My right breast developed first, during a family vacation in Minnesota, with its shimmering lakes, rolling green hills, and annoying mosquitos. It was the summer I was twelve and in love with David Cassidy and his song "How Can I Be Sure." One morning I noticed that my right nipple was supported by a small mound of swollen flesh. The left remained flat. I panicked. What if the other one never changed? What if I only developed one breast? Had this ever happened before? Could it happen?
I tried to talk to my mother about it, though I knew she would probably not help. The only things she ever told me about my sexuality were, "Don't have sex until you're married," and "You can get pregnant the very first time." When I started my period (a few months before my breast sprouted) she just gave me some Kotex pads and explained how to wear them. But I was really freaked out by the one-sided bosom I was growing, so on a walk around the lake, I asked her.
"Has there ever been a woman who only had one breast?"
"Well, sometimes women have cancer and they have a breast removed."
"But has there ever been a woman who only grew one?"
"Not that I know of," she said.
"Sometimes things happen for the first time, right?"
"I guess it could, but I don't think it will."
This conversation did not make me feel better and I remember worrying all summer about blossoming into the freakish one-breasted woman. Fortunately, the left side caught up with the right and somewhere around eighth grade I got my first bra.
My mother took me to JCPenney to buy it and she and the saleslady fussed over me while I tried on every sensible white cotton training bra in stock. She may have missed the opportunity to soothe the fears I had about my breasts, but she dedicated her life to taking care of me. Hers were full and large, those of a mother who had breastfed her children at a time when most other mothers were feeding their babies formula. They were comforting to lean against, but they were not the kind of breasts I wanted. To me, large breasts meant you were a mother and your whole life was about taking care of other people. They meant you stayed married to a man you'd stopped loving years ago "for the good of the children." I didn't want breasts like my mother's and I didn't want a life like hers; I knew that at twelve.
"How does it feel honey?" my mother asked, each time I tried on a bra.
"Okay," I answered.
But I lied. What I remember most clearly about my first bra is how uncomfortable I thought it was—those adjustable straps that never seemed to be set right, always drooping off my shoulder, or digging into my flesh; the tight elastic gripping my back. Wearing a bra felt weirder than wearing a Kotex pad, more uncomfortable than pantyhose.
My anxiety about growing only one breast was the first in a series of emotional traumas involving my bosom. The second happened in Texas, the summer after my freshman year in high school. I was fifteen. My breasts had developed into a 32B. They would stay that size for several decades. My best friend Cindy and I had each saved up enough money from our summer jobs at the Dairy Queen to ride Greyhound from Kansas to Texas, accompanied by Cindy's aunt, to visit some of her relatives. I stared out the window as the bus drove through yellow wheat fields, wondering what Texas would be like.
When I got there, I was disappointed to learn that it was almost exactly like Kansas. At least the part I saw was. Her relatives lived in suburban ranch houses that could have been anywhere in America: a large television the focal point in the family room, harvest gold appliances in the kitchen, beige wall to wall carpeting in every room but the kitchen, which had a yellow and white linoleum floor. We were without a car and dependent on adults to shuttles us around. There were two families, the aunt's and a cousin's, living on a kind of compound, with homes adjacent to each other. The larger of the houses had a pool and we spent most of the day in our bikinis, drinking Coke, spreading Johnson's Baby Oil and Coppertone on our bodies, working on our suntans. Cindy flirted with a neighbor guy named Chris, who was tall, gangly and slightly pimply.
My most memorable experience in Texas, happened after midnight. I woke up in the smaller house, worried about starting my period, and discovered I had left my purse by the pool. My Kotex pads were in it, along with my bubble gum-flavored lip gloss, a pink plastic wallet, and a brush. I was new to this period thing. It always caught me by surprise. I had not yet learned to count the days and be ready, just as I had not yet learned to think of my purse as another arm, impossible to leave behind. The thought of bleeding all over someone's sheets was terrifying.
I went outside, wearing my thin cotton nightgown, saw just where I had to go in the moonlight, sprinted across what I thought was an open yard, picking up speed, energized by the night air. I made it all the way across and the pool was in sight, when I was stopped, stunned by the sharp edges of a barbed wire fence cutting into my breasts. The wires were dark, invisible, blended into the night sky.
