I am flat-chested. Remember when a woman was considered a "perfect 36" if she measured 36-24-36? Well, I'm like the one the comedian referred to when he said, "She's a perfect 36: 12-12-12." Some people tell me I look like a model—I am tall for a woman at five-foot-eight and thin at a hundred and thirty pounds—but I'd have to weigh a lot less than that to be a model. And I'd have to be built differently to say I have a good figure. When you have no breasts, your waist and hips look bigger than they really are—a fact I realized as soon as I hit adolescence.
Seventh grade, junior high school, 1959. I'm in the locker room, changing into my uniform for gym class—a navy-blue one-piece shorts-and-sleeveless-shirt ensemble that flatters no one, least of all skinny me. Looking around furtively, I am mortified to see the other girls are all wearing bras, with however little they have to fill them. Reluctantly, I take off my blouse to reveal a white cotton undershirt, but I feel naked. I alone am so flat-chested that I'm still wearing what little girls wear. Which is appropriate because I feel like a little girl—lost in a world where my peers of both sexes are suddenly looking at each other in a different way—a way I'm not quite prepared for.
I could have been spared that ignominious experience. My mother had offered to buy me a bra when we went shopping for school clothes that year, but I refused. I told her I didn't need one, which was true. But really, I just didn't want her and some strange saleswoman looking at my flat chest. Later that year I did begin to develop genuine breasts, and I assumed that they would grow to a decent size, but they never did. In fact, there are thirteen-year-olds who have breasts bigger than mine.
I imagine many women in my position would consider a boob job. I read in a magazine that the number of breast augmentation surgeries in the U.S. increased sixty-four percent between 2000 and 2008. But the idea of some foreign matter being inserted into my body gives me the creeps, and more importantly, having my breasts enlarged implies that there's something wrong with small ones. There isn't. I mean, what are breasts for? Strictly speaking, they are for nursing babies, which I did.
Also, breasts are part of lovemaking. A woman gets turned on by having her breasts stroked and kissed. And guess what? My breasts have worked just fine in that way. I had my first sexual experience at twenty-one and I didn't get married until I was nearly forty. In-between, I had my share of lovers, and I did not hear any of them complain that I was unresponsive.
On the other hand, who knows how many men never got that far with me because their idea of a sexy woman was one with large breasts.
The cocktail lounge of a fancy restaurant in Evansville, Indiana, 1974. I'm with my friend Linda at our favorite hangout. It's intimate, with just a few tables, and the bartender is a friend of ours. Linda and I belong to an amateur theater group where I have a role in the play and she is doing props.
Linda has what I call a Barbie doll body, along with large blue eyes, long lashes, Cupid's bow lips and hair that cascades in big waves to her shoulders. As for me, I'm just as flat-chested at twenty-seven as I was at thirteen, and my oily, fine hair becomes stringy if I grow it. So I've got it in the usual short bob. My face is neither pretty nor ugly—just ordinary.
Linda and I are having fun—laughing and cutting up with Bill the bartender, who is in the show with me. Soon, another guy sitting at the bar interrupts us. "What's all this talk of a show?" he asks.
He's very handsome, with wavy brown hair and sideburns just long enough to be fashionable. "We're in a play out in Newburgh," I tell him.
"Well, you're in a play," Linda corrects me. "I'm working on the props."
"Props, eh. What are some of the ones you use?" His dark eyes are trained on Linda. I notice his stylish gray suit. No wedding ring on his finger, but that doesn't mean anything. There's one on Linda's.
"Oh, all kinds of things—books, a telephone, lamps..." Linda has a slight southern accent from her years in Texas that enhances her sex appeal. I watch her look up at him from beneath her eyelids.
I turn to Bill and shrug. Clearly, I've been shut out of the conversation. The guy has made his choice and I've become invisible.
The feeling was all too familiar. I was a flat-chested woman with short hair, automatically relegated to, at best, "just a friend" status. It was hard to be young and single and to feel that I could never be seen as sexy just because one portion of my anatomy didn't measure up to some ideal. Social scientists Barbara Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts coined the term "self-objectification" to describe how girls and women habitually look at themselves through the eyes of others. Their theory wasn't formulated until 1997, but it certainly fits with many of my life experiences—some of which occurred before I had feminism to help me articulate my discomfort.
The University of Missouri, 1967. It's Greek Week, and one of the fraternities is having a best-body contest for the sorority houses. The girls are wearing shorts and formfitting tops; they also wear paper bags over their heads so they can't be judged on their facial beauty.
Our entry is my friend Suzanne, who has large breasts, a tiny waist, and slim hips. I watch her standing tall in the lineup, wearing heels to accentuate her shapely legs and posing with hands on hips, one leg at a right angle to the other.
