In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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When I was thirteen, most girls in my grade were developing precocious breasts that they proudly displayed beneath tight sweaters, but not my friend Emmy and me. We didn’t have much happening in the chest area, so we decided to buy padded bras. In the 1950s this seemed scandalous and shameful — we would have just died if anyone had found out — but it gave us the curves we wanted. At fifteen we upgraded to “falsies” — rubber mounds that we slipped into our bras every day.
A year later Emmy and I both had steady boyfriends with whom we enjoyed making out. I no longer pushed my boyfriend’s hands away when he touched my breasts through my clothing, even though I was afraid he would discover my falsies.
One summer day in 1956, Emmy and I declared our emancipation. We went up to the roof of my apartment building, seventeen floors above the street, pledged our enduring friendship, and then yelled, “Boobs away!” and hurled our falsies across the sky like Frisbees.
I doubt our naive boyfriends ever noticed the difference.
San Francisco, California
While my infant son and I were visiting my friend Patty in my Pennsylvania hometown, we all went to the mall to do some Christmas shopping. I saw a portrait artist’s booth and decided that a drawing of me holding my baby would be the perfect gift for my mother. I sat cradling my sleeping infant, and the artist began to sketch us. My son soon woke up and began to nuzzle my breast. I asked the artist whether he would mind if I nursed the baby while he worked. He said he would be honored to draw a young mother feeding her child. I discreetly let my child suckle, my breast mostly obscured by my clothing and my waist-length hair. The portrait was wonderful.
Several weeks later Patty called to tell me that, on the day I had posed, an elderly man had complained to management about the “obscene artwork” being openly created in the center of the mall, saying he was disgusted and offended. Word got around, and mall employees took the side of either the artist or the old man. The artist defended himself, explaining that there was nothing offensive about breast-feeding an infant, and that his rendering had been tastefully done. Sadly the mall’s management revoked the artist’s vendor contract. I felt terrible that he lost his job and angered that anyone would consider the feeding of an infant obscene.
In 1964 a new family moved in next door. They had two daughters: Pam was my age — twelve — and Cynthia was fourteen going on twenty-one. One night, after I had turned out the lights and gone to bed, I heard laughter coming from their house and peered out my second-story window. I could see Pam and Cynthia in their kitchen below, washing dishes. Then Cynthia left.
A minute later the light went on in the upstairs bedroom directly across from mine. I watched, enraptured, as Cynthia removed her blouse, revealing two perfect breasts covered only by a bra. She walked out of view for a moment, then returned wearing flannel pajamas with the top unbuttoned. I had a few more moments of bliss before Cynthia pulled the shade down.
I lay back in bed, sensing for the first time the power of the female body.
I dropped out of high school in my senior year and got a job in the radiology department of a large research hospital, where I was trained to use new infrared technology to photograph women for breast-cancer screenings. Ten to fifteen women a day disrobed in front of me, and I positioned them in front of the camera and instructed them to hold their arms overhead with each hand gripping the opposite elbow — a pose that seemed humiliating to some patients.
One day the chief radiologist asked the female X-ray techs to volunteer for an experiment: he wanted to determine how much alcohol a woman would have to drink to affect the infrared image. Volunteers would get free drinks at the cocktail lounge on the corner. Six women signed up.
First I photographed the women sober. Then they went to the bar for an hour while I developed the photos and made notes. They returned giddy from all the alcohol.
“Who’s going first?” someone asked.
“Let’s go together,” someone else said.
Before I knew it, all six women were taking off their tops.
“Good God,” someone said, remarking on one woman’s breasts.
“Don’t be jealous,” she answered.
I tried to keep order, warning them that too many people in the room would raise the temperature and affect the infrared images. They quieted down but continued laughing, teasing, and admiring each other while I photographed them one at a time.
When I think back to that job, I remember the patients who were approaching death. I remember becoming aware of my fondness for breasts — other women’s and my own. And I remember the glee of those six drunken colleagues posing topless in front of each other, enjoying what we normally keep hidden.