I gasped when I saw the blood on my chest, the rips in my nightgown. But I had to complete my mission, so I crawled under the fence, grabbed my purse, made my way back, went to the bathroom, put on my Kotex so I would be ready, and checked out the damage to my breasts. There was a cut on each side, the left one worse. It was jagged. I knew it would scar. Wiping off the blood with toilet paper, I went into the bedroom.
"Cindy, wake up," I said.
"I cut myself on the barbed wire fence. I think I need stitches."
She woke up, looked at my wound, which didn't seem so bad now that the blood was gone, and giggled when I told her what had happened.
"You should have taken me with you. I would have gone," she said.
We discussed the situation and decided stitches weren't necessary. The wounds weren't that deep. The scars would be small. We didn't want to wake anyone up, and go to the emergency room. Better just to dab on some hydrogen peroxide and not say what happened.
"Do you think any man will ever want to have sex with me?" I asked her.
Cindy had spent the entire afternoon making out on the trampoline with Chris. She was much more experienced than I was. I hadn't even been kissed yet.
"Of course they will," she said, with the certainty of a fifteen-year-old girl who had already had two boyfriends and just made out with a Texan. "Men don't care about things like that."
But I was not so sure. No sex scenes I had ever read in a book described a woman with scarred breasts. I felt my desirability was compromised. I mused dramatically that no man would ever know what my left breast looked like before the barbed wire ripped into it. Cindy thought this was hilarious.
Now they don't really look much different from any other woman's breasts. The scar has never completely faded but it is small, not raised, practically imperceptible. A thin white line a couple of inches above the nipple. I usually forget that it is there. Cindy was right: men won't usually notice it. Once, when a boyfriend asked about it, I nonchalantly said, "Oh that. I got it in Texas."
These were my braless years. I was in my twenties, living in San Francisco, having moved immediately after graduating from the University of Kansas. The city was definitely not like Kansas. It wasn't flat and in the middle of the Great Plains. San Francisco was built on seven hills. Kansas was suburban. San Francisco was urban. In Kansas, my favorite restaurant was IHOP, where waiters and waitresses wore cotton uniforms with name tags on their chests. Diner coffee was served from plastic decanters.
The first San Francisco restaurant I went to was Hamburger Mary's. Baby bottles of milk for French roast coffee sat on the tables. Slices of nine-grain bread sandwiched hamburgers. Cocktails came in mayonnaise jars. My topless waiter had golden earrings in his nipples. I felt at home and dazzled.
Diane Keaton was my braless role model that decade. The androgynous style she started in Annie Hall made wearing a bra seem hopelessly frumpy. Diane as Annie looked absolutely cool and sexy to me when she walked around Manhattan fighting with Woody Allen, wearing a spaghetti strap sundress and no bra. She was ravishing when she sat on the bed in her cotton panties and T-shirt, avoiding sex. I loved her in the big, baggy men's shirt and vest she wore when she and Woody drank white wine together on her patio and he wondered what she looked like naked.
Who needed a bra? My breasts were just fine without one.
Being braless on the weekend, when I lived in baggy shirts and Levis, explored the bars in North Beach and the Haight, danced at clubs in the newly emerging South of Market district, and protested with The Dead Kennedy's at Rock Against Reagan concerts, was easy. It was a little more complicated at my office jobs, but Diane Keaton had taught me how to wear professional clothes without a bra in Manhattan, my other Woody Allen favorite. Her blouses in that movie were elegantly loose, usually worn with a jacket. Was she or wasn't she wearing something underneath?
This was the look I aspired to when I worked in the ad sales department of a news magazine. I was an administrative assistant. The man I assisted was George, a womanizing alcoholic and recreational cocaine user who enjoyed sexually harassing me. Since this was pre-Anita Hill, I didn't know that was what he was doing. I just thought he was joking around. In addition, he often told me how incompetent I was as his assistant. When in top form, he did both at the same time.
I liked George and I wanted him to like me. He was smart, funny and confident, like the cool older boys in high school whose attention I had craved but never received. He often asked me if I was wearing a bra, and I always said it was none of his business. But I was secretly flattered that he had noticed. Once he said to me, "Julie you have terrible typing skills. The only reason I don't fire you is because I like the shape of your breasts."