The sight of her and all these other faceless girls makes me queasy, but everyone laughs and says it's a joke and of course they don't really judge girls by their bodies, but it still rankles.
I didn't make the connection then, but as I think of that scene now, I remember another time with Suzanne. She and I roomed together, and one night she came storming in after a date.
"These guys!" She slammed her purse onto the bed. "They think that just because I have a good figure, I'm an easy lay."
"What happened?" I asked.
Suzanne put her hands on her hips and said, "I have just spent the evening fighting off this... this... octopus! And it was our first date. I don't know why he thinks he can get away with that."
She was dressed conservatively in a pair of wool slacks and a turtleneck sweater, but of course, you couldn't help but notice the size of her breasts, even in something as high necked as that. I was simultaneously jealous of her sex appeal and relieved that I didn't have to deal with the problems that went with it. What must it feel like to wonder whether a guy asked you out just because of the way you look?
"I guess you got it right," I said. "It must be that great body of yours. I never have that problem."
This was the flip side of not being seen as sexy; I was not viewed as some guy's property—to do with as he wished. But the point is, it was about being seen. Suzanne and I grew up in a world in which it was the man who looked, judged, and acted accordingly.
The fact that Fredrickson and Roberts formulated their theory more than twenty-five years after second wave feminism burst on the scene shows that in some ways, nothing has changed. Women see images—in advertising and entertainment—that are impossibly perfect, then we think about people looking at us and making comparisons. No wonder we see ourselves as deficient and in need of work.
Nowhere would we be more likely to feel deficient than in breast size, which is very much on display. Women on TV all seem to wear low-cut outfits, no matter the profession. Cops on duty, crime scene investigators, lawyers, doctors, even teachers—they all arrive at work with dresses (or blouses) cut down to there. Take a peek at any magazine on the shelves featuring a female celebrity on the cover and chances are she'll be clad in something that reveals some portion of her breasts. Then go to a store and try to buy a blouse that has enough buttons or a sweater with, say, a crew neck. I always tell the sales clerks politely, "I can't show my cleavage; I don't have any."
Although outfits are more daring than they used to be, the idea of models and actresses providing sexual titillation certainly isn't.
The copy desk of the Evansville Press, 1977. I'm watching Norm rip copy from the AP wire machine. He brings the pages to the desk and sits, skimming and sorting the stories. Then he comes to a photo and stops. He holds it up for the other copy desk staff—all men. "Not bad, eh," he says with a broad grin.
The photo is of a woman clad in a bathing suit. These generic photos come over the wire periodically, captioned with something like "Jane Smith frolics in the surf at Miami Beach." We used to use them in the newspaper as filler until the edict eventually came down: No "cheesecake" photos.
The men grumbled under their breath at this concession to the nascent feminist movement. Now Norm, who is well aware of my feminist convictions, loves to taunt me by singling out these photos and putting them in a folder in his drawer, which he looks at when things are slow on the desk. Though the photos were no longer allowed in the paper, they continued to come across the wire.
On this day, there are other interesting things to talk about. A new show—Three's Company—has debuted on TV, and it's quickly been labeled a "jiggle show," thanks to the unfettered movements of its buxom star, Suzanne Somers. It's the era of going bra-less and I've joined the party, but then, with me, who would notice?
"She kind of looks like Suzanne what's-her-face on TV," Norm says now, referring to his AP photo.
"Oh, man, did you catch that show last night?" Bill chimes in from the desk next to mine. "Can you imagine living with her... platonically?"
Bill and Norm laugh, and so do the other men. Like boys in elementary school, they're teasing me because they like me. They're also testing me, because in a newsroom you're expected to both dish it out and take it. This is not a moment to assert my feminism. I wait a beat, until the laughter dies down. "What show are you talking about?" I ask innocently.
Who teaches boys that only women with large breasts are sexy? Or that women with large breasts are likely to be sexual swingers? Who teaches them that women's bodies are up for judgment, while their own are irrelevant? I've witnessed balding, muscle-less men with beer bellies making disparaging remarks about women because they had less-than-perfect figures. Can't they see the irony in that?
I'm past retirement age now, long married, and my breast size no longer seems like an important thing. That change was gradual; partly it was the confidence that comes when the man you love assures you that your body is more than adequate, and partly it was the effect of aging, when sex slips out of its place at the top of your mind. I've heard some older women say they feel disappointed that they don't attract male attention anymore—don't get whistled at on the street, for example—but to the extent that I ever attracted such attention, I don't miss it. Mostly, it's a relief not to feel looked at and judged. Being invisible to men now seems like a boon. And while other women complain of sagging breasts, I just smile. When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to sag.
Title image "Nothin' To Sag" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2019.