"Body Issues" is an essay series about our obsession with our own shape.
“Are you upset about losing your breast?” I asked Mary, my grandmother, while my grandfather brought the car around. This was June 2000, and she had accepted the news from the doctor calmly, with one hand in mine, the other in my grandfather’s. A mastectomy was called for; she had declined reconstructive plastic surgery, dismissing it out of hand. “You know you can always change your mind and get the plastic surgery later,” I continued. She laughed. “I don’t care about that, honey,” she said. “I just hope the cancer hasn’t spread.” And that was that. We set a date for the surgery and went home.
She was 76, I was 32. I had recently started dating the man I would soon marry. When I told Andy that if I had breast cancer, I would feel the way Mary did — that I would be fine with having a mastectomy, I just wouldn’t want to die — he replied “But I like your breasts. You’d try to keep them for me, right?”
The night after my grandmother’s mastectomy, Andy took my nipples into his mouth before we made love in a grand, unusual gesture. “I shouldn’t ignore your breasts,” he whispered. As if he were nervous that they might be gone someday.
What if they were gone someday, I asked myself. Would I really be OK? I slouched through much of my adolescence, hoping that my bad posture would hide my breasts, particularly from my classmates in my all girls’ school. In front of boys it was different — I knew boys liked breasts. With girls you could never seem to get it right: If your breasts were too big you were a freak, if they were too little they teased you. But I became another person altogether when my boyfriend kneaded my breasts. With his hands under my bra I felt like a woman, not a girl. He introduced me to silky bras edged in dreamy lace that showed off my 36 D lovelies to perfection.
A lifelong obsession was born. I work at home, sometimes fail to shower for days at a time, and often dress like a homeless person, but man, are my bras incredible. I have over 300, in sizes ranging from 34 C to 40 DD (reflecting weight fluctuations over the years) and in every style you can imagine. Slutty shelf bras that I love, no-bounce running bras, slinky pink numbers from London shops and cheap but cute bras from Victoria’s Secret. My tits have always allowed me to feel feminine, pretty and sexually viable; even with my unwashed hair and casual clothes, men (and sometimes women) stare at my tits. Sometimes I flaunt them with tight sweaters or plunging cleavage, and I revel in feelings of attractiveness, though I am ashamed at the same time. I’m a feminist, damn it — I shouldn’t care about this stuff. I want to be flat-chested, my tits ignored, but oh how I love that I’m not, and they’re not.
Would I really be at peace with the loss of one or both breasts? I celebrate my breasts; wouldn’t it make sense that I would deeply mourn their loss, too?
Meanwhile, a couple of weeks later, Andy went back to ignoring my breasts in bed, right around the time my grandparents cried tears of relief as the doctor told them the cancer was contained to Mary’s breast. They got it all. She was going to live. “I’m so glad you are OK,” my grandfather said to her, over and over again. “I’m so glad you are OK.”
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October 2005: My grandmother, now 82, needs someone to come live with her so she can keep living in her own house; my grandfather has passed away. At 37, I need someone too. I have left my husband, closed my business, ditched my house. I am alone and verging on despair, asking myself the questions I somehow have never asked before, not even before marrying. What is love? What matters? What are the right qualities in a partner? I agree to stay with her for a while.
A few months earlier, my grandmother received her “five years clean” report, the point in breast cancer treatment deemed as full recovery. She still wears her mastectomy bras, and I take on the task of helping her order new ones—normal on the right side, a secret compartment for an insert on the left. The inserts are laundered and become misshapen, so she replaces them every few months. She’s a 34 C but tends to slouch, so when she tries on the new bras I wind up yanking and tugging on the fake breast to get it aligned with her “real” breast. In a hurried moment, I reach for the wrong side, tugging at her real breast instead of the fake. “Ouch,” she snaps, making a face at me. We both laugh. “See,” she says, “the fake looks so good you didn’t even know which was which.” She’s right.
While living with her, I date only a little and very casually. She asks about the various men who ask me out. She asks why I left Andy. I shrug, shake my head; she pats my hand, lets it go. She says she married my grandfather because “he was smart and fun and had a big heart.”
“That’s it?” I demand.
“What else do you think there is?” she shoots back, shaking her head. My list of wants is miles longer. “Your grandfather was a bunch of other things, too, but those are the reason I married him. A lot happens in life — smart, fun and a big heart will get you through all of them.”
Meanwhile, Mary tells me to buy better bras, ones with more coverage, more support. She tells me to comb my hair. We go shopping and she vetoes the dresses I try on as either being too revealing or too matronly. She lures me out of the baggy sweaters I hide myself in and convinces me to put on a dress occasionally. She coaxes my body out of hiding. I’m still ambivalent about it — it seems unlikely that anyone truly good is going to waltz into my life because they like the glimpse of nipple at the top of my low-cut dress. I know there is a balance to be reached, but finding it seems to elude me.