I wish I had been confident enough to say, "Stop being such an asshole, George." I wish I had been savvy enough to hire a good lawyer and sue the company that let him get away with this kind of behavior. (Our co-workers often heard the things he said to me; no one ever told him to stop.) I was neither confident nor savvy in my twenties. I was naïve, just learning how to survive on my own. I needed a job and George made me feel incompetent, so when he told me that my breasts were the reason he kept me, I said nothing. My 32Bs seemed to be all that stood between me and unemployment.
When I chose to, I could fill out my bra. Without it, there was a soft roundness and a subtle bounce beneath my baggy blouses. Sometimes, if I wore silk, there was the small outline of a nipple. Yes, the bounce and outline said, I have breasts and I am not ashamed of them. I liked the perkiness. If men noticed and liked the way they looked under my loose blouses, I felt attractive. I never flaunted my breasts, though, never tried to make them look bigger or showed any flesh. That was tacky.
At some point in the eighties, Woody replaced Diane Keaton with Mia Farrow in his films. Diane Keaton began wearing bras on screen, and Madonna began her reign. Madonna of the bustiers, cleavage, breastplates and visible garters. I did not really like her music or style. I thought it was a bit crass, that she would be a mere blip on the pop culture radar screen. I was certain that Cindy Lauper, with her rainbow-colored hair and big voice would become the superstar singer. Cindy's song, "Girls Just Want To Have Fun," was my anthem that decade; its lyric, "When the working day is done, oh girls they want to have fun" often ran through my head as I told George to mind his own business.
I was wrong about Cindy and Madonna. Cindy went her quirky way. Madonna became a cultural icon and changed the way women dressed in the late eighties, just as Diane had in the late seventies. Lingerie came out of the closet; the line between underwear and outerwear began to blur. Bras became not only something to support your breasts, but a fashion accessory. They could be worn the traditional way, under your clothes, or if you were bold enough and going to a concert or club, they could be worn as tops. The braless, baggy blouse look was out. Cleavage was in.
I bought myself a bra for the first time in 1990. Since the seventies, my mother bought me two every Christmas, and since I wore them so infrequently they lasted the entire year. Starting in high school, they were always the same: 32B, Jockey For Her, flesh-colored, hook in the front, 100% cotton, no underwires to dig into your flesh, soft fabric, straps that were easy to adjust, as comfortable as a bra could get. But ultimately, the day came when I needed to buy a bra for myself. I was going away for a romantic weekend with my new boyfriend and I wanted something sexy. Something lacy and black. Something my mother wouldn't choose for me.
I went to Macy's lingerie department. It was overwhelming. Bras were everywhere: black, white, flesh-colored, champagne, pink, purple, and aquamarine; hook in the front, hook in the back, hookless; lace, satin, and cotton, underwire, training, sports, padded, push-up, and strapless; bras that looked like corsets. Racks and racks and racks.
I felt like I was drowning but forced myself to focus, to search for exactly the right one. This proved challenging. I found some styles I liked, but where was my size? Where was my sexy, lacy, black, 32B, romantic weekend bra? There were almost as many sizes as there were styles: 32A, 32AA, 34B, 34C, 34D, 36A, 36B, 36C, 36D, 38B, C, D, and so on. All these sizes, all these styles.
Eventually I saw it: the black lace bra of my dreams in a size 32B. It was perfect. Hook in the front with easy-to-adjust straps. It had wires, but I was willing to compromise when I tried it on and saw what this bra did: it made me seem fuller, rounder, altogether sexier.
My boyfriend really liked it and it was exciting when he unhooked it. It lasted much longer than the boyfriend did. Wearing it always made me feel sexy.
A year after I bought this bra, I finished graduate school and began working as an editor for a hospital newsletter. The word "editor" was broadly defined. I researched, wrote, proofread and revised every article for the hospital. I took the research part seriously, so when I wrote an article on mammograms, I decided to get one, even though they were not recommended for women under forty, unless there was a history of breast cancer in the family. I wanted to be thorough.
