Busting out

Women pay good money for big boobs, but I never felt comfortable with my breasts. Now it's finally time to face down my fears and find a bra that fits.

Published December 10, 2007 11:05AM (EST)

I was in the middle of a semi-naked makeout session with the man I was (foolishly) dating when he interrupted to ask a question.

"What size are those?" He meant my breasts.

"Umm ... double D's?" It's a sign of bad dirty talk when a sentence ends in a question mark. ("And now I'm going to ... spank you?")

"What are they really?" It seemed to matter to him, which was annoying. I probably should have realized, in this moment, that I was in a ridiculous, dead-end relationship with a guy whose best asset was his dropped R's. Instead, what struck me was this: I did not know my bra size. And I never had.

Well, I could hazard a guess. I was something bigger than double D. I was a 34 ridiculous. A 34 pain in the ass. Whatever I was, it was something I had avoided knowing, something I had hid from myself, like refusing to step on the doctor's scale for, like, three decades.

"I don't know," I finally said, tugging my shirt back on.

"Well, they're huge!" he said.

Yeah, OK. They are also that.

It must sound like I'm bragging. Would you believe that I'm not? A gajillion porno sites and essentially all of modern pop culture would suggest having big boobs is a wonderful thing, an aspirational thing; hey, people pay good money for these puppies. But for me, it's something I never wanted, something that never fit what I felt like inside, something I try badly to ignore. Unfortunately, most people don't return the favor. People talk about my boobs. People make jokes about them. And eventually, I started making jokes about them, too. Recently, I was standing outside a bar when a gay man I'd never met before asked if he could squeeze them. And the kicker? I said yes.

But underneath all the good-natured self-mockery and the saucy, low-cut tops, there is something else: I am embarrassed by my knockers. And the fact that something I am embarrassed about is the first thing people notice about me? Well, that kinda sucks. I feel like I could save a baby from a burning building, I could cure cancer with glitter alone, and I would still be referred to as "Sarah, you know, the short one with the big tits."

I had my first bra fitting in the sixth grade, about a year after I needed it. It was an amateur affair performed by my older cousin, an expert on scratch-and-sniff stickers but hardly lingerie. Since hitting puberty at the ambitious age of 9 years old, I had refused to take off any clothes in public, and so my cousin placed her flimsy A-cups over my T-shirt.

"It doesn't exactly fit," she told me.

Yeah, but it would do. It would have to do! I wasn't going to a mall to get groped by some silver-haired saleslady, tape measure draped around her wrinkled neck, smelling of powder.

I'll sum up my early adolescence like this: I wore T-shirts in the pool. I showered alone. I learned that clever ruse of changing clothes but never being naked. I tried to be terribly quiet about all this, because if I was terribly quiet, then all of it just might disappear.

Which is the kind of magical thinking that got me to the age of 33, not knowing the size of my breasts. I don't need an "Oprah" episode and a thousand women's magazine articles and the cast of "What Not to Wear" to tell me I'm in the wrong cup size. My breasts spill out the top. (I was horrified to discover the tabloid press had a name for this: quadriboobage!) My breasts spill out the bottom. They spill out everywhere boobs can spill out, basically. But even if my breasts never fit what I felt inside, it seemed like at some point -- at some point! -- I should still have a bra that fit.

Most chain stores and mall department stores now offer bra sizing (thank you, Oprah and a thousand women's magazine articles and the cast of "What Not to Wear"), but they won't do me much good. Gap Body and Victoria's Secret stock no larger than a double D. One of the most famous purveyors of women's lingerie, Calvin Klein, makes selected bras as large as a size D but even those seem intentionally designed to fit only small-breasted women, a decision that is not only annoying but also downright bad business, like making jeans exclusively for tall, skinny people. (I once met a Calvin Klein executive, and when I told her I had a complaint about their bras, she grabbed my hand and said, "We know. We totally know.") I was delighted, nearly clapping in the aisles, to find an Elle MacPherson bra at Bloomingdale's in an E-cup. For one thing, it almost-kinda fit. For another, it was totally slamming.