Kingston, New York
I grew up in the 1940s in southwest England and attended a small elementary school owned and run by Miss Geraldine Hay, who was feared and revered by children and parents alike. Miss Hay’s main educational tenets were that “her” children pay attention, learn times tables, and spend time with plants, creatures, and fresh air. She did not hesitate to use a stinging bamboo cane on the palms of recalcitrant pupils; I still recall the pain and shame, although I forget the sins.
Miss Hay was less than five feet tall with breasts so large she could barely clasp her hands before her. On our nature walks, her purposeful bosom led the way.
I began to develop breasts earlier than my peers. Plagued by aching nipples, at first I thought I was diseased. Then, mortified by the small swellings, I habitually crossed my arms to hide them. Afraid I might share Miss Hay’s fate, I turned to God. Every night I prayed: “Please, God, don’t make me like Miss Hay.” And God heard me. By the age of twelve, my chest had ceased to expand.
Soon my friends were proudly flaunting training bras. I could not compete. My new concern was that I was doomed to exist with what one unkind girl called “two poached eggs on a plate.” How could I possibly tell God that I had changed my mind?
I was breast-feeding my infant son in the bedroom while my six-year-old, Joel, and his friend Johnny were building a blanket fort under the dining-room table.
Johnny went to use the hall bathroom, which also had a door to the bedroom where I was sitting. After he flushed the toilet and washed his hands, he opened the bedroom door by mistake, saw me nursing in the rocking chair, and froze.
I cheerfully asked how the fort was coming, but Johnny didn’t reply. He was too busy staring at my breasts.
Finally he said with wonder, “So that’s what those are for.”
In my thirties I cofounded and performed in a burlesque troupe called the Lucky Devil Girly Show. We danced to music and slowly removed our costumes down to pasties and G-strings. We tried to make our performances funny, sexy, and socially relevant.
After a year of successful shows in our city and more prestigious gigs in Seattle, one of the founding members of the troupe, Ruby, was diagnosed with highly invasive breast cancer. She was eighteen weeks pregnant at the time and chose a chemotherapy treatment that posed little risk to the fetus, followed by breast-removal surgery.
When Ruby started to lose her hair, the rest of us in the troupe shaved our heads — on Mother’s Day — and donated our hair to an organization that makes wigs for children with cancer. After we were shaved, we all lay on our backs in a circle — including Ruby — with our shirts off. We held our freshly cut hair over our breasts while a photographer snapped a picture from above. There was no way to tell which of us had cancer. Ruby continued to perform with us, one-breasted, until a month before she died.
As a twelve-year-old boy I would peek at my mother’s Victoria’s Secret catalogs in the bathroom. But instead of admiring the models’ curves, I was learning the names and types of bras: demi cup, front clasp, push-up, full coverage. Those undergarments shaped, held, and supported the breasts that I so desperately wanted to have on my own body. I dreamed of nestling my breasts into satin cups, fastening the catch around my back, and proudly thrusting out my chest.
The first bra I tried on was one I snuck from my sister’s drawer: a blue training bra with adjustable straps. I filled the cups with socks, but their weight was unsubstantial, and they had no bounce.
As a grown man I have longingly caressed my lovers’ breasts while wanting to feel what they feel. I have revealed my secret desire to only a few. A couple have guessed it. The rest are always surprised at how adeptly I can release the clasp of their bra.
In second grade I received a hand-me-down two-piece bathing suit. The top hung loosely when I first put it on, and my mother joked to the other adults present that I was so flat-chested I might as well go topless, like a boy. I told her that wasn’t a nice thing to say, and she spanked me and said I needed to learn to accept “constructive criticism.”
My mother was so focused on my figure that I often felt I wouldn’t win her full approval until I developed breasts. By third grade I was taping plastic Easter eggs to my chest. It looked ridiculous, but I wore them proudly under my sweaters — until my mother noticed and punished me.
As a pencil-thin fourth-grader, I received some stretched-out, hand-me-down training bras. This time, when my mother found humor in how poorly they fit, I said nothing. A year later she bought me a bra that was more my size, and my self-esteem was restored — for a while.