I took my shoes, bra, blouse and skirt off, put on one of those flimsy hospital gowns. A nurse gave me a fake breast made of plastic and gooey gel. I was to examine this and look for lumps so I would know what they felt like when I examined my own breasts, which I was instructed to do every month. The fake lumps in the fake breast felt like hard pea-sized rocks swimming in Jell-O. I had never felt anything like them.
For the mammogram, I took off the gown and the x-ray technician took the flesh of each breast, placed it between two pieces of hard plastic and turned on a machine that made a buzzing, whirring sound as it compressed. It hurt. Each breast was taken in and out of its plastic sandwich several times so it could be x-rayed from all angles.
While the right one was being x-rayed for the second time, I wondered: What will happen if there is a major earthquake with my breast locked in this machine? I imagined it being severed, staying with the plastic.
Afterward, I was instructed to go into another room, lie bare-chested on an examining table while blue gel was smeared over my right breast and an apparatus that looked like a telephone receiver was rubbed over it. I didn't like seeing my breast tissue displayed on the screen and I hated the intermittent beeping sound. This was not a part of my research. Why was I here?
I found out twenty minutes later when I had a perfunctory conference with a technician, a bland-looking woman in a green hospital jacket.
"There is a spot on the mammogram. We're not sure what it is. You need to take your x-rays to a specialist and have them interpreted."
Someone gave me the name of a doctor, one of the top breast men in the city, and I made an appointment to show him my x-rays. I can still see the expression on his face as he meticulously examined each of my breasts. His eyes were unfocused, intensely dreamy; his fingertips moved up and down and around, like a declawed cat's paw. His lips were pursed, his head tilted back a little. He concentrated with his fingers. He was experienced.
"Well," he told me, after I had my top back on, "based on the x-rays and the examination, there is a small chance, maybe five percent, maybe less, that you have cancer."
He recommended a biopsy. Since my breast tissue was young, it was dense and this made interpreting the x-rays tricky. It also made a needle biopsy impossible - whatever was showing up on the x-rays would be too hard to locate with a needle. They would have to do a traditional biopsy, cut into my breast, take out a chunk of flesh. There would be a scar. A big one.
"My wife had this done, and I still love her," this breast man told me.
Well, I don't have a husband who will still love me, I thought, and I don't want a chunk taken out of my breast unless I'm sure it's the only option. If there was a five percent chance that I had cancer, there was a ninety-five percent chance I didn't.
"You can get a second opinion," he said.
And I did. I got several. I did what I have always done in times of crisis: I polled my girlfriends. We did not immediately trust a doctor just because of his (or occasionally her) title. We believed in exploring all options.
The second doctor looked like Santa Claus with short hair, a trimmed beard and a lab coat. His blue eyes studied my x-rays; his fat fingers examined my breasts.
"I don't see anything particularly alarming here," he said. "Why don't you wait six month and get another mammogram. Since you're young, if it is cancer, it will be aggressive and there will be a visible change."
When I asked him if he would refer me to an acupuncturist, he smiled patronizingly. "That couldn't do any harm," he said.
Dr. Li had a storefront office in Chinatown. It was small, dark and smelled of herbs and incense. I liked it. He had been a doctor in China, his English was minimal, but he understood breast, he understood mammogram, he understood cancer.
After taking my pulse, looking at my tongue and examining me, he said "Not cancer, blocked energy." He told me if I came once a week for six month he would unblock it.
I trusted him. He moved confidently around his office, obviously knew what he was doing when he inserted needles into my feet, my ankles, my wrists, my arms, my head.
"You have boyfriend?" he asked, after I'd been seeing him for a few months.
"No," I said.
"Why not? You so beautiful."
"I don't know why not."
"Maybe you too particular."
Go to hell, I thought.
There was no change on my second mammogram, or the third a year later. My breasts and I moved into the new decade together.
Both my breasts and I changed this decade. While I grew professionally, became a high school English teacher and finally learned what it was like to have work that fulfilled me, my breasts just grew.
My mother noticed before I did. I still had my sexy black lace bra and I thought it still fit, but once, while teaching the perfect tenses, I leaned over a student and felt a strange sensation under my blouse: my breasts had bounced forward a bit, almost touching him on his shoulder. The bra's front hook had popped open.
