We push ’em, stuff ’em, hide ’em, enhance ’em, peek-a-boo ’em. We marvel at them, stare at them, covet them, are fascinated with them, and sometimes even worship them. We nourish with them. We wish for bigger ones, smaller ones, rounder ones, fuller ones (and OK, at my age, perkier ones).
Breasts. Next to hair, is there another woman’s feature that gets as much attention?
And it starts early. I remember, as a little girl, watching my Mom get dressed. She could be getting ready to go to the commissary at the Naval base or dressing up for a date with my Dad. She wore all the same stuff I did… you know, panties, shirts, pants, skirts, dresses, socks, shoes… but the bra was a whole different animal. This device had such purpose, such expertise, such grandeur. It was such a grown-up thing. I remember my Mom putting her bra on backwards, around her waist, clasping it, turning it around to the front and then sliding it up and over those beautiful things that I could only wish for. I am my Mom’s only daughter (I am sandwiched closely between 2 brothers who were not, as I reflect, watching my Mom get dressed)… and we were living in California, all the way across the country from my aunts and Nana and cousins and anyone else with whom I could share this wonder of breasts. I used to peek into my Mom’s lingerie drawer where she had her bras lined up like nesting dolls… back then, bras were always white and my Mom hand-washed hers to “keep their shape.” I actually remember my Mom saying these words: keep their shape. Ah.
By the time I was ready for my first bra, my family was living in New Hampshire. I was 11 years old. I probably didn’t need a bra, but my cousin already had one and she was younger than me. Yikes. By then, I had discovered that each of my Mom’s 3 sisters were, well… more endowed. Yep. And I seemed to be on hereditary line with my Mom. Oh, well. I remember asking my Mom to please, please, please not tell my brothers that we would be bra shopping. My Mom fully agreed with me that this was a private moment and all silence would be maintained. Like my brothers wouldn’t know. Ha ha.
The first-bra excursion was both exciting and frightening. Back in those days, girls went pretty much from white cotton undershirts to bras. This made it particularly funny for 11 and 12-year old boys. I think the boys had radar (I’ll call it BRA-dar) for girls wearing bras for the first time. The galloping big fun for a boy was detecting and snapping the bra from behind… just a little hormonal reminder that breasts were pretty interesting. I knew the score and fully realized that boys (even brothers) had a 6th sense for these things. I don’t remember the department store that my Mom and I went to, but I’m thinking it was a Sears because that’s about all we had back then. I do remember going to the girls’ section and heading to the lingerie… tentatively. I guess I intuitively knew how this one purchase would send me from girlhood to womanhood in the clink of a cash register. I remember my Mom and I gently going through the selection of bras. (Who am I kidding? The “selection” was one white, elastic-y training bra… yes, those were the days of the training bra. What the bra was training breasts to do is still a mystery to me.) I was a bit taken aback when a saleswoman approached and loudly asked if I needed a training bra. Well, yes… can’t you see these awesome buds popping through both my awesome white undershirt and blouse? Before my Mom could speak, the saleswoman had grabbed one of the training bras, whipped it around my breasts on the outside of my blouse, clasped it and announced, loudly again, that it was a perfect fit. I could have melted into the floor as I stood there in that department store with my first bra on the OUTSIDE of my blouse. My Mom realized my pain, quickly unclasped the bra, paid for it while the lady kept right on talking… and we were in the car in no time. Phew.
As I think back, I still wonder what all the fitting was about because all the training bras were the same. White and elastic-y. Today’s little girls begin wearing sweet little camisoles and half camis and sarongs in the most exquisite designs and colors and fabrics at such young ages that maybe the first-bra shopping excursion is a thing of the past. That would be a little sad, I think. But anyway, I did get my bra snapped by the boys at school the very next day and I did get teased by my brothers and I did feel kinda cool and awesome that all this was happenin’. Rite of passage? You betcha, sistas! My breasts were here to stay and could only improve!
