I’m going to spend the next 2,000 words talking about boobs.
Until I was twelve, I was a typical Midwestern suburban white kid: long-limbed, thin, rode my bike without a helmet, went sledding in the winter and chased the ice cream truck in the summer. Then puberty hit.
And puberty hit hard.
I distinctly remember the moment I realized my body was going to be a problem. The summer after sixth grade, I was swimming with my friend Lindsey when Nick and John, two boys we’d gone to school with since kindergarten, came to the pool. Not ten minutes after I got home that afternoon, Nick called. He said John liked me and he wanted to “ask me out.”
“No!” I shouted. “Why not?” he asked. The real answer? I thought it was a cruel joke. I wasn’t the girl in school boys liked. I was mouthy, I had two brothers and therefore felt no compunction to flatter any of them, I was competitive, and for the most part, I found them insufferably stupid. Why now, all of a sudden, would John want to be my boyfriend?
I went upstairs, looked at myself in the mirror, and it dawned on me. It was because I had boobs. Plain and simple. Not little girl boobs. Not cute pre-teen buds. I had a legitimate rack, but in school, beneath baggy shirts, no one really noticed. In a swimsuit, they noticed.
My breasts only got bigger, and in a hurry. By the time I was fourteen, hormones turned my once straight hair into ringlets, my formerly flat behind into a certified badonkadonk, my straight hips into an hourglass, and my chest into a ridge so large I never had a measurable bra size. I just picked out the biggest, ugliest, sturdiest bras I could find and hoped for the best.
When I was a kid, my favorite sports were gymnastics and swimming. By the time I was sixteen, I gave up both. I wasn’t great at either, I just loved them, but I was a child with the body of a porn star, and wearing leotards and swimsuits became a nightmare. My breasts rested on top of the small desks in my school, covering so much of the surface there was barely room to write. It was embarrassing, but also a relief. My shoulders ached constantly from the weight of my chest, so allowing the tabletop to do some of the heavy lifting was a welcome break.
In eighth grade, when I was preparing for my Confirmation, I was walking to church when an adult man began following me in his car. To paraphrase his crude comments, he was telling me how sexy he thought I looked, mostly referencing my impressive T&A. I was fourteen-years-old and terrified, so I took off running. He laughed and gunned his engine, and I could hear him shouting about how he liked watching me bounce. I can count on one hand the number of times I went running following that trauma. It was the first time in my life my body made me feel like a target for rape, but sadly not the last.
Though I never told anyone what happened, after that, all I wanted was to wear baggy clothes that hid me. It was hard to find shirts that didn’t have to stretch over my breasts. Wintertime was liberating. I could wear hoodies and jeans every day. I was still a girl. I wanted to look cute, and I wanted to belong, but I never could. Even the most innocent outfits looked scandalous on my body. Girls I thought were my friends started calling me ho-bag and slut. I was lonely at home and badly wanted to fit in with the girls who wore Abercrombie and Gap, but their clothes didn’t fit over my chest without turning into a crop top, so I settled for trying my best not to make the alphas angry.
As soon as I forgot how different my body was, something happened to remind and humiliate me. I couldn’t wait to be in marching band. Sophomore year, getting measured for our uniforms, the band director said, “I don’t know how we are going to find a jacket big enough for you.” I wasn’t fat. We both knew what he meant.
Working at the grocery store, where I had been a checker for three years and never had an issue with anyone, a new employee went to the manager and told her that I yelled at her and called her a bitch. It did not happen, but she was an adult, and I was a kid, so nobody believed me. When I asked her what she had against me, she said, “Look at how you dress, you look like a whore.” I wore the same khakis and polo shirt as everyone else, my polo just happened to stretch intensely across my chest. I would’ve loved to go up a size, but anything bigger drooped down to my knees. I couldn’t tuck in all that fabric, and we were required to tuck.
Out at the bars in college, sitting on a patio with my friend, an acquaintance of hers sat down, started chatting, and decided to inform me, “Wow, one of your tits is bigger than my head.”
At a pool party with my new coworkers at my first real “grown-up” job, I was foolish enough to think I was past all the childish foolishness about my body. Not two minutes after I got into the water, a male coworker walked right up to me, looked at my chest, and proclaimed for all to hear, “Those are huge.”