This should have been a sign to me, but I've always been good at denial. I thought the hook was wearing out, so I bought three ten-dollar bras at Ross Dress for Less. I didn't even try them on. I knew my size.
On my mother's annual visit, she said, "Honey, I think you need a different brassiere. Maybe you should go to Macy's and get measured."
What was she talking about? I'd gained some weight, but I was only a size ten, not exactly full-figured. My Ross Dress for Less bras fit around my back. Sure, a little flesh spilled out the sides, but big deal. I resisted getting measured until I saw a picture of myself wearing a clingy t-shirt and one of my bargain bras, leaning into my three-year-old nephew. Seeing my breasts shocked me out of denial. They looked bulging, bovine, like they needed to be milked. Clearly, my bras were not big enough to contain them.
Gritting my teeth, I went back to the lingerie department at Macy's, which had not changed since I bought the black lace bra.
"I need to get measured," I said to the first salesperson I saw.
She nodded, brought over the tape, circled it around the circumference of my back, then measured the front of my chest.
"36C" she said.
I thought I might faint. "What? That's impossible. I can't be that size."
"Well, I think you are dear," she said.
"But I can't be."
"Well, maybe a 34C would work," she said.
But it wasn't the 34 or 36 that freaked me out. It was the C. My whole life I'd been a B cup. I had a B cup personality. I liked casual, loose clothing that de-emphasized my bosom. Showing my cleavage made me feel silly, like I was wearing a costume. Diane Keaton, not Madonna, had been my teenage role model of how to be sexy. Audrey Hepburn, not Marilyn Monroe, was the screen goddess I worshipped.
Though I'd accepted them into my wardrobe, I still did not really like bras. They were expensive, they were uncomfortable, they used to be optional. To me, bigger breasts meant I was getting old; my "Girls just want to have fun" days were over. They meant the weight I'd gained was solid, not something that would go away after just a week or two of aerobics classes like it used to. My body and my life were changing and I wasn't ready. I still felt like a girl. Bigger breasts meant I wasn't one anymore.
I wandered the aisles, trying to come to terms with my new size, found some bras that didn't look too intimidating, tried them on. They were okay, no wires. I bought two in the smallest recommended size: 34C. I needed to ease into this brave new world of lost youth.
Watching television one night, I saw a Victoria's Secret ad. Stick-thin models with full, perfect breasts and angel wings floated around the screen, heavenly music accompanying them. I was both offended and seduced by the images: I knew the standard of female beauty they promoted was impossible to achieve, yet I couldn't deny that they were beautiful. And I wanted to feel beautiful. I decided to buy my next bra at Victoria's Secret, the store that had elevated woman to ethereal heights.
The salesperson there was the no-nonsense type. She insisted on measuring me.
"You are a 36C," she said when she finished.
"Okay," I thought, "I guess I am."
I tried on something called a Wonderbra: a push-up, cleavage-maximizing contraption I'd seen pictures of in a catalog. Seeing my size 36C breasts thrusting skyward, with a deep cleft in between them was awful. They looked like fleshy torpedoes ready to attack. The Wonderbra was obviously meant for someone smaller-breasted or bolder.
The salesperson knew a buyer when she saw one. She brought me baskets of bras in every style, every color.
"If you open an Angel Card, you'll get an extra ten percent off," she said.
What the hell, I thought. When I left the store, I had charged over three hundred dollars on my new Angel Card and I had six new bras.
I've worn them for a year now. I'm still getting used to my new body. Part of this process has involved finding a word to describe it. Voluptuous is not right. I can't pull off voluptuous. I'm a C, not a double D. Zaftig has always meant fat to me. Ditto for Rubenesque. Matronly? Not if I can help it. Definitely not maternal. I decided a long time ago that my breasts are never going to feed anyone. When I look at the teenage girls in my classroom, with their developing bodies, nose rings, sparkly lip gloss, and Britney Spears-inspired cleavage, they seem so utterly vulnerable. Their breasts are still so new to them; the stories of their lives as women yet to be written. I feel an urge to protect them, knowing that I can't.
I've decided that womanly is good. I think I can do womanly.
Title image "Wonder" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2015.