This is my story of empowerment, as told through my boobs. Don’t worry- I’m not going to name my boobs, describe their personalities and have them converse with each other. I will save that for my graphic novel. It’s just that my boobs have been with me, well, my whole life.
The story of my boobs really begins at the end of my sixth grade year. I went to a positively miniscule school in rural Colorado. The school was so small that kindergarten through twelfth grade was all housed in the same building. I was singing with my class in an end of year performance. Normally, I don’t think teenage boys would be caught dead at such an event, but it was not just my school that was small. The population of my town was probably somewhere around 800 people, and that is being very generous. Everyone, young and old, came to every event because it was the only entertainment to be had.
These particular teenage boys were sitting on the bleachers in front of my parents. They must have assumed my parents could not hear them over the din of our off-key singing, because they proceeded to make comment about my blossoming physique. On the car ride home, my mom made the mistake of mentioning their comments to me. She was trying to impress upon me her disgust at the thought of a bunch of perverts ogling an elementary school girl. My mother may have been horrified, but I was nothing short of delighted. Young girls want to A)know they look acceptable, and B) attract the attention of boys, the older the better. My mom had just handed me the key to cool and I didn’t even have to smoke a cigarette- just grow boobs. I was practically frothing at the mouth waiting to brag to my friends. I readied myself to sprint to the phone as soon as we entered the driveway.
A few short months later, I started junior high. I started dressing very strategically. I would wear loose fitting, parent-approved t-shirts and blouses. They were so loose, that when I bent over, you could see my navel. I played saxophone in the band, and the saxophonists were seated in front of the drummers. Each day, I would bend over provocatively to open my sax case, knowing full well that Mike Hughes was sitting behind me getting an eyeful. I feigned offense when he stole a peek, but the very next day, I’d be leaning over that case once again. One day, he caught my eye. His gaze said “I know what game you are playing.” Being caught at my game was embarrassing, but being caught by Mike Hughes was the worst. He was not what anyone would call a “catch.” He was the guy known for literally shitting his pants driving to get groceries with his dad (when you live in a small town, the nearest major grocery store is about 40 minutes away). I wasn’t trying to impress the captain of the football team or the president of the class. I was giving the pants-shitter a gander at my goodies. More than giving, practically begging him to take a look.
I don’t know if it was societal pressure, my low self esteem, or my love of hair metal bands, but by high school, I was fairly certain that my most appealing feature was not between my ears. My high school health class was nothing more than an opportunity for us to cluster in groups and gab about sex. At that time, I was a goodie-two-shoes in slutty girl clothing, but I listened with marked intensity because that is what teenage girls do when the conversation turns to sex. Ok, that’s also what middle-aged women do. One of my close friends was known to have had encounters, and the rest of us prudes would listen to her tales, taking mental notes as to the do’s and don’ts of promiscuity. After one heated session with her boyfriend, she complained that all he wanted to do was grope her breasts. She found his enthrallment beyond annoying. Her remark was “what’s the big deal? They’re just boobs.”
I hated to think of my best feature being downgraded to “just boobs.” I knew I was supposed to think my mind or my personality were my strongest features, but I also knew that boys were not fantasizing about my hot psyche when I walked in a room. I went to high school with regular boys, not Bill Gates. Even he is probably impressed with a good pair of tits now and again.
My thinking began to change when I read Naomi Wolf’s “Fire with Fire.” If you’ve read Wolf’s writing, you would think the more likely book to change my attitudes towards physical appearance would be “The Beauty Myth.” But it was “Fire with Fire” that introduced me to the idea of feminism. Sure, I knew all about suffragists and bra burners, but I did not think of feminism as a current and ongoing movement.
I remember the exact figure that blew my mind. Wolf described how women make up 51% of the population, men 49%. At the time the book was written, 1993, that 2% difference equaled seven million more votes. Wolf wrote “If there is to be a gender war in politics, a 2 percent advantage, nationally, and a bonus of seven million votes, means that the side that best represented the spectrum of women’s wishes would win” (p. 14).
