I’M STANDING in the fitting area of Linda’s, an extravagant lingerie store in Murray Hill, New York. Purple-draped changing rooms loop around a plump, cream chaise longue, and on the walls hang sepia-toned photos of exceptionally sexy—and well-endowed—women. They aren’t the breakable, thigh-gapped girls you see on Victoria’s Secret posters; they’re plus-sized models with voluptuous bodies, their breasts bigger than DDs. Through an open door, I glimpse a stockroom filled with gleaming racks of bras in every size, style, and color imaginable. Peach, crimson, black, cream, dark blue, magenta; full cups, demi cups, balconettes; with wires and without. It’s a candy shop of bras, and I’m the fat kid. I’m in big boob heaven.
But I’m not used to glamorous bra shopping experiences. For me, and many other women “blessed” with big breasts, bra shopping is a stressful, even shameful, experience wrought with self-delusion, loathing, and disenchantment. I didn’t always have this problem. At age 11, it was quite the opposite. When I asked my mother—from whom I’ve inherited my now 32G chest—to take me shopping for my first bra, her response was ambivalent; she’d be happy to buy me a bra, but did I need one just yet? Well, I wanted a bra and breasts sumptuous enough to fill it, so mum took me to John Lewis, a British department store, to get fitted. I had dreams of pretty black lace, something sheer and sultry. Alas, my first bra—a white, sensible under-thing that landed flatly against my flatter chest—didn’t live up to my expectations. Because a black lace bra is not the sort your mother buys you.
Like most preteen girls, I was desperate for big boobs. But as my breasts developed, through my teenage years, into D, E, F, and—in the last couple of years—G to H territory, they’ve become too big for dainty bras; ones with barely-there lace and spaghetti-thin straps, or scalloped balconettes and delicate bows. Though, at first, I loved my larger breasts, I was reluctant to shop at big bra stores like Bravissimo, a British retailer that, according to their philosophy, carries styles “designed especially for big boobed women so that they can celebrate their curves and feel good about themselves!” On my first visit at 17, the chatty, busty woman fitting me (without a tape measure, I should add) lectured me about wearing the wrong bra size. The right bra should fit so the middle section between the cups digs in here against your rib cage. And the straps should be tight enough to squeeze your shoulders and back, which should make you feel somewhat like a whale being hoisted into a fisherman’s net. Oh, and sweetie, you want to make sure the cups completely cover each breast. Well now, there’s a great fit. Let’s wrap those up for you, shall we, poppet?
When my breasts first properly showed up, an agreeable C cup by the age of fourteen, they became a secret I wanted to share—in some way that wouldn’t attract what I recognized to be the wrong kind of attention. In her book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, an indispensible companion to women’s chests, Florence Williams calls this desire “that exquisite tension between wanting to show off our new breasts and not wanting anyone creepy to notice them.” And that predicament was exquisite—for a while.
I thought that with cleavage came power. But as my cleavage amassed, I found the opposite to be true. My ample cups seemed to hint at certain unpleasant possibilities. Like, maybe I was dumb. Maybe I was slutty. Maybe I liked it when people gawked at my breasts, and when the guy driving that van rolled down the window to say “nice tits, love” as I walked past in my school uniform. And I probably didn’t mind when I said no thank you to the boy who wanted to snap a photo on his phone looking down my top, but he didn’t listen and took the photo anyway.
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“Funbags. Boobsters. Chumbawumbas. Dingle bobbers. Dairy pillows. Nums nums.” It’s with these words that Williams begins her book on breasts, as she argues that however much we love breasts, we’re somewhat ashamed of them. “We can’t quite take them seriously… Breasts embarrass us. They’re unpredictable. They’re goofy. They can turn both babies and grown men into lunkheads.” Yet, as Williams points out, breasts are what make humans unique to any other species: “mammary glands define our entire taxonomic class,” she writes. “Breasts are us.”
Since forever ago, breasts have been the butt of jokes. People were laughing at them long before Dolly Parton and Lil’ Kim’s nip-slip at the VMAs—and Beyoncé’s much talked-about slippage at this year’s Grammy’s. In Austin Powers movies, breasts double up as firing and floating devices. And remember Amy Poehler’s rock-hard implants plunging from her Juicy Couture in Mean Girls? In the same film, Amanda Seyfried’s breasts had the exceptional ability to predict when it would rain—OK, when it’s raining, but still.
