I am a certified bra fitter. I take part in the routine act of juggling, jamming and lifting boobs into the cups of bras, hoping to pay my rent and fill the holes in my wine rack. A bra fitter might sound like a relic of "Mad Men," but actually, thanks to Oprah (who's taught us that most women aren't wearing the right size), my job has never been so popular. At times, the monotony of hanging thongs on plastic hangers nearly beckons me into madness. Other times, I am riveted by the window I have into the strange and imperfect human body -- into people in general. I've seen nursing bras that appeared as if their stained remnants fed an orphanage. I've waited on breast cancer victims, housewives, transgendered women. I've seen pushy stage mothers buy body slimmers for their pretty, elementary-school girls. I've also enjoyed the simple satisfaction of helping people feel more comfortable -- if not in their own skin, then more comfortable in their second.
That's my job: To help you find a bra that fits. Of course, that isn't always as simple as it sounds.
The woman was a tall blonde baring most of her exceptionally large breasts out of a thin white tank top.
"How can I help you?" I began. It had been a hectic day. The store was chaos.
"Well," she replied -- and then stopped, smiling with a smudge of pink lipstick covering her front tooth. She set down a black and white rabbit fur purse on the counter, dug her stained yellow acrylics into the pocket of her jeans, pulled out a wad of hundred dollar bills and asked me to "fit her tits."
The counter area grew calm as women quieted their conversations to listen.
"Oh, OK," I said. "How about we head back to the dressing rooms, and I'll measure you?"
"Measure me?" she asked, her eyes widening. "Like with an actual measuring tape?" But she followed me back there, her fur draped closely to her side. Her slender heels looked like they were purchased from a hardware store on the aisle that read "Knives, Blades and Sharpeners." Here was one woman who didn't lack for self-defense; she had weapons.
"Let's rock and roll," she said, cracking her neck and then her knuckles, the sound ricocheting in the dressing room like she was popping bubble wrap. Her voice was a deep smoky alto, like Janis Joplin.
"You have a lot to work with," she said, taking off her top and cupping her breasts into the palms of her hands. "These bitches are heavy!"
These weren't just boobs; they were like large bags of sand, heavy and huge and real, bulging out of her black-laced pushup. They hung a bit low, testing her posture, but managed to stay round. Faded stretch marks ran down either side like fault lines. She was deeply tan.
I wrapped the measuring tape around her wide upper torso, hoping to avoid moving my hands too far up under her breasts, a workplace hazard. I measured 40 inches around and eyed her cup size at a G.
"Your hands are freezing!" she said with a jump. I have poor circulation, but the fiberglass measuring dispenser doesn't help. "You need to get outside, baby. Warm up those hands!"
Her use of "baby" was honest and strangely endearing, making the "honeys" and "sweethearts" from customers sound jaded and patronizing. I turned to look at myself in the mirror.
"I should spend more time in the sun. Vitamin D, right?" I caught a glimpse of my pale, gaping forehead in the mirror. "But I get heat rashes and bumps even after lathering myself in SPF 80 armor." I fluffed my bangs back to the center of my forehead.
She laughed. "You are WHITE!" she said. "This is LA!" And it's true. I am WHITE. I stared at my skin in the mirror like I'd never seen it before, pausing at the insides of my forearms, so pale they glowed.
"So what are you looking for exactly?" I looked down at her tattered black bra lying on the floor.
"Something that looks good."
"That's easy," I smiled. "Wait, what's your name?"
She looked up and smiled. "Crystal."
I was on a mission. I was going to help Crystal find a bra that actually fit her breasts, something practical and something pretty. I grabbed a T-shirt bra, along with a few lacy numbers.
"Oh, wow," Crystal said, picking up the skin-colored T-shirt bra. "This looks like I could cut off the straps and wear one for a headband."
"It's good under thin shirts or sweaters," I said. "It'll give you a little lift, too."
"Baby," she said again, but this time with authority. "I hardly wear sweaters or anything that resembles a thick shirt."
"Well, what about for work?"
The dressing room grew silent. "My work is not that complicated when it comes to wardrobe. But, hey, let's give it a shot."
I took a step back as she scrutinized her body, stopping abruptly at different parts. My eyes darted below her waistline where a black panther clawed its way down her abdomen.
"I don't like all this coverage," she said. "These are my moneymakers."
I didn't know what to say at that moment. I felt confused, awkward, like a child. "Oh, all right," was my genius response. "Let me get some other bras."
I went into a display of bras meant for cleavage, grabbing a red one with thick padding and a bow in the middle. I added a handful of pushups in pinks, blacks and deep floral patterns. But in the meantime, Crystal had been looking, too. She returned to her dressing room with two leopard-print bras and matching thongs. Finally, she opened up the door. "Ta-da!" she said, spreading her arms. "What do you think?"
"Well, the bra is a little ... small," I replied, reaching in to read a 38 DD on the tag.
"But it looks good, doesn't it?" She said it with such confidence that it was hard trying to talk her out of it. Still, I had a job to do.
I pushed her closer to the mirror with my hands. "You see all this breast tissue, Crystal?" I asked, tapping on her breasts. "That's supposed to be inside the cups."
"Baby," she almost cut me off, staring at me gravely, but with a hidden smile. "I'm an escort. I need cleavage."
My body went numb. Not because of what she'd divulged about her job, but because of her unflappable poise. I spend all day watching women topless -- watching them agonize over their shapes, flinching and dissatisfied, anxious about how other people see them. I thought about my own body, in all its semi-soft splendor, and the diligent ways I tried to camouflage my hefty backside and cellulite. And here was Crystal, nearly naked and totally unashamed.
"These girls are big, huh?" she laughed, jiggling her breasts in the leopard pushup.
The bra didn't fit at all. And yet, it fit perfectly.
Natalee Woods received her MFA in Creative Writing from the California Institute of the Arts. She is working on a memoir called "Boob Job: Unexpected Adventures of a Department Store Bra Fitter," from which this is excerpted. Visit her at Nataleewoods.net.