In 1952 I was thirteen years old and desperate for my life with breasts to begin. All the other girls were blooming like peonies, but I remained stuck in a babyish white undershirt, skinny and flat. Back then bras had stitched pointy cups made with stiff white cotton, the armor of young women destined to be unattainable sex objects until marriage. I couldn’t wait to wear one.
Alone, I prowled the aisles of a local lingerie shop, until finally, furtively, I found it - a 28 AA training bra. What exactly was being trained? Could my breasts be trained to defy gravity? No, the bra was meant to train me, ready me in the restricted ways of womanhood, teach me to put vanity ahead of comfort, society ahead of nature. I was an eager student.
Despite joining the ranks of bra-wearers, my 28 AA was not enough to save me from being ridiculed by the boys who called me, “a carpenter’s dream - flat as a board.” I tried wearing padded bras, but was sure that everyone in school knew and was passing notes to that effect. I spent hours wondering what would happen if you got “felt up” by a boy when you were wearing a padded bra. Much to my dismay, this worry remained purely theoretical and untested, as I was not among the desirables.
Except to the petty perverts. While I was ignored or mocked by boys my own age, grown up gropers seemed to find my breasts irresistible. In my hometown New York City, nothing, not my small size, not the light of day, not even the crowds on the subway acted as deterrents to multitudes of molesters. And I was not alone. Back then, without any recourse, we all shrugged it off. And while it is horrific that we were trained to think this was just the price we paid for being a woman, shrugging it off was a helpful coping mechanism. Feeling traumatized by every incident would have left us sniveling terrorized messes. Our power was in dealing with these affronts without succumbing to total victimhood.
Finally, in the 1960’s, things started looking up for me and my breasts. After turning on, tuning in and dropping out, I burned my bra. Or at least I threw it out. My breasts, were mine now, not pushed up, padded up, swaddled or shameful. Released from repression, they didn’t need to pretend they were big or pointy, nippleless or orderly. Freed from bondage, they were no longer an unavailable temptation, but a source of pleasure and pride. Wearing a gauzy Indian shirt, I reveled in my barely concealed tits that swayed and bounced with affirmation of life and female sexuality. The neighborhood men approved. So did my hippie lovers.
Then the sixties became the seventies, and my rebellion against repressive sexuality was overtaken by a feminist defiance. I could do whatever I damned pleased with my tits, and no patriarchal, male chauvinist pig society could tell me otherwise. I didn’t need to wear a bra, so why did I need to wear a shirt? If men could go shirtless, so could I! Why should my breasts be kept captive, prisoners of men’s miserable inability to control their own lust? Women had mammary glands to nurse babies and sustain the species, not to entertain and excite lecherous men. Sisterhood is powerful!
It turns out humans are the only mammals whose mammary glands remain enlarged when they are not pregnant or lactating. If our breasts were truly only for nursing, they would shrink away when not being used. Our swollen bosoms signified to males that we were healthy and fertile. Permanent fullness likely evolved through mate selection. With men hard wired to respond, female breasts became perpetual publicity. I kept my shirt on.
The eighties were less eventful times for my breasts. They remained untethered but lost their defiance, made no political or social statements, and in general didn’t cause any trouble. Instead, I turned my attention to other women’s breasts. Working as a women’s health care provider, my patients presented me with their mammary glands to inspect and palpate. I listened to their complaints of breast pain and their fear of cancer. I saw the crisscross lines left by scalpels granting them the wish of smaller breasts. I felt implants, usually too perky, sometimes hard and misshapen or even crunchy and under-inflated, but rarely beautiful on women whose desire was for more, not less. I saw the flat, barren, nippleless and scarred chest walls of women whose cancer-ridden breasts had been cut off. But mostly, I searched breasts relentlessly for evidence of pathology. Embarrassment or abuse was no longer the largest danger in having breasts. Breasts were medicalized, clinical objects capable of inflicting pain, illness and even death. My vigilance was required; women could be killed by their breasts, and it was up to my fingertips, my judgment to search out the suspicious hidden amid the benign.