Recently, I found a postcard at the Brooklyn Flea market, in which a buxom woman wearing a bandeau bikini opens her door (which has two prominent, shiny knockers) to a phony-looking salesman; the caption reads, “Mornin’ ma’am… Lovely pair of knockers you have there!” Then there’s the woman with the world’s largest breasts, a surgically enhanced 38XXX, who was paraded like a zoo animal on the British television show, This Morning. Meanwhile, on certain porn sites, you might see a GIF in the sidebar of a blonde woman jumping up and down, her breasts following.
And what of the hullabaloo caused by British television presenter Holly Willoughby’s breasts when they appeared in a low-cut dress before the watershed hour (when racier stuff’s allowed on air) on The Voice last June, prompting 139 viewers to complain to the BBC on account of her indecent exposure? The Guardian declared the controversy “Boobgate,” while the British tabloids began referring to Holly’s cleavage as “Willough-booby.”
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Some people think large breasts are a nice problem to have. Nora Ephron was one of them. At the close of “A Few Words About Breasts,” her Esquire essay from 1972 in which she confesses that “breasts were the hang-up of my life” and that had she had them, she “would have been a completely different person,” she writes:
“My girl friends, the ones with nice big breasts, would go on endlessly about how their lives had been far more miserable than mine. Their bra straps were snapped in class. They couldn’t sleep on their stomachs. They were stared at whenever the word ‘mountain’ cropped up in geography… It was much worse for them, they tell me… I don’t know how lucky I was, they say.
I have thought about their remarks, tried to put myself in their place, considered their point of view. I think they are full of shit.”
Large breasts aren’t a fun burden to carry. For years, my breasts have been spoken to (but as yet, they haven’t talked back). Not only that, they’re sometimes touched without my permission—not by men but usually by smaller-chested women curious to know “what if feels like” to have big breasts. One of my girlfriends can hardly have dinner with me without peeking at my breasts between sentences, or announcing “Chloe! Your boobs!” to the restaurant. Then there was that charming guy at a bar who thought it would be a swell idea, on first meeting me, to pellet popcorn at my cleavage. And when a friend heard I was writing this story, she told me, because I have “great tits,” it’s “unfair” for me to write about them. Why can everybody talk about—and hell, to—my breasts, but me?
Aware that I’m not the only woman with big breasts, I invited some large-chested friends for brunch: Julia Angelo, 22 (size 36D), and sisters Rebecca, 21 (34D), and Leah Feinberg, 24 (34D, and formerly a size E to F). When I asked the ladies what bothers them most about their chests, shopping for clothes came up quickly. “I don’t think it’s difficult to wear clothes,” Julia said. “I think it’s more difficult being stylish.” Leah agrees: “Androgynous style is so cool right now, and I cannot pull that off,” she said. Whereas Rebecca likes to wear styles “that emphasize an hourglass figure,” usually dresses cinched at the waist, but they can make her self-conscious. “I’m never dressed like a hooker—and if I wanted to dress like a hooker I would, but it sucks to even have to think about” what an outfit will make her breasts look like.
It was Rebecca’s mother who first drew her daughter’s attention to her cleavage. “Growing up, I really didn’t think of myself as being large-chested,” Rebecca said. When she was in 10th grade, her mother reprimanded her for “showing too much cleavage,” and it occurred to her that she had “sizeable breasts.” The way she dresses remains an issue with her mom. “It’s like a constant thing with her. We’ll be talking about something totally unrelated… She’ll be, like, saying goodbye to me on the phone and she’ll be like, ‘and Rebecca don’t let your boobs hang out.’”
Leah also remembers her mother being critical of her breasts. “I had these shirts I really liked from the juniors department (where I quickly realized I could not shop)—made out of this stretchy, sparkly material, and I was a very small, skinny girl who just happened to develop big boobs.” And it would be like a sitcom: her mother would say, “‘You get right back upstairs young lady, you’re not leaving the house dressed like that.’ And I didn’t understand why,” Leah said. “I was like, ‘Mom, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just the way my body stretches out the clothes.’” Her mother would say, “‘It makes you look like you’re asking for it, it makes you look like a slut’—I don’t know if she said those words exactly but that’s how I remember it,” Leah said. “It made me feel like I was concealing something very dangerous and bad.”
Leah was in high school when she had her breasts reduced. Having large breasts “became too stressful,” she said. “I couldn’t buy clothes that fit; I couldn’t buy a bathing suit; I got attention that I didn’t want.” Some of that attention came from high school boys. One of them, asked by Leah’s friend why he liked her, said, “I don’t know, she’s got big tits.” But unwelcome attention came from women, too, who “just felt like they could comment about it,” she said.