After I finished fifth grade, my mother decided my older sister and I weren’t “developing” as we should, so she bought us a Mark Eden Bustline Developer: a spring-loaded piece of exercise equipment with two pink plastic handles that you pressed together at chest level or over your head. When we used it, our muscles flexed, and our tiny breasts were pushed outward. My sister and I took turns, pressing fifty times each, then twice that, because we knew our mother would get out the measuring tape when she got home.
“A half-inch improvement,” she would proudly announce as she measured my sister’s bust. Mine had grown only a quarter of an inch, but I still saw approval in my mother’s eyes. Eventually our measurements stopped increasing, and my mother figured out that the “developer” was really just toning the muscles in our shoulders and backs, not enlarging our breasts. She packed up the device and put it away.
In my early twenties I discovered my mother’s secret stash of foam pads, which she had used to fill her bras for most of her life. Decades later, as I tended my grandmother in her last few years, dressing and undressing her, she looked at her sagging breasts and told me I was lucky mine had not grown so large. My mother was flat-chested, too, she said.
So this was where it had started.
For almost a decade I worked as an exotic dancer at an all-nude peep show in San Francisco. My employer held regular “amateur nights,” at which would-be dancers auditioned alongside veterans before a live audience. I remember one candidate in particular: she was young, petite, and beautiful, with a large set of fake breasts that stood out even among the professional dancers’. I assumed she was a seasoned performer who just wanted to move to a different club, but as the music started, she was clearly nervous.
“Am I doing this right?” she whispered to me.
I assured her she was.
It didn’t make sense: How had she and her fake breasts ended up here if she wasn’t an experienced stripper?
She got the position, and a few weeks later she and I shared a stage. During a break about halfway through our shift, she asked me what I would do if I lost my breasts. I had never considered the possibility. I told her I would be upset, and of course I would lose my job, but I figured I would eventually come to terms with it. Why had she asked?
She explained that she’d had breast cancer at sixteen and had undergone a double mastectomy. Since she was a minor, her father had chosen the implants for the reconstruction, and they were too large and uncomfortable. She was considering having them removed.
After that, I tried not to make assumptions based on people’s looks.
El Cerrito, California
I have small breasts. The shame and embarrassment I felt during my teen years was reflected in my hunched shoulders. In my early twenties I vowed to stop hating my diminutive bosom. I went years without wearing a bra and tried to keep an upright posture and not hide what I didn’t have.
A year and a half ago I gave birth to a baby boy. My breasts hadn’t gotten any bigger during my pregnancy. Despite what I’d read about size having nothing to do with the amount of milk produced, I soon discovered that I had a low milk supply. Feeding my baby became a tedious regime: I used a “supplementer” that delivered formula through a fine tube held against my nipple while my son suckled at my breast. After nursing, I’d use a breast pump to stimulate my milk production for the next feeding. Then I’d finish up by washing all the equipment in soapy water. The whole process took nearly an hour and had to be repeated every two hours.
I did this for weeks, night and day, feeling that old shame and embarrassment all over again. I could not sufficiently nurse my son. What should have been a basic, natural act was a struggle for me. I imagined people whispered behind my back, “Of course she can’t breast-feed. What did she expect?”
My milk supply never increased. I became depressed, sometimes crying inconsolably. I stopped using the supplementer tube and just used a bottle filled with formula instead, which has made things a little easier. I continue to be shocked by how emotional the experience of breast-feeding has been for me.
At parties or bars during my twenties, I would often fondle the breast of one friend or another while she chuckled and shooed my hands away. As a gay man I thought it was good-natured fun. No one ever told me that I had crossed a boundary or made her uncomfortable.
Shortly after my thirtieth birthday, I was having drinks with some co-workers, including my supervisor and his girlfriend, when I began joking with a few of the women, groping their breasts to make them laugh. Later that night I found myself talking to my supervisor’s girlfriend, a self-proclaimed free spirit who didn’t wear a bra. She told me that she and my supervisor had often brought women home for threesomes, but never a man. Perhaps I could be the first. I confided to her that I had never had sex with a woman. In fact, I had never even touched a naked breast before.
