I am six, or maybe seven. We move to a new house and the house next door is a perfect match for ours, right down to the two girls the same age as my sister and I. The main difference is that their house is missing an added sunroom and at their house, the peanut butter does not need to be stirred and the bread is white and squishy. One day, in the bathroom my counterpart says, “Did you know that when you’re a grown up your boobies get big and you get hair, ‘down there.'” I do know and am confused as to how she is just now learning this, but we both agree that we hope that it never happens to us.
In 4th grade, a boy says to me, “You’re a carpenter’s dream, flat as a board and easy to nail.” He must have an older sibling, someone who knows what it means. I do not, but it sticks to me and with me for years.
In 5th grade, my very best friend has breasts and her period. We gather around her for stories about cramps and bras. We finally go to the same school and every time I see a boy in the hall snap her bra strap I am jealous. I am an adult before I know how much she hates being first, how she feels just as out of place for having breasts as I do for being flat.
Unlike other girls, I wear a camisole, not a bra. I am met regularly with taunts of “Itty Bitty Titty Committee” as well as “Carpenter’s Dream.” I practice “We must, we must, we must increase our bust” from Judy Blume’s Are You There God It’s Me Margaret religiously. Years later, when I give the book to my daughter to read, that is all I remember of it. I completely forget that most of the book is actually about her struggle with religion, that her lack of breasts and a period are a subplot. My daughter hates the book. “Who sits around talking about their boobs and periods?” She asks me. “Me,” I think. “For years and years, me.” Later still, after I have lost a breast to cancer I will once again do the exercises. This time not to grow my breasts but to try and regain movement in my chest.
Once, a boy I am dating jokingly says something about my small breasts and future children starving. I get out of his car and start to walk home. He comes after me and when we are making out that night he says, “Don’t worry, more than a handful’s a waste.” I continue to date him. I still know him.
There is an older guy, maybe 18 or 19, maybe 20 or 21. He dates an older friend of mine, a girl of 17 or 18 with a perfect figure. I am 14, maybe 15. I cannot explain how or why, but on more than one occasion I find myself alone at my house with him. We make out and he removes my shirt and marvels at the perfection of my small breasts. It does not feel like cheating on my friend, at least to me. Years later they are married, and years after that, they are divorced and when I hear that’s what happened I wonder if her life would have been different if I had told her all those years ago.
The summer after my senior year of high school, when I am 17, I work a telemarketing job with a man in his mid 20s. We begin to see each other, secretly. One night he takes me to a bar where his friend works. His friend pours me a drink and says to the man, “You sir, are a gentleman and a fine judge of horse flesh.” I do not know if I should be pleased or offended. I try to sip my drink without choking.
One day, I make a joke about my small chest in front of my boss, a woman 5 or 10 years older than I am, already married and pregnant. Later, she takes me aside and tells me the truth, I am not small chested and I am probably wearing the wrong bra size. I go from an A cup to a C cup overnight. I am stunned to discover that I have breasts.
I do not stop to wonder how I, a girl who values sex above almost all other forms of connection, a girl who sleeps with friends and strangers with no guilt and little discrimination, how I became so disconnected from my body that I never even noticed my own breasts had grown. It is decades before the disconnect occurs to me.
Once, when I am about 29, by then a D cup, I am walking to a friend’s house when a truck pulls up beside me. A man leans out the window and yells, “Hey Lady, nice rack!” I tell the story for years. I am amused by the juxtaposition of the polite, almost business-like, “Hey Lady” with “Nice rack.” Sometimes, I tell the story complete with a Jerry Lewis emphasis on “Hey LAAAADY.”
What I never say though is that my eternal, internal 6th grader is still shocked and amazed that anyone is commenting on her chest.
The last man I date before I meet my husband hates the way I dress. Everything is too short, too low cut, too tight. Since college I have believed my breasts are my best feature and I dress for them. “Well,” I think, “I guess I’ll have to cover up.” His mother dies and all I can think is that I have to dress carefully for the funeral. I leave town and we try to date long distance, but we eventually break up.
The night I meet my husband we are volunteering at a restaurant that serves the homeless. I am wearing an apron and a hairnet when we first meet. Later, after removing my apron my now-husband tries to secretly look me up and down, but when he comes to my chest he pauses, does a double-take and breaks out into a grin. I still tease him about his lack of subtlety. Had he been a different man, a man capable of hiding his joy at my appearance, a man capable of secretly judging me, we would not be married today.
At my high school reunion I am devastated to have person after person remark that I “look exactly the same.” Either no one remembers how flat I’d been, or no one notices how flat I am not.
“Well, your nipples are inverted.” The OB/GYN tells me, you might not be able to breastfeed.” I switch to a midwife practice. I breastfeed my babies with almost no issues. I can not pump, but I can nurse.
Ironically, my last decade with my breasts is the one decade in which they do not define me. No one pays attention to the rack on a middle age mother, not even the mother herself. If I had known it was our last decade together, perhaps I would have paid more attention.
At 50 I am diagnosed with breast cancer. My right breast is removed. The breast surgeon is very happy that she can spare my nipple. The poor, inverted right nipple. She encourages me to have reconstruction, “so you can feel like yourself again.” I think of my children, teenagers already, but still willing to hug me. One still wanting to snuggle against me to read or talk. I want that for them, for me. I cannot bear the idea of their mother’s hug not feeling the same as it always has. I cannot bear the idea of not being a soft place to land. I make the decision with no research.
My left breast is lifted and adjusted to match. As I joke with my friends, “They don’t make implants that look like 50 year old breasts, apparently there’s no market for that.”
Fully dressed, I look great. On a weekend away a woman in a swimming pool hearing that I am a breast cancer survivor stares at me in my halter top swimsuit and gives me a frank appraisal. “Wow, they did an amazing job. I should know, I sell bras.”
But the surgeon is wrong. A year after having my implant, I still do not feel like myself. My right breast is not a breast, it is a bag of fluid shoved under my chest muscle. I cannot move the way I once could. I have left myself vulnerable to Breast Implant Illness and in 10 years I will need to have another surgery to replace the implant. Breast implants are not meant to last a lifetime.
I think I have decided. In ten years, when I am 60, I will have my implant removed and will once again be flat, at least on one side. I try to imagine what the middle school or high school girl, so desperate to look an approved way, would think of the decision. In the end though I think of the little girl in the bathroom. She was already myself. She did not need or want breasts. The story of my life will not be the story of my breasts.