Eventually, living on my own again, I begin writing full-time and date more, wear dresses again, sexy bras. I date a man who tells me he first noticed me because of my “Shazam boobs,” a man who insists he will provide me with my first “nipplegasm” if only I will let him. Then there’s a lesbian who tells me she loves my tits and my long hair — she is constantly petting my hair and groping me (objectifying tits is not the sole purview of straight men, not by a long shot).
Later, I spend a year with a man who touches my tits before he ever kisses me. At some point he accuses me of “thinking like a feminist again.” Still, I don’t leave. A friend is diagnosed with breast cancer, then another; the boyfriend and I discuss what would happen if I got breast cancer, if I needed a mastectomy. “Don’t lose a titty, baby,” he says, over and over, whenever the subject is broached. I didn’t wince, though I knew I should. And I asked again and again — and always that same, infuriating answer. Later, he says, “Oh come on, you know I’m kidding.” Do I?
You’d try to keep your breasts for me, right? My ex-husband’s question echoes in my head. Underneath all the trappings of a New Age, sensitive feminist male — reading Didion and the Dalai Lama, going to yoga, donating to Planned Parenthood, studying Buddhism — was a guy who thought my tits were for him. Perhaps I am to blame for that. I celebrated my tits with him, with all of these people. Hot bras, clingy T-shirts, sexy lingerie shopping forays. Must I abandon celebrating my tits in order to avoid mourning their loss? To find partners who won’t?
Part of me wants to dismiss my evaluations of the way my partners treat my tits, and the theoretical loss of them, as reductive. At the same time, maybe it’s a kind of litmus test: If someone truly loves you, they aren’t going to care if you “lose a titty.” They aren’t going to want you to “try to keep your breasts” for them. They are going to care about what you want, about what’s best for you. They might notice you for the first time because of your shiny hair or your Shazam boobs, but in the end they are going to care about you, not your tits. Has it really taken me all this time to come to understand something so fundamental? Apparently it has. What I know for sure is that in all the time I spent with those partners, I felt more alone than when I was actually alone.
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December 2012: My grandma has just turned 89. She is smaller, having shrunk and lost weight over the last few years. She wears a 32 B bra now. I am thinking of her and her bras while I am checking online if the Agent Provocateur store in Las Vegas has the couples dressing rooms that some of the better lingerie shops have. I’m headed to Vegas next month to meet my partner, Adam, for his birthday after he attends a conference there. I’m happy to meet him there, to try on lingerie with him. It’ll be fun for both of us, but in the end it’s a bonus, not a necessity.
Perhaps I will take some of those new bras to Italy and Israel, where my grandmother and I are headed in February for a two-week jaunt to visit my grandfather’s family homeland of Naples, and to see Jerusalem. Perhaps I would be better served to pack the Bra-llelujah that my friend Cheryl Strayed introduced me to earlier this year. I would hate to be in the holy land with my grandmother saying, “Put on a better bra.” Cheryl swears that Bra-llelujahs are the only bras she will ever wear again, and for good reason: they smooth you out, fit perfectly, don’t bind. Are they sexy? No. Do I feel sexy wearing one? Why yes, yes I do. I have learned at last that sexy is a state of mind, that it’s not about my tits, or what others thinks of them. It’s about how I feel about myself. It’s about loving and wanting (in the biblical sense) a man who loves me very deeply—and who loves and wants me back with the same fervor. Lacy bras might enhance it a bit, sure, but sexy stays with me even in a boring old beige Bra-llelujahs.
It will be fun to buy bras with Adam, though. He is the proverbial tits man. Months ago, I asked him: “How would you feel if I had breast cancer? If I had to have a mastectomy or a double mastectomy as a result?
“Let me be clear,” he said without pause, “I love your tits, I LOVE your tits, but if you had breast cancer, the ONLY thing I’d care about, the ONLY thing, would be you getting well.” He is the man my grandmother described: Smart, Fun, Big Heart.
I am 44 now, the age my grandmother was when I was born, and I have finally learned that I can celebrate my tits without mourning their potential loss. Having arrived at this place, at once magical and true, I think back to the day my grandfather and I drove to the doctor to find out how far the cancer had spread, if it had at all. We drove by Mary’s girlhood home on the way, and we drove by mine on the way home, after learning the good news. We were observing what matters that day, what it means to be whole. I still felt then like a girl, like a child not yet fully inhabiting the world, but here I am now, grown up, a woman — the one my grandmother taught me to be. Fierce. Appreciative. Aging. Alive.