Astonished, she immediately grabbed my hand and placed it under her shirt on her bare breast. I didn’t know what to make of this strange thing in my hand. It was warm and soft, and the nipple had a surprising resilience. This was no fabric-covered bump. This was living flesh, with blood coursing through it and sensitive nerve endings responding to my touch. It was so real it made me woozy. I withdrew my hand and said something witty while I regained my composure.
After that, I never fondled a friend’s breast again, clothed or unclothed. It was no longer funny.
Paul J. Stabell
As a seventeen-year-old nursing student, I was assigned to assist with a breast-lump-removal surgery and possible mastectomy. I had the usual apprehensions: Would I hand the surgeon the right instrument? Would I practice proper sterile technique? Would the supervisor who was grading me be fair? The patient, a panic-stricken young woman, was rolled into the operating room. Another nurse held her hand while the anesthetist put her to sleep. The surgeon meticulously removed the lump, and we waited while the tissue was hurried to the pathologist to determine whether it was malignant.
It was. According to the protocol back then, this meant the surgeon had to remove the breast. After he had finished, he placed the breast, nipple up, in a metal basin, and began to close the gaping wound on the woman’s chest. That amputated breast could have been my own. It was too much for me, and I sobbed loudly. I thought I might be in trouble, but the surgeon smiled kindly and told me that everyone on the surgical team felt like crying, too.
Rosa B. McCarty
One of the few times I got significant attention in high school was when I walked down the long corridor between classes. Boys on either side of the hallway would tease me about my overly large breasts, chanting, “Boom-boom, boom-boom,” as I went by. I dreaded the trek but was too timid to ask a teacher or administrator to put a stop to it.
For college I attended a private liberal-arts school in the Midwest. Before graduation I met with my faculty advisor, a tenured male professor, who told me I should seek employment in the South because “they like big-breasted women there.” I left his office feeling humiliated.
I’m older now. Teenage boys no longer taunt me, and men don’t make inappropriate remarks, but I still wear loose-fitting clothing and walk with a slouch, hoping no one will notice me.
I was twelve years old when I discovered my father’s nudie magazines in our basement. They were hidden in an old dresser among replacement TV tubes, bent paper clips, and bottle caps. In one magazine there was a picture of a woman sitting at a table in a black evening dress. The strap had fallen from her left shoulder, exposing a full breast with an erect nipple. Next to her was a crystal goblet of wine, its shape mirroring the curve and fullness of her breast. The photograph was black-and-white, but I could imagine the pinkness of her nipple and the red of the wine.
The picture had been cropped just above her neck, so her face wasn’t visible. She was like a headless Greek statue from the ruins of an ancient temple.
I revisited the image of the woman in the black dress often, more intrigued by what I couldn’t see than by what was revealed. Was she smiling or frowning? Were her eyes closed, or did she gaze directly into the camera?
Fifty-two years later I still wonder what her face looked like.
Treadwell, New York
During adolescence my upper body developed a glaring asymmetry. By the time I was seventeen I needed a C cup for my left breast, but the right side of my chest was as flat as a boy’s. I lived with my father, who was uncomfortable talking about my body, so the issue went largely unaddressed. I hid my shape under huge T-shirts, baggy coats, and layers of scarves. When I went to stay with my mother during the summer, she took me shopping for a mastectomy bra. I’ll never forget the stricken look on the saleswoman’s face when she understood that the bra was for me, not my mother.
The summer after I graduated from high school, I had surgery to put in an implant on my right side, and was ecstatic about the results. Suddenly I could wear whatever I wanted — even a bathing suit! It was wonderfully liberating to feel so normal at last. But my relief was short-lived. My body treated the implant as a threat and, over the course of a few years, encased it in scar tissue, hardening it and pushing it toward my collar bone.
A second surgery followed seven years later, with the same reaction from my body; a third surgery six years after the second fared no better. (At least by then I had the solace of knowing the name of my condition — Poland syndrome — and understood that I was missing my pectoral muscle as well.) Pregnancy and breast-feeding added throbbing pain and frustration to the mix.