And they did. I never improved to the “status” of my aunts and some of my cousins, but I could live with that. In fact, by the time I entered college, almost every young woman I knew was feelin’ so groovy with the times as they were a’changin’ about her breasts that size, shape and imagined “beauty” mattered less than the revolutionary freedom of liberation of mind and body… and bras became the symbolic restriction of women. The bra’s purpose and expertise and grandeur diminished the raw power of self as a woman. I embraced the opportunity to shed my bra and felt the power of women… in this relationship of power and breast. This me was quite radical to both my Mom and Dad… remember my Mom with her drawer-full of perfectly laundered nesting bras… but they understood, unlike the proverbial Mr. Jones. There were many family dinners in debate, some heated, about those times. I was blessed to have parents who listened. Who talked. Who shared. And breasts were stand outs in those discussions. Pun intended.
And I loved the fashion freedom of going bra-less, too. I loved halter tops (especially the ones styled from silk or cotton kerchiefs, folded in a triangle with an attached piece of ribbon or rawhide for the neck and the ends tied around the waist.) I loved halter sweaters (yes, there were such things), and I loved halter dresses. It was while wearing one of my halter masterpieces that my husband-to-be first took notice. We were both teaching summer school and there was a softball game scheduled for the students one Friday afternoon. The school was air-conditioned (very novel for that time), and I wore sweaters inside. This outside thing was different. Off came the sweater. On came the former softball player in me… you know, with the running bases thing… and the untethered breasts. My husband says he still remembers that afternoon… ’nuff said (so as not to mortify my children).
What I will always say I wasn’t prepared for in the breast department was pregnancy. Holy cow. Literally. Two months in and I was banging into things. Spilling things on them. Using them as a dinner table (well, almost). This is when I pushed ’em and stuffed ’em and tried to un-peek-a-boo ’em… but I guess the pride they felt in the life inside of me just radiated to the outside. A new center of balance became my game. I spent my first pregnancy researching and learning everything there was to know about breast feeding… but when Audrey was born 6 weeks prematurely, after having spent 32 hours in labor before an emergency c-section… after 3 days of trying to pump and failing miserably and crying and Audrey losing more of her barely 4 pounds… with one nurse begging me to let her formula feed Audrey while another nurse was scolding me with “breast is best”… I allowed Audrey to be formula fed. Audrey immediately thrived with weight gain and beautiful color and less and less tubes became necessary in her brightly lit incubator. I felt that my breasts had let me down… for exactly one minute I felt that my breasts had let me down. I knew my breasts were there to nourish my baby… but something was preventing this. Something went wrong and I didn’t have time to waste. I had made the right decision. That same nurse who had begged me to formula feed came back to visit me every single night… and she walked me up and down the corridors, her arm wrapped around my waist… and she walked me down to see Audrey in her incubator in the ICU at all hours of the evening and early morning hours… any time I wanted. The scolding nurse never returned.
Jane was born 2.5 years later. I had reconciled myself to the possibility of not breast feeding again, but I knew I would try. I wanted to. I had known the wonder and beauty of feeding Audrey close to my heart, with her tiny face nestled into my bare breasts… as the begging nurse had suggested. I loved it. I knew I could do this again, but I did want to try breast feeding. Of all the fascination and worship and covetousness and symbolic freedom of breasts… nourishing is what breasts are meant for. I wanted to try. Jane’s birth was very different from Audrey’s… she was a full-term, planned c-section… and with no begging or scolding from anyone, Jane latched and nursed. For 3 years. Yes. I wrote 3 years. My breasts became Jane’s. She owned them. She named them. She loved them. We had discussions about them. It was the night before Jane turned 3 that I lay next to her in her bed and explained that it was time to say good-bye to my breasts (I remember their names, but that is so perfect and private that I cannot say them here). Jane looked at me with her big, beautiful blue eyes and said, “OK, Mommy.”
And that was it. My breasts became mine again. Bittersweet. A journey. A marvelous, miracle of a journey with these “girls” always with me. Changing with the years. The decades. Gravity pulling every which-way but up! Watching my own daughters, with their own breasts, the centers of their own femininity, enter and engage and exit phases of their lives so similar to mine.