Before surgery, Leah had been a size E to F and though she wanted to be a C cup, she’s now a 34D. Even after her surgery, people kept talking about her breasts. Reactions were mixed, ranging from comments like “Oh, I’m so happy for you! You look so good,” to “Why would you do that?” After Leah’s return to school, a male friend told her that she “had a really nice ass.” He hadn’t noticed before because her breasts had “blinded” him.
But Leah’s glad she had the surgery. Before her reduction, she felt that her breasts were her “defining feature.” Now, she says, “they look like a regular part of me. Like, I’m just a girl who happens to have big boobs and they’re not like these enormous, overwhelming body parts.” A reduction sounded like it could solve a lot of my breast problems––and though I wasn’t actively interested in undergoing surgery, I was curious to learn more about it.
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Dr. Robert Silich MD’s Upper East Side office is fashioned less like a waiting room than an opulent Park Avenue lounge. The furniture is upholstered in leather and pinstripes. Bulky, tasseled curtains sag over a wide street-view window. An untouched bowl of wrapped candy sits upon the marble-topped reception desk.
As I fill out a patient form, the sound of jackhammers starts up, trembling the room. The receptionist apologizes for the noise, which is seeping into the room from next door where they’re refurbishing. A well-coiffed blonde lady on the couch opposite me insists she doesn’t mind, and tells a story about a house in the Hamptons undergoing improvement. Though there are few places in the city where one can escape the clamor of construction, there’s something disconcerting about the racket of drilling and hammering in the context of a plastic surgeon’s office. Ignoring the noise, the lady makes a business call about property, talking loudly into her smartphone. I notice she has impeccably taut skin under her eyes.
A few minutes later, a long-legged, sleek-looking woman collects me from the waiting room. As I follow the click of her heels down a small corridor, I imagine the bodies that have been opened and closed, nipped and tucked, tightened and sculpted behind the doors we’re walking past. How must it feel to walk this corridor in the other direction, out of surgery and into the world anew?
The consultation room is a white, compact, square-shaped room. As I settle into the patient’s seat, the woman notes my answers to questions about my breasts on a clipboard and hands me a papery blue gown. “You wear it so it opens at the front,” she says chirpily, closing the door. But as I put on the gown, its straps don’t cover me and I have to hold the fabric over my breasts as if it were a shrunken cardigan.
A moment later, the woman reappears with Dr. Silich himself, his hair smoothed by product and a polka dot tie tucked into his doctor’s coat. Opening my gown, Dr. Silich instructs me to lift my arms to the ceiling, and moves his hands from the top of my breasts beginning where my chest meets my underarms to the bottom. Though many women have one breast larger than the other, he observes that I’m “very symmetrical” and, pressing the upper quadrants of my breasts, mentions I have quite a lot of fibrous tissue (firm tissue that becomes particularly sensitive around the time of a woman’s period).
After establishing that I’d make a fine candidate for a breast reduction, we talk through the surgery specifics. First, what size might I go down to? If I were to have a reduction, I would want to be a D or C cup—not too big to cause an obstruction but enough to be noticed. Dr. Silich could grant this wish. In fact, anything less could be dangerous. “I mean, I can make you an A cup. The problem is I’d remove so much breast tissue that we’d probably disrupt the blood supply to the nipple,” Dr. Silich explains. “And then it wouldn’t survive and then you’d get infections and you’d get what’s called necrosis where the tissue dies and it’s a mess. So safely I think you could go down…to a C.”
As Dr. Silich explains, cup size is determined by measuring from the top of the breast to the nipple, and around the underneath of the chest. These measurements (in inches) are always rounded up to an even number, so you could be a 31 but you’d automatically be a 32. Then they’re subtracted from one another: if “it’s one, you’re A cup; if it’s two, you’re a B cup,” and so on. According to Dr. Silich, “it’s the most arbitrary thing in the world.” For instance, “a woman can have a really big back or be barrel-chested…and she could end up being a 36D or C, whereas another girl can be bigger-breasted but she can only end up actually being a 32B.”
As well as the possibility of interrupting the blood supply, there’s always the risk of reacting badly to the anesthetic. Dr. Silich tells me general anesthetic is required when a patient has “really really big” and “very thick, fibrous breasts.” That would probably be the case with me. “You’re kind of on the border,” he told me. “What saves you from that is that you’re so young and healthy. You’re only 23, you’ve got great skin: you should be fine.” Why put myself in danger if I didn’t need to, though? The post-surgery hassle doesn’t seem worth it, either. After surgery, patients wear a sports bra for a month, and are advised not to exercise for two weeks to avoid bleeding. Other potential downsides include scarring, loss of nipple sensation, and the inability to nurse—though this can be an issue whether you have surgery or not.