In my late thirties I found myself considering a bilateral mastectomy just to end this cycle of failed surgeries. Fortunately I met a surgeon who had a better idea. He wanted to do a reconstruction using flesh from my own belly as the breast tissue, which would minimize the chance of rejection.
The operation took eleven hours. Apart from the work on my breast, the surgeon had to cut open my abdomen from side to side, relocate my bellybutton, and remove a few inches of one of my ribs because it was in the way.
The recovery was grueling, and I needed a final surgery to reduce and reposition my new breast, but at the age of thirty-nine I finally had the symmetrical, natural-looking figure that had eluded me for so long.
It’s been five years since then, and what surprises me most is how little I think about my breasts anymore. What was, for more than two decades, a major focus of my attention on a daily basis is now just another part of my body.
After my son, Forrest, was born, I was surprised by the deep connection I felt with him while nursing. Sometimes he’d empty one breast, then push his index finger into the nipple of the other, indicating it was time to switch sides. When he was old enough to speak, he’d lean back on my lap and say, “Other side.”
Six weeks shy of his second birthday Forrest was diagnosed with stage IV liver cancer. The chances of his survival were 5 percent. I nursed him through doctor’s exams, chemo, radiation treatments, and blood transfusions. Breast-feeding was as much a lifeline for me as it was for him. As long as my son and I were connected in that way, I believed we could manage whatever came next.
In bed one evening, a little after midnight, he rolled toward me to nurse. I could tell that just shifting his weight caused him unbearable pain, and he soon turned away to find relief. At 2 pm the following day he died.
A week later I stood naked at the bedroom window, staring into the woods beside our house, my breasts leaking milk. My body didn’t understand that Forrest was gone.
In high school a friend and I visited a strip club in Greenwich Village to see performer Lili St. Cyr, who was known for her bubble-bath routine. We were only seventeen, but we weren’t carded at the door. We took seats near the stage, ordered gin and tonics, and eagerly awaited the show.
Music blared from the speakers, and Lili took the stage and stood behind a large bathtub. She removed her garments one at a time, coyly handing each item to a woman dressed as a maid.
Finally down to shimmering pasties that covered just her nipples, she eased into the tub and gyrated as though enduring a pleasurable torture. The music crescendoed, and Lili stepped out, wrapped her voluptuous body in a towel, and took a bow. My friend and I rose to our feet and applauded, then paid the cover charge again so we could stay for the second show.
Before the start of Lili’s next performance, we decided to run to the men’s room. We were halfway up the stairs to the restroom when Lili appeared at the top of the steps. The stairway was narrow, so my friend and I politely turned sideways to let her pass. She must have recognized that we were two hormonally overloaded teens. She took each step slowly and, going by us, deliberately brushed her breasts across our chests. I stopped breathing until she reached the bottom of the stairs and disappeared around the corner.
That was more than fifty years ago. I can still vividly remember the feel of her breasts through my shirt.
Brooklyn, New York
As a young girl I stuffed my bra and yearned for breasts. Then, at the age of fourteen, I developed double-Ds practically overnight. I happily displayed my new womanly figure in tight shirts, but when I walked down the street, men leered or yelled obscene comments at me from their cars. I felt terrified.
I eventually married and had three children. I cherished breast-feeding them, but, after years of nursing, I wistfully mentioned to my husband the possibility of getting a breast reduction. He said maybe I should get implants instead, to perk up my sagging bosom. This made me believe I was flawed.
When my daughter developed large breasts as a teenager, men started looking at her instead of me. Watching them stare at my young daughter the way they once had at me, I became extremely protective of her. I also felt old and less desirable.
Years later, not long after separating from my husband, I started dating a man who said my gravity-ravaged breasts were “beautiful” and “perfect,” which made me feel vital and sexy.
I realize I’ve lived my life feeling shame or pride based on other people’s perceptions of my breasts.
My brother, Dee, was a delicate child with shaggy blond hair and blue eyes. When he was eight, my mother took him to a new pediatrician, who walked into the exam room and cheerfully exclaimed, “Who is this sweet little girl?”