But to find a bra that perfectly fit me -- special me, wonderfully endowed me -- I would have to make a journey to one of the boutiques for larger-busted women. A quick side note: I'm 5-foot-2, and I wear mostly medium-size clothes, and my foot is a 6, the size often chosen for display because it looks so damn adorable. I remember, years ago, my best friend complaining of the agony of having size 10 feet. Even if stores did stock her size, the shoes looked ungainly in a size 10. It was humiliating. It made her feel grotesque. At the time, I just thought, sheesh, what a bunch of wasted energy. So, OK: I get it now. "Grotesque" would be the word running through my mind as I headed to my first bra fitting. Grotesque, humiliating and also nervous.

Town Shop is located on Manhattan's Upper West Side, home of well-heeled housewives, which is exactly where I would imagine fussy boutique lingerie stores to be. Because this is one of the best-known lingerie boutiques in Manhattan, I expected a certain decorum, the whole fussy Russian grandmother with a look of disdain and a tape measure. But no one pulls out a tape measure. No salesperson appears over the age of 45. No one smells of powder, or examines the circumference of my breasts with a squinty frown. And can you believe I am actually disappointed by this?

I approach the counter and interrupt a group of young, attractive black and Latina women laughing behind the counter.

"I need to get fitted for, like, a bra or something." Suddenly, I am in sixth grade again.

One of them takes me by the hand and leads me into a dressing room, where we stand there, staring at each other.

"What happens next?" I ask.

"Show them to me," she says.

"How?" I wasn't expecting a shrimp dinner and roses, but I wasn't expecting this.

She laughs. "Take off your shirt. Come on, it's a girl thing."

So this is her approach, and it probably works for most women. It's casual. Just us girls. You know, like all the slumber parties we had, when we hung out in our PJs, had pillow fights, and did exercises to increase the size of our chests, like those scenes in Judy Blume's "Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret?" Except I didn't go to slumber parties like that. I love Judy Blume, but when I read that book, at the age of 9, I wanted to throw it across the room.

But I take off my shirt anyway. She stares at me and brings back bras that she has guesstimated to be my size. (She is correct, as it turns out.) They look like I expect: Beige and giant, like you could parachute out of a plane with them. I try them on and she is surprisingly hands-on with me, running one finger along each seam, sticking a finger deep in the crevasse of my cleavage and rooting around, jiggling things unexpectedly. Even my boyfriend and my doctor aren't this thorough.

I feel a sting in my eyes, and I feel bad -- she is sweet and friendly, and it's not her fault I came in lugging three decades of emotional baggage (plus a reporter's notebook I never told her about. Sorry about that). But there is no way I can stand topless in a dressing room in front of another woman judging my breasts and not come close to tears. It's an ancient ache formed of years spent hiding in the girls locker room, years spent undressing with men in total darkness. The ache did dull as I got older. I joined a gym a few years ago, and I found (it was, in fact, something of an epiphany) that the variety of body shapes, scars, stretch marks and cellulite on display there had somewhat relieved me of the anxiety of changing in public. I was modest with my towel, but I was not hysterical. It felt, for once, like we were all in this together, imperfect as we were.

Back in the bra store, the sales assistant steps back and looks at me. "Do you mind if I get a second opinion?"

I am all smiles. Of course! Feel free! (Goddamnit.)

The other woman walks in. "I used to have your size," she says, squeezing her own breasts and laughing. "But I lost weight and mine deflated. I miss my boobs!"

I have heard this countless times before. And there is such an injustice in this, that women cannot swap breast tissue like a cocktail dress. ("Can I borrow your small boobs for this halter top?" "Sure!" "Can I borrow your giant boobs for some cleavage?" "No problem!") It would make everything so much easier. I would know exactly what I was getting my girlfriends for Christmas this year.

"Ooh, mami, you look hot," the woman says. "Don't you think you look hot?"

I don't. I think I look like I'm wearing a corrective body cast. "I guess so."

I sometimes wonder how much of my own personal anguish is cultural. I grew up in an all-white town full of skinny, flat-chested white girls with straight blond hair, girls who were praying (literally praying) for their periods in seventh grade while I was crying over my frizzy hair and hiding my sanitary napkins at sleepovers. And it wasn't until I got older that I realized my body shape wasn't just common in other cultures, it was actually hot. That was mind-blowing to me. I love that other cultures aren't so poisoned about their curvy bodies. It makes me happy, but also a bit envious. Maybe because I have been sitting here, drinking arsenic for so long.