Why do women choose to have breast reductions? Dr. Silich explains: “There are people that genuinely are physically impaired by having large breasts and there’s the other category which is more aesthetic. And then the lines are kind of blurred, because one can meld into the other.” In the first category, patients reported pain in their back, as well as numbness in their fingers (called “paresthesias”) often set off by thick bra straps digging into the shoulders. And some women suffer from intertrigo, a yeast infection where the skin underneath the breasts becomes inflamed. Not all of Dr. Silich’s patients have medical complaints. “They always say, ‘People always think it’s so great to have such big breasts but it’s really not, it drives us crazy.’” He says patient satisfaction for breast reduction is “very, very high.”
A reduction of both breasts would cost me $15,000 and an additional $1,500 for anesthetic. (Though most of the women I’ve spoken to had their surgery covered by health insurance, Dr. Silich tells me companies aren’t as willing to pay for breast reduction surgery anymore, and some now determine the decision based upon breast weight—not commensurate with size.) Unless my breasts became a medical burden, however, I wouldn’t have them reduced. Though they’re a pain, my breasts are a part of my body; reducing them might somehow cut away at who I am.
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Those who want to embrace—and tame—their breasts might visit Linda’s, which carries bras in AA to N cups. The décor of her Third Avenue shop is neither cutesy nor fusty but chic and modern—arty light fixtures droop from the ceiling, and behind a white desk, a receptionist (one of Linda’s “Bra Divas”) greets you on entrance, and shows you to a waiting area stocked with Condé Nast magazines. In the shop window, assorted mannequins pose in lace underwear. Some have big breasts, curved waists, and bottoms, and there are the “normal,” thinner and smaller-chested ones.
Next to shelves of luxury lingerie accessories—bust-shaped brassiere bags (like vanity cases for your breasts), thongs neatly packaged in tiny boxes, and vintage-style bottles of lavish detergent for hand washing bras—hang spars offering brassieres by Simone Perele, Fantasie, Freya, and Panache. As I peruse the racks of pretty bras, Linda appears: a redheaded, designer-clad, bespectacled, pint-sized powerhouse, for whom the word fabulous seems wholly appropriate. A bra-fitting expert, Linda Becker founded the company 27 years ago, when bras for large-breasted women were few and far between. “It sounded like fun to have a lingerie store,” she says. “Then the American Cancer Society asked me if I would go to school and learn how to fit women for bras and prosthesis.” At “bra school,” Linda quickly learned she was wearing the wrong bra size, and she wasn’t alone. Some women even believed bras weren’t meant to be comfortable. “Everybody that walked in the store had the wrong size on,” she says. “It’s all about the fit.”
Though Linda believes the range of bras for large-chested women has improved, the problem persists. “Women don’t get fitted right,” she says. “If it’s one size off, it’s murder.” Indeed, when I meet Linda, she begins by telling a story about a woman who, at the time, is still getting dressed in one of the changing rooms. This lady had gone to Victoria’s Secret where they told her that she was a 38BBB and then she came here, and, measured properly, was told she’s actually a 32J. On her way out, the woman’s beaming and she thanks Linda copiously, as though she’s healed her of an incurable ailment; the Mother Teresa of tits, performing daily miracles.
A good bra isn’t just about the fit; it’s about how it makes you look and feel. Now it’s my turn for a fitting from the Bra Lady, who wears measuring tape around her neck. I’m told to remove my dress and bra, but as I pull my dress down, she whips off my bra. In one swift move, she gets the measuring tape around my rib cage, and in another she has me in a gorgeous Simone Perele lace bra in black, sized 32H. Linda even jiggers my breasts around a little inside the cups to fit them properly—and though I’m usually a G, the H is more comfortable; my breasts feel like they’re being swaddled. But the result isn’t cute or cuddly. Looking in the mirror, I feel somewhat like the women in the pictures hanging on Linda’s walls—the large-breasted, hourglass-shaped, plus-size models who look like they own their bodies, channeling their own sexuality.
I feel damn sexy in that sheer, black lace Simone Perele bra. I never want to take it off. But then I ask the price. “I try to keep the price down for really large cup sizes because it’s not fair,” Linda says, adding that too many companies charge heavily for big cup sizes—and that she won’t carry their bras for this reason. “I try to keep all my bras under $100. Usually they’re from $40 to $100.” But, at $98, I have to give it back—and the dream bra I couldn’t afford returned to its hanger in Linda’s bra heaven.