Throughout his childhood Dee endured cruel comments, isolation, and sometimes brutal treatment because of his feminine appearance and behavior. After graduating from high school, he moved to a different city and surrounded himself with understanding friends. Then he began hormone therapy and a series of surgeries to alter his body. He began dressing as a woman and, possibly for the first time in his life, seemed truly content.
When he was thirty-four, we were at our mother’s home for Christmas, and Dee beckoned me into the guest bedroom. “I want to show you,” he whispered, and he pulled his sweater over his head. I gasped when he unfastened his lacy bra and out spilled a pair of perfect, round breasts.
Meriden, New Hampshire
My friend and I were both seventeen and sitting in some tall grass in a meadow. She was more developed than I was, and to prove it, she stood up, pulled off her shirt, and demonstrated how she could spin her breasts in circles. Gyrating from her knees to gain momentum, she twirled them both in the same direction first. Then, using her hands to get each breast going, she showed me how she could make them go in opposite directions. I collapsed backward into the grass in laughter.
Five years later the same friend and I were living in Chicago and went shopping for swimsuits. She had developed even more, and it was a challenge to find a suit that fit her properly. Instead of being disheartened, she took the opportunity to show off. Pretending she was being squeezed from a too-small one-piece, she poked one breast out the top and the other out an armhole. It was so funny, I almost fell over.
I was also there when my friend tried on her wedding dress. Bending over at the waist, she hoisted her ample bosom until it was sitting neatly atop the neckline of the gown. The dressing-room attendants weren’t impressed.
Over the years my friend has taught me that these orbs of flesh, too often a source of great self-consciousness, can also be great fun.
In the prison where I am incarcerated, officials recently announced a rule: no more photos or drawings of naked women. According to the new regulations, “No portion of a nipple, areola, or cleavage below the top of the areola may be shown on any side of the breast.” Books and magazines with such material in them have been declared contraband and confiscated. Even art books and mainstream magazines have been found to contain “inappropriate” material, which is torn out and destroyed by the censors. The authorities don’t even allow prisoners to have photos of wives or girlfriends baring their breasts, which some women send in an attempt to share a little intimacy across the distance. Even the male chest must be covered. Every prisoner is required to wear a shirt at all times, except when he’s in his own cell or in the shower.
I used to see nude pictures everywhere I went inside the cell house. Now the only “breasts” I see are the twin Spanish Peaks that rise above the Colorado Plateau just a few miles from here. To me they are the mighty bosom of Mother Nature, reminding me of what I was once free to love in the flesh.
My boyfriend, T., and I had been homeless in New York for more than a year, thanks to our costly cocaine habit. We owed money to everyone we knew, including our drug dealers, who didn’t take kindly to being stiffed. We moved to Chicago, where, desperate for money, I auditioned at a strip club. Despite my small breasts, I got the job.
I made decent tips, but significantly less than what the big-chested girls were making. Determined to increase my earnings, I scraped together five thousand dollars and got implants. I woke up from the procedure in indescribable pain and knew I’d made a mistake. For several weeks I mostly cried on the couch while T. took all my painkillers.
I returned to dancing sooner than the doctors had recommended, because we were out of cash, as usual. My breasts looked awful, with long, livid scars beneath them. Nevertheless I was suddenly in great demand at the strip club. I danced until my spandex was soaked with sweat and my feet were numb.
It was years before I finally broke away from that lifestyle. My old boyfriend is dead now — from a drug overdose — and I am a suburban mom with a ten-year-old son. When I stand in front of the mirror, I see a woman who has fought hard to improve her life. I try to love every piece of myself, including my augmented breasts. They are a relic from a difficult time, but they are a part of me.
At eighteen my daughter moved into her own apartment and began performing as a dancer in a small circus in her spare time. She also helped form a troupe that featured fire-breathers, fire-eaters, fire-jugglers, and even costumes that could be ignited.
One day she invited me to dinner at her home. Her latest art project was displayed on a mannequin in the living room: a bra made of leather, copper, and two large brass cones. When I asked about the short, hollow tubes protruding from the tips of the cones, she said, “That’s where the wicks go.”
