"We must, we must, we must develop our bust. The bigger the better, the tighter the sweater. The boys are depending on us!"
I never chanted this particular schoolyard rhyme, as if I were somehow all too aware of its consequences. Nonetheless, the breast fairy waved her wand over my preteen body, and voilà!
By sixth grade, I wore an A-cup bra (Kate Moss is a 34A) and suffered as preteen boys yanked at the back of my bra and let it snap. By eighth grade, I was a C-cup (Salma Hayek is a 36C). Now it was male teachers, not just male classmates, who stared at my chest.
By 13, when other girls were buying their first bras, I was already outgrowing mine. Alarmed at my all-too-rapid development, I did some research and learned about Cooper's ligaments, delicate connective tissues that keep breasts perky. Once they break, they're broken forever. I told my P.E. teacher that I could no longer run, lest I break those precious ligaments and get Cooper's Droop. Just like that, I was excused from running—seemingly for the next 40 years.
By high school, I was a D-cup (Marilyn Monroe was a 36D). The boys in my classes never asked me out, as they assumed I was sexually experienced and dating either college boys or our high school principal.
And today, as a divorced woman of 59, my bra size is 40N—yes, N as in Nancy. (Queen Latifah was a 40F before downsizing to a 40E.) A quick lesson in bras: The number (34, 38, 40) is your band size: the distance around your ribcage. (Measure around your chest, just beneath your breasts. Odd number? Round up to even.) The letter (B, C, N) is the cup size, which signifies how much larger your breast is than your ribcage. (Measure around your chest, over your nipples.) If your breasts are 1 inch larger than your ribcage, then you're an A. Two inches is a B, and so on up the alphabet. D is 4 inches. E (also known as DD) is 5 inches. F (DDD) is 6 inches. (Whom do the bra-sizers think they're fooling?)
My 40N (40DDDDDDDDDDD) means that my breasts are 14 inches larger than my ribcage. They are real: no silicone, no saline, no tucks, no tightening. There's no more natural perkiness—instead, the effects of gravity cause my heavy breasts to sag. (I tried to find a softer, prettier word than "sag," but "droop," "flop," "hanging" and "pendulous" are hardly better.)
Apart from never going braless in public, there are other activities my breasts prohibit me from doing:
–Standing up straight. (It looks like I am pushing out my chest; instead, I tend to slouch.)
–Running for a bus or running through a crosswalk on a yellow light. Face it, I just don't run. (Yes, I'm still worried about my Cooper's Droop. Imagine strapping 10-pound weights to your chest and having them swing as you run, practically knocking you out.)
–Practicing yoga. (You want me to touch my forehead to my knees? I can't—my breasts are in the way. You want me to do a headstand? I can't—my breasts cover my nose and suffocate me.)
–Walking carelessly in a small shop with fragile items. (My breasts have "bought" many broken objets d'art after inadvertently knocking them off shelves.)
–Remaining low-profile in a summer job. Busch Gardens didn't have a costume to fit me, so I wore an extra-large T-shirt in the Busch colors. All summer long, boys would come by and point, whispering, "There's that girl with the tits too big for her costume."
–Remaining low-profile in a summer job, Part 2. At McDonald's, I had to wear a button that said, "Try a large one." Imagine the classy jokes I endured that summer.
However, there are things that I can do that my less-endowed sisters cannot:
–Rock a low-cut dress.
–Easily take a mammogram (my breasts don't have to pulled, prodded or stretched).
–Fail the pencil test (place a pencil underneath your naked breast and let the breast fall. If the pencil drops to the floor, you can go braless. If not—not). I can put an entire keyboard under my breast. Probably a monitor and printer, too.
Over the years, my breasts have been the object of both insult and admiration. I don't dress to attract attention, but cleavage aficionados spot me a mile away. Some of the compliments I've received (by way of my breasts) include, "You call it sagging; I call it heaven," while another beau asserted, "Doctors may label your breasts pendulous, but I consider you stupendulous." And I'll never forget this one: "It's those amazing breasts you have that drive a man wild with hope and desire."
Some men focus so exclusively on my breasts that they forget there is a living, breathing person attached. When I was 14, walking in a mall, two men passed by me. "Look at the teats on that cow!" one said to the other, barely a foot from me. It's imprinted indelibly on my psyche.
Other random (and hurtful) comments: "You know they're too big, right?" and "More than a mouthful is a waste." One tactless man called me "soft and untoned."
Even men who appreciate my breasts often feel compelled to tell me that my derriere is too big. Apparently these men don't realize that Mother Nature gives a woman large, childbearing hips to balance large, child-sustaining breasts. Very few extremely slender women have extra-large natural bosoms; they'd topple over. Fertility goddesses have curves.
Then there are comments that are meant to be compliments, but aren't. I'm constantly told, "You hide your figure well" or "Doesn't it bother you that men only want you for your breasts?" With a mix of both envy and disparagement, women will say, "I wish you could give me some of yours; I'm so flat." And then, of course, there is the question on everyone's mind (possibly even yours): "Why don't you get a breast reduction?"
Aside from the possible side effects of the surgery—death (a risk of any surgery utilizing anesthesia), inability to breastfeed, and loss of breast and nipple sensation—I won't undergo a breast reduction for the same reason I won't get a face lift: I am who I am, and for the most part, I'm happy with myself. I'm lucky. I may be a 40N, but my breasts don't hurt me—and pain, as far as I'm concerned, is one of the only valid reasons to undergo surgery. My upper back doesn't ache, nor do my shoulders have angry red bruises from a lifetime of tight bra straps.
And while I do see the benefits of being able to lead a more active life, I'm not yet convinced that it's reason enough to go under the knife. Many women cite "hanging breasts" or "stretched skin" as other reasons for surgery, but why can't signs of age and experience be celebrated—or, at the very least, accepted—not shunned?
After years of self-reflection and my own therapy, I can now freely admit that my identity is greatly informed by my breasts. After all, they're such a large part of me—pun intended. In personal ads, I have sometimes described myself as a "brainy, busty brunette." I'm used to being the most well-endowed woman in the room. I was once at a party when cult film star Kitten Natividad (38HH) sashayed in. We eyed each other warily. It was actually funny how competitive we were.
Stilll, questions remain for the breast fairy: If a man is obsessed with large breasts, does he have a fetish, or merely a preference? And do I want any future romantic partner to adore large breasts, which I so obviously have, or do I want someone who adores me and couldn't care less about breast size? Finally, if the true purpose of breasts is to feed a child, are my breasts then a failure? (I was going to say, "My bust is a bust," but I would never be so groan-worthy.) I don't feel like a failure.
The breast fairy, for her part, has been noticeably silent of late. So it's up to me to live with the duality of my breasts: attention and notoriety, pride and insecurity, awkwardness and beauty. Two breasts: How could I ever expect them to inspire just one emotion?