Then the constants: constantly being nudged in my breasts by strangers; constantly being stared at; constantly having men, both strangers and friends, asking if they could touch me; constantly having employers talk to me about my clothes even though I knew I was adhering to dress code; constantly struggling with my wardrobe; constantly wondering if a physique I had no control over was going to get me raped or beat up or killed, and if it did, would people assume I brought it on myself?
When I started putting on weight, I had no idea what a gigantic respite that would be. The fatter I got, the less grotesquely prominent my breasts became. Sure, I was enormous, but lots of people are fat. Fat is normal. I much preferred being fat to being a sideshow attraction.
However, the physical pain only got worse with the weight. Not only did my shoulders and lower back ache unrelentingly, now my ankles were starting to swell, my headaches were getting worse, and even though I was happy my boobs were getting less attention, I didn’t want to be totally unhealthy.
Since I finally had health insurance, I set my mind to getting a breast reduction. I had to get recommendations from three different plastic surgeons, with each visit more mortifying than the last. They all told me the same thing: you could use the surgery, but maybe you should lose weight first. It was funny, really. The last time I tried to go running, I wore two bras and it still wasn’t enough to stop my shoulders from bleeding and my back launching into spasms. Besides the physical pain, I’d experienced so much ridicule and harassment for the prior thirteen years, the idea of going to the gym in front of OTHER PEOPLE was preposterous. One of my bra cups was large enough for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to wear as a toboggan with plenty of fabric to spare.
Despite the recommendations of doctors, the insurance company denied my surgery. I was lucky enough to have a cousin who happened to be a lawyer who dealt with health insurance companies, and Jeri sent them a letter. I have no idea what it said, but it was scary enough that they approved the surgery. It was the best health decision I’ve ever made.
I didn’t lose the weight right away. However, when I finally did decide I was ready, it was possible because I didn’t have circus freak boobs to contend with. Even after the surgery and losing 80 pounds, I have a D/DD cup, depending on where I buy my bra. When I think about what my body was like before the surgery, I realize I don’t have any fond memories about my physical self. It was all pain. Physical, emotional, mental anguish.
I still carry some of it.
I don’t have any problem with women showing their naked bodies. Women who allow themselves to be nude are shamed because in our culture, if you’re not modest, then it is assumed you are asking to be assaulted. I have no problem with women who take that power back, who express their feminism by breaking the social norms they’re expected to adhere to.
My personal experience is different. My body was sexualized to the point where it didn’t even feel like mine anymore. I was smart, and creative, and weird, and had a quick wit, and none of that could’ve mattered less. People made up their minds about me. And because my breasts were so large they were novel in this world, people assumed I was comfortable with them being the topic of discussion, or attention, or derision. There are women who pay a lot of money to get what God gave me. To each his own, I suppose, though having lived through it, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it.
When female celebrities, or the lowly non-famous on social media, proudly displays their asses, breasts, or vaginas, that’s their decision, and they have every right to make it. Yet just because celebrities choose to commodify their bodies doesn’t mean all women want to. I was desperate for people to notice something other than my body, and even today, all I really want is to find comfortable clothes, not be blazing hot all the time, and blend in with everyone else.
This was a hard blog to write. These memories are hurtful. The reason I’m talking about it NOW is because I feel like women-our bodies and our reproductive rights-are under attack by men who don’t understand what it’s like to live in this world as an object more than a person and who frankly don’t care. I felt like I was a smart, kind, naïve, soft-hearted kid who had to pretend to be tough, oppositional, angry, and experienced to protect myself, and a lot of that has dogged me into adulthood. I don’t know many women who don’t feel like there’s some part of themselves they have to keep hidden in order to survive.
Our bodies deserve care, regardless of their proportions. As people, we deserve to be taken seriously and have our experiences validated regardless of our shapes. And most of all, we deserve to be seen as human.
I don’t know any men who started being catcalled when they were twelve, stalked by grown women who shouted obscene, aggressive, demeaning things, and I think it’s ridiculous that we expect girls like me (I was still playing with Barbie dolls and pretending to be an Olympic gymnast on my trampoline) to deal with these acts of violence rather than addressing the culture that allows them to continue and punishing the perpetrators.
Most of all, I want to see women accept each other. I want to accept the women who put their bodies out there, and I want to accept the women who don’t and stop accusing them of being ashamed, prudish, or abetting the patriarchy by buying into its expectation of modesty.
I’m tired of our bodies being sources of lifelong pain.