Saluda, North Carolina
I stand nearly naked in an examination room, trying to make an important decision: Do I wear the lavender gown or the pink one with teddy bears and party hats? Hoping for a reason to celebrate, I choose the latter.
Only days ago I was a hiking in the Grand Canyon when I began to feel weak and experienced a dull ache in my chest. Soon after, in increasing discomfort, I found a lump in my right breast. Prepared for the worst, I traveled here to this breast-care center.
It’s merely a staph infection, the doctor says. A simple incision eases my pain — and my fears of cancer. Still the doctor insists on a mammogram and other uncomfortable tests.
I’m led down a hallway, past solemn women who are enduring much worse. As I go by, they look up at me, a burly man with a pink gown and a bruised ego. Their glances of sympathy are both comforting and humbling.
Though petite with a slim build, I had an exceptionally large bosom in high school. I went up two bra sizes in three years. The unwanted attention caused me to wear multiple shirts, even on hot summer days. When I went running, I would wear three sports bras to keep my breasts from jiggling.
Going to a swimming pool or the beach was the worst. When you wear a double-D, it’s impossible to find a bikini that doesn’t flaunt your “ladies.” I saved up three months’ worth of wages from my job at a coffee shop to pay for a custom-made suit. I wish I could say that comments like “Are those real?” stopped when I wore it, but they didn’t. Around this time I stopped looking below my face in mirrors.
When I started to suffer chronic back pain and developed deep indentations in my shoulders from my bra straps, I decided to see a doctor. A plastic surgeon determined that my bust was composed of extremely dense tissue and that a breast-reduction surgery, as opposed to liposuction, was the best way to reduce its size. My boyfriend did not agree with my decision to have the surgery and dumped me. Fearing further judgment, I decided to hide my plans from most of my family.
The most humiliating part was having photos taken of my breasts and sent to insurance companies so they could determine whether I met their requirements for the procedure. My double-D chest, on my 115-pound frame, was deemed “not large enough.”
But I wasn’t done growing. By the time I was twenty-four, my breasts rested slightly above my bellybutton, and my health insurance finally agreed to cover the surgery. The surgeon removed 1.5 pounds of tissue from each breast.
Ten years later the physical scars from the procedure are barely visible, but my emotional scars — from years of being stared at as if I weren’t human — remain.
New York State
Here in this women’s prison I have been reassigned from a two-person cell to an open dorm. An inmate named Desirae tells me she was thrilled to be relocated here, because the day-shift officer is her “man.” He is called “Mr. Sticker,” for his reputation of sticking to his prison “girlfriends” like a burr.
At 2:30 AM I silently rise and go to the officer’s station to ask permission to use the bathroom. I hold up my roll of toilet paper with a pleading look, and a dark silhouette behind the glass waves me on. As I’m returning to the dorm, the door to the officer’s station opens. It’s Mr. Sticker. He calls me inside and orders me to clean up a coffee spill on the floor. I obediently move to wipe up the mess, and he suddenly presses me against the wall. Mr. Sticker reaches under my shirt and viciously twists the skin of my left breast. It hurts like hell. I make a startled noise, and he slaps his other hand over my mouth and shoves a knee between my legs.
Trapped, scared, and in pain, I relax against his body, press my mouth into his palm, and lick it.
Mr. Sticker jumps back and stares at his hand. “Did you just lick me?” he asks.
I nod, and he looks again at his damp palm. I can’t tell if he’s dumbfounded, disgusted, or frightened. “Are you sick?” he says. I shake my head and ask if he wants me to go get Desirae. Amazingly he says yes. As I slip past him, he grabs my hair and yanks my head back. “Do you plan to make trouble about this?”
“No trouble, sir,” I say. “Nothing happened here.”
I return to my bunk, wake Desirae, and tell her that her “man” is waiting for her. Then I lie in my bed and cry with relief.
The next day my breast hurts terribly and is bruised where Mr. Sticker grabbed it. When I see him again, I fake a happy expression and shrink back into the herd, trying to be wholly unexceptional and unmemorable.
