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I recently spent an entire Saturday afternoon loitering outside a changing room at Macy's while my 11-year-old daughter tried on training bras. All her sixth-grade classmates are wearing them now. "Why do they need a training bra when they don't have any boobs, Mom?" After Lily asked me that for the third time, I realized it was her roundabout way of telling me she was ready for one, too. A secret Google search for "breast growth" (obviously not so secret, as her teenage brothers discovered evidence of her research on the family computer and ratted her out) confirmed the need for a shopping trip and a quick lecture. Lily's Internet information quest had turned up a website that I'm pretty sure wasn't meant for 11-year-old girls.
As I sat there waiting for my daughter to find a style she liked, I couldn't help but think this was a momentous occasion in both our lives. A bra would be her first ticket into womanhood. No more innocent running around without a shirt. No more getting dressed as quickly as boys do. No more my baby girl. We were entering a whole new era.
I think Lily was thrilled to find that the small was too small -- we had to go up a size. Still, it was two tiny little triangles on a piece of string. Like her friends, she doesn't have any breasts at all yet, but I notice she wears the bra night and day. Maybe the secret of the training bra is to encourage them to grow by introducing the training early.
Then there are my own apparently overtrained 36Cs (actually, there's my first lie and a hint as to how I feel about them -- I'm more of a 36D in denial). I hate them, a fact I don't want to admit to Lily, especially at this vulnerable and exciting time of her life.
Up until the age of 19 I was tall, skinny, and had a cute, Cameron Diaz-style pair of breasts -- the kind that look good in a bikini but let you enjoy jogging or go braless without stopping traffic. Then, seemingly overnight, they sprouted. By the time I was 20, my cups had runneth over, big time. I went from a stick-shaped ugly duckling who never got asked to dance to a curvaceous young woman who was fending off a crowd of boys. I liked being more popular, but the comments and stares made me feel self-conscious. Suddenly I had to think about my breasts: how to cover them, ways to manage them, what people might think or say about them. When I went jogging, slowing cars, and staring pedestrians told me that I was being perceived as more jiggle than jock.
It got worse over the years. With all three pregnancies, my breasts grew bigger and never went back down. I still remember being on a very full flight to Miami 17 years ago, when my son Josh was a few months old and screaming for milk. As I fumbled with my shirt buttons, I apologized to the older man sitting next to me and explained that I had to nurse. "No worries," he said. "I'm a father and a grandfather; nothing fazes me." And yet by the look on his face as I fed Josh, I think he'd either long forgotten what milk-engorged breasts actually looked like or his children had been bottle-fed.
My kids are way past infancy, but I'm still lying to myself when I go to buy bras. I always pick the 36C and when the salesperson hands me a 36D I give her an irritated look, thinking, "How could she possibly think I'm that big?" But denial only goes so far and I'm often forced back to the reality of the situation. In the summer when everyone else is wearing skimpy tops, my babies are strapped down in an old-lady bra and a Spanx tank top. The words "spaghetti strap" definitely aren't in my vocabulary.
Maybe that's why I love winter, so I can be covered up in black every day to help divert attention. That's when I start to wonder if it's all in my mind. And then someone makes a comment, a crude "Lemme get my hands on those" from a guy or an envious "I wish I had big boobs" from a woman, and I realize, no, it's not my imagination. Women think they're being kind with their remarks, but it's funny -- I never feel the need to make comments about small-chested women. I just secretly look at theirs, look down at mine, and sigh.
The other week I bought a bra that said "breast minimizer." Fantastic, I thought. The answer to my problem! And it was even buy two, get one free. I snagged them without a second thought, then got home and tried one on. I did look smaller in front -- because my girls were squeezed and escaping out the sides. Not attractive. Plus, it felt like a chest corset.
I'm tired of all the breast management I have to do. Every women's magazine and big-boob website has a long list of don'ts for me: No large prints, horizontal stripes, frills in the chest area, turtlenecks or crew necks, and nothing too revealing. On the other hand, my husband is happy if I show them off. He likes my big boobs. He's definitely a boob guy. Actually, he likes all of the parts that make a woman.
I keep thinking that I don't want my daughter to have big breasts like me. But I'm keeping my mouth shut. For now she is excited about her bra collection and her first steps into womanhood. She's joined the sorority of sixth graders wearing bras and I know she wears hers proudly. If she's in the middle of a conversation about Maroon 5 and how hot Johnny Depp is and one of her friends notices the tell-tale skinny strap, she'll be psyched.
I wish I felt that kind of self-acceptance. With Lily as inspiration, maybe I'll get there. I recently had a mammogram; when I got the results, all was well. So however my breasts look to outsiders, I'm starting to see them in a new light. They are healthy, they are real, and they are mine.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2012.