I loved arguing about politics, but this statistic had nothing to do with politics for me. It meant I was inherently powerful. I had strength just by being a woman, and that strength had nothing to do with my physical appearance. I had spent most of my life feeling less than authoritative, so the idea that I had strength coded in my genetics was awe-inspiring. Yes, I was taking it too far, but that’s how I felt. For the first time, I felt like I didn’t have to lead with my boobs. I could lead with my mind.
I was lucky enough to meet a guy who solidified these feelings. Sure, Ben found me attractive. At least, I assume he did- he married me. But on our third date, he proposed that we should exchange three books that had an impact on us, as a way to get to know one another. He didn’t just want to fondle my fun-bags. He wanted to read my books.
As I said, we got married, and eventually decided to start a family. By the time I had children, I thought me and my boobs were pretty comfortable and confident. Leave it to a life change to literally change your life.
My husband wanted me to breast feed. I had been bottle fed and was a little nervous about this breastfeeding idea. But we had both read the research and were in agreement that breast was best.
I had never wanted fake boobs. I proclaimed how ridiculous they looked, so hard and unnatural. The truth is, I didn’t think it was fair that someone with a few thousand dollars could buy the one natural physical feature I was blessed with. I was not slender, I was not lean. I had pudge and stretchmarks a’plenty. But dammit, I had boobs. Skinny girls are not supposed to have boobs. It is the one thing that gives chubby girls an edge!
My milk supply came in, and I began to rethink this fake boob business. They were huge. And high. And firm. They looked completely fake and I was in love. I wanted to take a picture of my boobs. I went racing out to the kitchen to show my husband. I wanted my love affair with my boobs to last forever, but it ended moments later when I attempted to breastfeed.
When I was pregnant, I was telling one of my girlfriends about a breastfeeding class I had taken. Her teenage daughter overheard me and remarked “why do you need to take a class to learn to breastfeed? Isn’t it natural?” It is natural, and for many women, I’m sure it is easy. For me, it was the ol’ circle hole, square peg.
Liam would not latch. I tried the football hold. I tried the cross cradle. Heck, I would have stood on my head and hummed “Yankee Doodle” if I thought it would make him take the boob. Uh-unh. He wanted the bottle. Just when I ready to love my boobs for their functionality not their physicality, BAM! NO! Their mammary destiny was to go unfulfilled. I was a breastfeeding failure. I may sound melodramatic, but ask any mom who has struggled with breastfeeding, and she will attest to the feeling of utter disappointment. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t get my boobs to do what they were designed to do. What was wrong with me?
I was snuggling Liam in the rocking chair, when he turned his head and started to nuzzle my breast. He opened his mouth like a baby bird. I tried not to get my hopes up. He was eight weeks old, and I had only successfully breastfed him a couple of times. But I unhooked my nursing bra and placed my nipple near his mouth. He latched! He latched! I wanted to run down the street in celebration, but oh yeah, I was holding a baby. Instead, I internally congratulated myself while I outwardly grinned from ear to ear.
From then on, nursing was a breeze. By the birth of my second son, Kellen, I was a pro. Ok, he too was a slow starter, but got going much easier than his big brother. The last hurdle was to nurse (gasp!) uncovered.
Prior to breastfeeding my own children, I never thought of public nursing as a feminist act. Rather, I thought it was something that hippies did to make the entire rest of the world uncomfortable. They seemed so brazen, bare-breasted and confidently feeding their child without a thought of who’s gawking. Couldn’t they show a little modesty? I could tolerate their stench of patchouli but did I have to see their boobs too?
It is strange how I was perfectly comfortable with men drooling over my cleavage like a steak dinner, but my inner prude came sprinting to the surface at the very idea of nursing my child in public. Among other nursing moms, I would breastfeed with assurance. When I was on an airplane or in a mall, it became a different story. I was the woman clumsily trying to balance a blanket over her shoulder while getting a child to latch, nervously looking around for fear of exposing myself. Spoiler- children do not like to be suffocated while they eat. Much like their adult counterparts, they prefer to breathe freely.
