I cried to my husband. I wanted a reduction too, but more than that, I wanted to not want one. I wanted them not to exist. I wanted this grief to not exist.

“There’s a flip side to this,” my friend Mary said when I shared an early draft of this essay. “What about all the women who pay to have breast enhancements every year. There are more women getting enhancements than reductions.” Mary’s brilliant, works in the medical field, and knows her way around statistics. No way, I thought, but then each of my four internet searches proved me wrong: 300,000 women undergo breast augmentation surgery every year, and only 90,000 women undergo breast reduction surgery.  What’s most upsetting about these numbers is that somewhere there’s a woman pining for—saving up for—breasts as big as mine (though she probably wants hers to face forward, not two downward facing dogs like mine), and I’m over here, wishing I could have her A’s or B’s. My friend Annie jokes that there should be a Breast Bank where women can make deposits of their unwanted breast tissue, and others can withdraw their desired amounts.

When I see those statistics, I feel angry about the twenty plus years of therapy where I’ve worked so hard for so long to love and accept my body exactly as it is. Breathing, meditating, crying, gnashing, affirming, blessing. I’m grateful for my breasts. Thank you, breasts, for all your service. Each session an exercise in dismantling body dysmorphia and the layers of trauma and misogyny underneath. Why’d I bother with all that when I could enlist a surgeon to sculpt my breasts according to my wishes, warped as they are by my toxic culture? And yes it’s the most feminist act in the world to take charge of your body and do whatever the fuck you want with it and to it. I want that for every single body on the planet. The problem for me is that what I want is so coated with misogyny, the grooves of self-hate are so slick and deep, that I can’t possibly trust my footing. When it comes to my body, I can’t tell the difference between liberation and escalating traumatization.

In a city two states away from mine, I attended an annual conference with thousands of writers. On the last morning of the conference, I woke up early and installed myself on a treadmill, my body desperate for movement after three days of sitting through panels and poetry readings. Four treadmills over I noticed the woman walking briskly was the writer whose breast reduction story lingered on my laptop for all those months. I smiled to myself and prayed to forget her presence so I could run my miles and then catch my flight. I wouldn’t let myself look at her again—she deserved her privacy, and I didn’t want to fuel my work-out with envy that she hadn’t strapped herself into a complicated running bra with underwire that cost $75 and dug into her flesh. Halfway through my running, my body heated and humming, I felt strong. And I felt a rush of freedom. Endorphins, sure, but also something closer to surrender: I have the body I have, and this body has large breasts, and I can still run, write, eat nachos with a writer friend who lives in Texas, and look out the window at the horizon and imagine a future for this body that includes grief, longing, ecstasy, fury, terror, pleasure, connection. All of it—all of it is coming for me, coming for this body. I don’t have to covet the other writer’s body; her body is beautiful to me, and I hope it’s beautiful to her. The world is full of bodies that carry stories, some of which will be told and others that will go unspoken.

This story about my body is changing. The morning on the treadmill is the proof.

What changed? How did it change? My friend Dina says every woman lucky enough to turn 50 will hit the fuck-it point and stop caring what she looks like, what other people think. Maybe. Maybe the trick truly is living long enough to slip out from under the male gaze and all your toxic training. Maybe, however, it was more than a milestone birthday. Maybe it was also being sick with a terrible virus—so sick I feared I might never exercise or lift my head without the woosh of pain at my temples or enjoy any activity without the fear of physical collapse again. And maybe it was getting sick again six weeks later and reliving all of those fears, wondering if the rest of my life would be a series of illnesses punctuated by brief periods of wellness. All that sickness and uncertainty made me want to be an ally to my own body, to cradle it as I had my children when they nursed. Being sick scared me into telescoping my focus and made me finally, finally want to feel healthy more than I wanted to feel anything else, including svelte in a button-down shirt. I want to nail down the specifics of my own internal shift but trying to figure out why I saw my body as beautiful and strong next to the other writer’s strong, beautiful body diffuses the vision and dissipates the freedom. It is enough to say it happened: The girl who fantasized about slicing off her breasts became a woman who could tolerate her body as it is and let her breasts be.