Florida City, Florida
My aunt Jackie was a nurse. When she had to have a mastectomy, she chose to have her colleagues perform the surgery. In the operating room, after the anesthesiologist had put her under, the surgical team pulled back the sheet and burst into laughter. She had covered both her nipples with glittery pasties.
After a day of driving and hiking in the summer heat of central Michigan, Joe and I yearned to strip off our clothes and wash away the sweat and grime. Looking at the map, we found a remote campground near the Au Sable River. We drove seven miles along a rutted dirt road and through a shallow pond to reach it. Surely, we thought, no one else would endure that drive. We would have the place to ourselves.
We ran naked to the water and jumped in. Heaven.
After a long swim we dried off and got dressed. We were starting to set up camp when we heard the sound of a car engine growing closer. A family drove up, parked their car next to ours in the small lot, and piled out.
Though dismayed to have to share our secluded spot, Joe and I tried to be friendly. We waved and said hello. The family didn’t acknowledge us. The kids ran for the water, and their mother began to roll up the car windows, but her husband told her to leave them down: “These people will look after our stuff,” he said without even asking us.
Within minutes the whole family was laughing and splashing in the river. Annoyed by their rudeness, Joe and I walked over to their car and looked in. On the front seat was a 35 mm film camera. We decided to give them a memento of their stay at the campground. While Joe grabbed the camera, I removed my top. He snapped four quick cheesecake photos of me leaning on their car with my bare breasts on display. Then he returned the camera to the seat, and I got dressed. We were innocently preparing dinner when the family walked back to their car, got in, and drove away.
During my first three months at boarding school I was exposed to beliefs and values that differed radically from what I’d learned at the Christian school I had grown up attending. I was excited to discover new ways of seeing the world, but I also did not want to lose myself to “sinful” beliefs and behaviors.
When I began dating a girl who was not a Christian, my friends and family warned that she would lead me astray, but we made each other happy, and I continued to see her. The first time she asked if we could have sex, however, I refused, explaining, with some difficulty, that premarital intercourse was against my beliefs.
One night we were up late talking in a private study room and began to kiss. She locked the door, turned out the lights, and told me to lie down on the floor. Apprehensive, I did as she said. She removed her shirt and bra, lay on top of me, and began kissing me fiercely. I felt her warm, bare breasts against my chest as we made love. Afterward we embraced in the darkness. What we’d done might have been a sin, but I had never felt closer to heaven.
Montezuma, New Mexico
I spent my teens hating my breasts: Those gigantic, dark areolae. Those undefined nipples. And so small! I compared them unfavorably to the breasts of other women: My female classmates. The druggy-eyed goddesses of Victoria’s Secret. The models in my brother’s hidden Hustler magazines. My mother, whose bosom remained perky even after having had me at forty (a fact she never let me forget).
Desperate to make my breasts look bigger, I shoplifted padded underwire bras. They left painful imprints in my skin, but at least they contorted my chest into cleavage that caught the eyes of boys I liked.
My older sister, who had small breasts like me, made a clandestine trip to Tijuana and got implants. After the crusty, bloody drainage tubes were removed and the wounds had healed, I was so jealous. Men — and women — couldn’t keep their eyes off her. So what if it hurt her to breathe? So what if she couldn’t hug her children for weeks? She was practically bursting out of every shirt.
By the time I was in college, I’d filled out enough that my boyfriend told me I looked like the Venus of Willendorf. I told him we were done.
I didn’t want to look like some fertility goddess, sagging and shapeless. I was from Southern California. I had played with Barbies and watched Baywatch as a child. I wanted huge, fake, gravity-defying tits.
I never had augmentation surgery like my sister. I’m now a mother of two. My breasts have endured painful engorgements, mysterious rashes, and cracked nipples that brought me to tears. They have been scratched by babies’ razor-sharp nails. They’ve soaked entire shirts at the sound of a newborn’s cries. They have stretch marks ranging from a light-cream color to a shiny blue-brown. They are slowly making a pilgrimage toward my stomach.
But they also fill my children’s bellies every day and bring them comfort and joy. They are my family’s favorite pillows. They have never failed me.
I think I owe my breasts an apology.
Long Beach, California