I had given in to my puritanical alter ego with Liam, but I knew I did not want to cover with Kellen. I sought advice from other mothers. One suggested I look in a mirror while nursing my son, to see exactly what was showing. I was in the habit of pulling my shirt up over the breast, rather than pulling my breast out the top of the shirt. This meant that once the child was latched, my shirt and my child covered nearly every part of my breast. A passerby might get a glimpse of some side boob, but he’d have to be looking pretty carefully. If he was going to look that closely, it was on him, not me- PERVERT!
I had gotten into the habit of nursing freely in public. Once I overcame my initial stage fright, I determined that I was surrounded by complete strangers. I would never have to see them again, and if it bothered them, they could go home and complain to their family about the dirty hippie flashing her tits at Jamba Juice. But amongst my friends was a different story. I knew them before I got pregnant, and I knew most of them held the same beliefs I did prior to my children- breasts are for the bedroom, not the showroom. This attitude was affirmed at a group gathering.
One of my friends was having a first birthday party for her son. At most first birthdays, there is an uncomfortable mix of people with children and people without, since the parents do not want to risk offending anyone by not inviting them to share in their child’s special moment. The time came to feed Kellen. I chose to worry about my friends’ comfort rather than my child’s. Against my better judgment, I covered. One of my girlfriends remarked to another friend “I’m so glad she covered up. I hate when women just whip a boob out.”
I should have ripped that cover off and forced her to motorboat, but I didn’t. I fumed in the car on the ride home, and decided to never cover again. Strange as it may sound, it became political for me. If men can walk around freely without their shirts on, I should be able to feed my child without being surrounded by disapproving glances. Feminism was not just about the glass ceiling and equal wages. Men were not solely to blame for sexualizing the female body. Women need to support other women in viewing their bodies for what they can do, not how they look. Our bodies are miraculous things. We can give and sustain life. Isn’t that far more worthy of discussion and celebration than how good we can look in a tank top?
It is strange how one little moment can snowball into an entire change to your mindset. After the birth of Liam, I started running. I was so slow and horrible at it. I could not jog a quarter of a mile without stopping to walk. But I kept after it. Little by little, I started improving. Within a couple of months, I could run two miles. Then three. With each step, I got a little more confident in my bodie’s ability. It almost felt like I was shedding my insecurities as I ran, letting them fly away in the breeze behind me.
For the first time in my life, I was losing weight in a healthy fashion. I wasn’t throwing up, I wasn’t taking pills, I wasn’t in an endless cycle of starving and binging. I was just doing things that made me feel good. The really astounding part was that the weight loss was a bonus, not the focus. Running made me feel powerful. I enjoyed pushing myself and seeing my body react favorably to the challenge.
It wasn’t all candy and roses. I was losing weight, but in a much different manner. I have always been very curvaceous- big boobs, big butt. I was holding on to the big butt, but my boobs were quickly shrinking. I don’t know if it was pregnancy, breastfeeding, running, age, or some combination of all of them, but my boobs took on the look and feel of deflated balloons. In addition to my fat ass and dwindling boobs, I also had a large mound of loose skin in my midsection that would just not go away with a few more crunches. I had gone through two pregnancies and my body was a roadmap chronicling the journey.
If I knew at eighteen that I would have this body at thirty eight, I would have cried for the next twenty years. I think of how much I loathed myself in my younger days. I complained not daily, but probably hourly about how horrible my body looked. A friend of mine said “one day, you are going to look back at pictures of yourself and realize you were hot. And that you never got to enjoy it.” That advice has stuck with me. I could long for the past, hope for the future, or love myself today.
Nine months after Kellen was born, I ran in a half marathon relay. My leg of the race was 6.2 miles. When I started training, I was nervous about finishing. Then I knew I could finish, but I might walk half of it. Then I started thinking it might be possible for me to jog all of my leg. I not only finished, I ran every step and felt great at the end. I am currently training to run a half marathon by myself. That’s something eighteen year old me would have thought was out of my realm of possibility.
My body may have sags, and stretches, and cellulite. But for the first time, I love it. I see it as a tool of strength, not a cross to bear. I knew becoming a parent meant I would be raising children. I just didn’t know one of them would be me.