Breasts of Burden
Memories of mammaries
“You have to suffer to be beautiful,” was my mother’s typical response to my protests about having to wear party dresses with scratchy crinolines and fabrics like organza and wool that irritated my skin and made me miserable. My complaints fell on deaf ears. I was no beauty, but I certainly suffered.
The soft cotton of my prepubescent undershirt was the only protection I had. With the arrival of summer, my skin rejoiced in the freedom from restrictive and itchy school uniforms and formal wear. Summers gave me the comfort of cotton shorts, pants and tops. Needless to say, all of my childhood bathing suits covered up my non-existent breasts.
Like so many transitions in life, it is only in retrospect that we can fully appreciate the “before.” For me, my pre and post-breast life is a striking example. It’s almost a visceral memory for me. I can still recall the comfort and joy of my undeveloped chest covered in a soft cotton undershirt. Did I appreciate that freedom? Absolutely not.
As is often the case, through childhood and indeed throughout our lives, we yearn for what’s next. Perhaps the best example of this happened when our paternal grandparents took my cousin and me to New York City for a memorable week of Broadway shows. We were ten years old. Our days were full — a matinee and an evening performance with a little rest period in between. We had just one day when there was only one performance in the evening, and we were allowed to choose an afternoon activity. We had two items on our wish list: a visit to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum to see the much-touted exhibit of shrunken heads and of equal importance, the purchase of “training bras.” We were under the impression that these bras would train our bodies to produce breasts.
A trip to the lingerie department at our grandmother’s preferred department store, Bonwit Teller, turned out to be a traumatic experience. When our grandmother told the sales lady what we wanted, she glanced at us, shook her head, and muttered something like, “I’ll see what I can do.”
My cousin and I headed into a dressing room, removed our tops, and very likely our undershirts, as we waited in excitement for our first bras. When the saleswoman reappeared, she strapped on the bras, frowned, and declared that we were not yet ready for them. She left the dressing room after telling us to get dressed. We both burst into tears. Our grandmother was highly amused. Little did I know that just over a year later, I would be crying over the arrival of actual breast buds. And that was just the beginning of what I came to regard as my “breasts of burden.”
The relinquishing of a soft cotton undershirt for my first bra was traumatic. It happened when I was in sixth grade. My mother, from whom I inherited my large breasts, was mildly obsessed with making sure I was properly measured and fitted with the right bra. Perhaps this obsession came from having grown up in a small town in Cape Breton where there were no lingerie shops, let alone “bra fitters.” She took me to a shop in Montreal that specialized in bra fittings. I’ve never had a particularly good memory, but the name of that shop and my far too frequent visits are seared into my brain. The shop was named after the owner, Anna Globus Hill. Globus and Hill — two words that captured what was happening to my once flat chest.
The experience of every bra fitting had the same overly clinical and exposed feeling that I later associated with annual Pap smears. I was ushered into a dressing room with three-sided mirrors illuminated by harsh white lights. The whole environment felt vaguely clinical. A bra-fitter in a white lab coat with a measuring tape hung around her neck would enter and tell me to remove everything from the waist up.
My chest was measured, both below the breasts and across the nipples and it seems to me there was always a grim look on the fitter’s face as the cup size was ever increasing. By the time I was sixteen and heading off to Boston University, my bras were a 32 D. The best part of leaving home was discovering that I could buy a bra in a department store without the humiliation of being measured.
Western clothing is generally not designed for women with breasts that are any larger than a B cup. Any top that buttons down the front is problematic for women with breasts beyond that size. My obsession with finding tops that don’t cling, that don’t gape at the buttons, that don’t emphasize the breast, has been lifelong. I’m forever looking for the perfect “minimizer” bra so that I don’t enter a room leading with my boobs. I have long been envious of small-breasted women who can go braless with ease, who have never had to wear an underwire bra, and who can find a bathing suit that contains their breasts with ease.
Perhaps the challenge of having large breasts explains why I was drawn to the Indian sari in my early teens. What a sensible way to handle all the outcroppings of a woman’s body. Just take a length of gorgeous fabric and wind it round whatever shape-shifting reality defines a woman’s body. No need to worry about buttons popping or shirts gaping. As waists thicken and bellies soften, the sari is endlessly adjustable. Makes perfect sense to me.
Here I am, halfway through my 71st year, and my search for the right tops continues unabated. Covid has made me an astute online shopper, and I’m now as experienced as any of the Globus and Hill bra fitters at ordering just the right “minimizer” bra online.
The memories of a soft undershirt and the freedom of my prepubescent chest continue to haunt me from time to time, and as summer draws near, the anxiety of the bathing suit dilemma begins to surface. Breasts of burden, absolutely.
Thanks for reading A Considerable Age! If you are not subscribed, now is the perfect moment. It’s free and you will get a “considerable” story in your inbox every Sunday for free.
Thanks for being here for another Sunday story. It’s a beautiful long weekend in Quebec. I am taking deep breaths, listening to the birds and trying to tune out the news for just a bit.