Then, thirty years after puberty, my mammary glands finally achieved their biological destiny. With my pregnancy blooming, they swelled to hitherto unknown proportions, and for the first time in my life I experienced cleavage. But the pleasure I felt in that vanity was dwarfed by the joy that I felt from nursing my baby. Moments after her birth, she clamped her warm mouth onto my nipple and rhythmically, vigorously pulled and tugged. And that time and every time she suckled, I experienced an exquisite intimacy and profound contentment. In this essential act of motherhood, I achieved grace. My breasts had found their bliss.
But at the beginning of the new millennium, these same breasts suddenly turned against me. Swiftly, all their previous roles were overshadowed by one fact - they were threatening my life. Despite a normal mammogram, the hard lump that I discovered in my own breast turned out to be cancer. As far as cancer goes, I was very lucky, luckier than most. It was a rare type, thought to be less aggressive. Still, my first impulse was to have both my breasts immediately cut off and be done with it. Instead, I heeded my surgeon’s temperate advice, and agreed to have a lumpectomy. After it was done, I looked down at my breast with minor imperfections, and was pleased with my choice. I felt like myself, without a constant reminder of disease and death.
I tried to fit uncertainty into my life, without letting it displace productivity or joy. I tried diligently, because the uncertainty is permanent. The doctors don’t go out of their way to tell you this, but there is no cure for breast cancer. No way to know that it is gone, no time when you can let out your breath. Not only can you have a recurrence of the cancer that you have tried to treat, but you are also at an ever-increasing risk of a new cancer. The other shoe is always poised to drop.
As time passed I began to achieve a kind of tenuous peace. Until I went to see my surgeon for what I convinced myself was just another routine appointment. But of course, it wasn’t. She found a lump in my other breast.
The distress I suffered was no less fierce for being familiar. A chunk of this breast was removed. I lost hours, days, to grinding anxiety, seized up and steeled to suffer the blow of bad news again. This time the lump turned out to be benign, but the genie was back out of the bottle, the turmoil of uncertainty whipped into a frenzied storm. How soon before this would happen all over again? Was I doomed to be held hostage by my breasts forever? Why should I keep them to be whittled away bit by suspicious bit? They’d achieved their rhapsody. Was their lingering sexual and cosmetic value compensation for their growing menace? Why not dispose of them, go breast-free?
I imagined myself after the surgery. I had no interest in reconstruction to achieve virtual breasts. No, I’d go for the stark and vacant look. But did I really know how I’d feel if I removed them, not out of absolute necessity, but out of fear and risk-avoidance? Would my unadorned rib cage leave me liberated or mutilated? Would I be relieved and empowered, or revolted and embarrassed? Would I feel like a woman? Would my young daughter be grossed out, my husband repulsed or alienated? I envisioned a feminist epiphany, arrogantly shedding useless and dangerous body parts, taking control of my own life. Getting my blank chest wall tattooed, flaunting my lack of breasts with a more fierce bravado than I did my young unleashed ones. But was this honest?
Mostly I imagined removing uncertainty along with my breasts. I imagined a life without repeated bouts of paralyzing dread. A life without intrusive and detailed daydreams of chemotherapy, nausea, fatigue, baldness, and dying. A long life that I once almost took for granted.
But, would the surgery achieve this serenity? Is uncertainty excisable? Remove one risk, another quickly fills its place. My breasts surely were not the only hazard in my life, perhaps not even the most deadly. The reality of their threat was difficult to quantify, but probably not extreme; the benefit of their removal significant, but lamentably not complete. And while I felt like they were as useless as tits on a bull, they were, after all, tits on me. Part of my body, my history, my identity, my essence.
As difficult as it was to choose, I was lucky to have the choice. And as long as the choice remained mine to make, I decided to continue my life with breasts.
That was sixteen years ago, and so far so good. And while I still hope I will never have to make that decision, today I would have the benefit of a liberating new movement of brave and determined women with cancer who are defying the pressure to have reconstructive surgery. Women who are coming out of the closet and publicly baring their flat chests. I would have the support of selfies, websites and sisterhood. Even if I never have to face this choice, these women are my heroes, and if I do their courage and fortitude will help me to proudly go flat and live my life without breasts.
Jeanne Holtzman is an old hippie who now sees that anxiety is an unwanted guest and not a fierce mentor.