It’s now apparent that my need for a pain-free existence supersedes my programming that I must adhere to decorum and not cause a ruckus. A nipples-the-size-of-Jujubes ruckus. Therefore, I will henceforth be going mostly bra-free.
About a year and a half ago, I had a quarter of my right lung and a non-cancerous tumor removed in a surgery that required cutting through a 20-year-old scar under my right breast. The first time the incision was made, it was to inflate a lung that had collapsed in a multi-fatality car accident; the second time, it was to deflate the same lung in order to perform the surgery. Suddenly, about fifteen months after the surgery, I started getting searing pains in the scar. Soon after, the pain began shooting through my breast and into my nipple, as if condensed heat energy was pooling and clamoring to exit.
I tried buying a new bra, but couldn’t find an adjustment that didn’t leave the underwire pressed firmly against the scar. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with bras, leaving the adjustment looser wasn’t an option; bras don’t really perform much of a function if the hoist-and-lift feature isn’t fully engaged. I’ve tried layering shirts, but this isn’t ideal either. First of all, I was given the Nappier Women Gift of small boobs, but massive nipples. My mom used to wear a shirt, in the 70s, that said Itty Bitty Titty Committee on it. She was practically boobless, her breasts were so small. However, I would stare, captivated, at the two points that slightly raised the tank top off her chest. “Why are those things so big?” I’d wonder. “Will I have nipples that size one day?” The answer, resounding, was YES YOU WILL! So, unless I want to wear six layers of tank tops, layering isn’t an answer to my problem. Or, you know…”problem.”
Layering isn’t an answer for another reason, too: boob sag. I’ve been pregnant three times in my life, which has resulted in four births. (Give yourself a second; trust me, the math washes.) I breastfed my twins until they were two years old. As the old joke goes, I deserve a medal and a chest to pin it on. On top of that, I’m almost 40 years old. The spring and elasticity of my youth just sort of gave up at some point recently. “We won’t be doing that anymore,” they told me. We had a final toast, and then I sent them out to sea in a flaming boat, like a Viking funeral.
As I see it, the problem (or, you know…”problem”) with boob sag is two fold: one is that if a woman is to be seen as sexually vital in this culture, her breasts, at a minimum, must protrude farther than her belly. At the moment, this is not the case for me. If I have a really good morning bm and stand up super straight, the two body parts are neck-in-neck. However, I can only control for one of those two factors, and sometimes even then I forget. The second “problem” with boob sag is that I’m simply not ready to disappear yet. If I’m not seen as sexually vital, then how am I seen? The answer is, in mainstream culture I’m not. I’m not ready to spend my last fuckable day on the planet yet. I like sex. A lot. I’m not ready for my vagina to turn into a hermit crab.
It’s not just my boobs that are saggy, either. My nipples also sag. When they’re soft, which is nearly never, they’re droopy lumps of pink flesh just hanging there, defeated. Of course, more often than not, they’re erect, the dutiful old soldiers that they are, and when they’re erect, they’re ofen wall-eyed. If I’m in a crowd, I have to quickly stick my hands in my shirt to adjust them, lest I poke out the eye of the guy to my left. It’s safest for everyone if they’re always front and center.
The decision to stop wearing a bra has been made slowly over the last couple of weeks. I drove my boys to school recently, sans bra, and one of my sons very sweetly suggested that I put a sweater over my shirt. “I just don’t want people staring at you, mom. That’s not nice.” So, I pulled on a cardigan and drove my kids to school – but was very unsettled about it.
Sure, being a card-carrying feminist, I’ve considered and discussed boobs many times – the social, historical, biological, cultural, and patriarchal significance of them. I participated in Boobquake, for goodness sake. (And if Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s recent comments result in Jeans Quake, I’ll get out my tightest pair. I have my pliers and yeast infection medicine at the ready, just in case.)
Nearly once a week since the dawn of social media (and even before), I come across a story about the significance of boobs – boobs on women specifically, because come on. It’s a subject that unifies all women, no matter the age. I know, strongly, that the most important feature a woman can have is boobs. People notice them. We, as animals, are built to. And you know, that’s fine. In theory.
If you don’t think boobs – especially visible nipples – are an issue, consider this: What if you were an employer interviewing a woman (the young type; the ones who get noticed) for a job and she came in dressed very professionally, but noticeably not wearing a bra and with erect nipples. Would that influence your decision? Why? Do you ever see a braless woman with erect nipples out in the world – in a store, say? What is your first thought when you notice it? How would you feel if you were at a PTA meeting and all of the moms were braless and nipply? Would you think they were acting rudely? If yes, why?
For the love of god, why?
Today, I put on a bra under a tank top and set off for a social outing. But, once again, within just a few minutes of having it on, the searing, stinging pain under my right breast became overwhelming and I knew the bra had to come off immediately. As a matter of fact, the pain and discomfort was so acute, I put my car in park at a stop light and yanked the damn thing off as fast as I could, happily discarding it in my backseat with a final, resigned flick of my wrist. “That’s it,” I thought. “I’m done with that bullshit.”
Not long after, I went into the grocery store. The air-conditioned, chilly grocery store. I walked confidently toward the beverage cooler, shoulders back, and tried to ignore both the elderly man on the motorized shopping cart who gaped openly at my boobs, then my face, then my boobs again, and the young boy – maybe 10 years old – who stared uncomfortably at my chest as he walked by with his dad, even turning his head as his body passed by me. Was I making it up? Were they really staring? I don’t think I did; and, yes, I think they were.
Considering the question of boobs and nipples while I could still maneuver the world according to the rules of sex and gender was, I see now, mostly academic. Now that summer is approaching and I’m inclined to wear less, not more, I have to willfully, even bravely (is it bravery? It feels like it) go against those rules and expectations and still maintain the confidence that I will still be seen – not stared at, but seen – and still be vital.
And, finally, I have to have this conversation: Yes, son – it is rude when people stare at me, or anyone, because they don’t fit in with the rules. But it’s also understandable; we’re all just animals. But let’s talk about why the rules are there, what they mean, and how it’s other people’s problems, not yours or mine, if I don’t give a shit about following them.