Not all white women hate their knockers. In last year's book "Stacked," Susan Seligson wrote a kind of love song to her 32DDD's. "They suit me now more than ever, at a time in my life when I feel confident and sexy but don't take myself -- or them -- too seriously." Uh, me? Not there yet. I'm more like the women in the British documentary "My Big Breasts and Me" (terrible title, great show), which airs on BBC America later this month (Sunday, Dec. 23, 10 p.m. ET/PT). The documentary focuses on three top-heavy British women made miserable by their large boobs. "I can't stand up straight anymore," says Jodie, a 23-year-old who, at 5-foot-1, is a 28K. "It's almost like a disability." I finished the documentary thinking nothing could be worse than being saddled with big tits. And then I watched the companion documentary, "My Small Breasts and Me" (Sunday, Dec. 16, 10 p.m. ET/PT), wherein three flat-chested women practically torture and mutilate themselves to inflate their assets, and I realized I was wrong. It's hard to find winners in the women's dressing room.

The saleswoman senses my disappointment at this dowdy, utilitarian bra. "You need that lacy Freya bra, the Arabella," she says. "You'll like that one. It's sexy."

And she's right. I do like the Freya bra, enough that I spring for matching panties, the entire set in a sheer brown, with lavender embroidered on the delicate, lacy seams, in a size I am not ready to admit to you yet. It does not look grotesque. It is not something you could use to parachute out of a plane. It looks pretty. It is, to my relief, a totally reasonable $58. And get this? It fits.

"You goin' out in style," says the woman at the cash register, with a half-cocked smile. "Your man gonna be real happy when you get home."

I didn't see any men at Town Shop (other than the man who owns it, Peter Koch, behind the counter), but it has always been my not-so-revelatory suspicion that this entire industry -- this luxurious, pink powder-puff, thongs-as-women's-empowerment industry -- is really just about pleasing men. Because let's face it: I am much more comfortable in a jogging bra and cotton boy shorts, and those don't run me $100 a set. It's all well and good to find a bra that fits, but the truth is that I wanted a bra that not only fit but could also be seen in daylight by the man I'm in love with. Now, there is a time when my intention to please a man would have bothered me -- and at that time, Tori Amos played loudly on my stereo -- and maybe I've gone to the dark side. But all I can say is that this does make my boyfriend happy, and that does make me happy, and I don't think that's bad.

"This whole getting-fitted-for-a-bra thing," my boyfriend says that night. "Is it like, 'Turn your head to the left and cough?'"

"It is," I say. "But it's as if, after that, the doctor told you your penis size, and each time you came into a store, you had to announce it."

That's not how it would feel to most women. But that's how it feels to me.

The following week, I go to another bra store; I guess you could call it a second opinion. But it's more than that. I could buy lacy bras for a hundred romantic shrimp dinners to come, but it still leaves me just as helpless when I get dressed for work. When I run errands. I need a bra I can use to parachute out of a plane. In other words, I need a bra for me.

That's why I head to Orchard Corset on Manhattan's Lower East Side, which couldn't be further in aesthetic and atmosphere from Town Shop. The place, frankly, looks like somebody's cluttered garage. The bras aren't even on display; they're stuffed in old shoe boxes stacked from floor to ceiling, which gives the unsettling impression that you are trying on bras in the Unabomber's basement. When I tell him I want to be measured for a bra, Ralph Bergstein, the Hasidic man who runs the store with his family, guesses my size as if it were a question on "Final Jeopardy!" (Yes, it's the same damn size. And no, I still don't want to tell you what it is. I promise I will e-mail it to you sometime, after we've had a few drinks and/or you've sent me your weight and cholesterol.)

Orchard Corset is all elbows on the weekends, but on a Monday morning, I am the only customer. So a nice woman from Trinidad escorts me into a dressing room (a generous term -- there is a curtain and a mirror and not much else) and says, "OK, take it off."

I am delighted to find this does not traumatize me now. Not in the least.

"You want pretty or you want functional?" she asks.

Oooh, I want pretty. But I need functional.

She brings me a broad, sturdy minimizer from Wacoal. It is huge. The straps feel like seat belts. There is just an awful lot of shiny beige fabric. "What you think?" she asks when I put it on.

"I think it's ugly," I say.

She laughs. "It is ugly."

I put on my shirt and turn to the side to see how it fits. No quadriboobage. No spillage, anywhere. Everything just kinda looks like it should, considering that it's me.

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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