Then I was hit with breast news that no-one could be prepared for. My cousin Cathy, at age 36… 7 years younger than me… was diagnosed with breast cancer. My Mom’s sister’s daughter. Beautiful, physically fit, mom of 3 children… Cathy. Cathy with the warmest spirit and loveliest voice and most soothing laughter. The diagnosis was not good… and with every medical intervention imaginable, Cathy died 7 years later, in June 2004 at age 43, leaving a grieving family and circle of friends who could only marvel at her fight, her courage, her tenacity and her strength in the face of her suffering. It was my last visit with Cathy that she both begged me and scolded me to get my yearly mammograms… something I had, like many of us, put off. Cathy became my ambassador for Breast Cancer Awareness. I have honored her wish and spread the word to everyone I know that mammography is still the best tool for detecting breast cancer early. Mammography saves lives.
It was Cathy who immediately came to mind when Audrey, Jane and I were invited to participate in Estee Lauder’s Breast Cancer Awareness Pledge…. as a blogging family of women representing different generations. The Pledge involved a photo shoot. The photo shoot involved letting “the girls” come out to play. Yes, I’m saying that Audrey, Jane and I committed to baring our breasts at a photo shoot… in New York City, for the Estee Lauder Breast Cancer Awareness Pledge. But before I get into the details of the photo shoot…
… let me tell you about the inspiring and powerful 2010 global Estee Lauder Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign, titled “Connect. Communicate. Conquer.” – Prevent Breast Cancer One Woman at a Time. The Pink Ribbon. Wear It. Share It. Raising awareness through communication is the very key to spreading knowledge about breast cancer and the stigmas attached to it, and The Estee Lauder Companies has, since 1992, raised over $45 million for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and distributed 110 million-plus pink ribbons worldwide. Connecting, communicating and wearing and sharing the pink ribbon… preventing and conquering this disease one woman at a time. The campaign, featuring women with hands over their breasts in a pledge to spread the word, will debut in October, National Breast Cancer Awareness month.
So back to the photo shoot. My life with my breasts has been rather standard, I’m sure. From being enthralled with my Mom and her grown-up breasts to needing my own bra to cover my pre-adolescence ones, from letting my breasts stand up and be counted in another time and place to catching the attention of my guy and future father of my children, from pregnancy to nestling and nourishing my children, from menopausal gravitational pull to posing topless. Wait! What was that last one?!
Posing topless never quite made it on my list of things to do. It is now. It’s another of my 57 in 52 that came from somewhere beyond me… a poignant and powerful and amazing experience that will remain with me forever. And to do it, pose for the photograph… topless… with my 2 daughters… actually brought tears to my eyes. First, Audrey, Jane and I were pampered with exquisitely soft white robes wrapped around us, treated to a delectable buffet, and made Estee Lauder lovely by hair and make-up geniuses. Did I mention geniuses? They were. When it was time for the actual shoot, we were brought into a room that looks just like a room where fabulous photographs are taken. Airy, yet intimate. Open, but cozy. Dark, but dazzling with lights. When it was time to disrobe, I thought I would feel uncomfortable standing there with renowned photographer John Midgley and the campaign’s director and several assistants and make-up and hair artists and guys with more cameras and video equipment… with my 2 topless daughters, Audrey and Jane. I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I felt beautiful and powerful as the photographer smiled and gently told us where to stand or sit and where to put our hands and how to lean in or lean out just a bit. I felt Audrey and Jane’s warmth all around me, just like when they were tiny babies in my arms. We laughed and we smiled and we were serious,too. Topless. This Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign is serious, but it’s also all about communicating and connecting. There is fun in connecting, even while topless. And Cathy came. My cousin Cathy was in that room and she was laughing and smiling and serious, too. I felt her. Cathy taught me to love my breasts and the stories they tell. Cathy taught me to love my life.
When the shoot was through, and the robes were back on, I felt tears in my eyes and beginning to stream down my cheeks. Right through my smile, the tears came. Others felt it, too… and that was good. Powerful. Emotional. Strength. Connecting. Woman to woman. Person to person. Angels among us. Conquering this insidious disease.
The “girls” got put away again before we hit the City streets and the train ride home. (Not sure how Amtrak would have responded to the toplessness of 3 women.) But I left that New York City studio with such an amazing sense of the true connection of people… from everywhere and from every generation… and the ability to reach millions of people… one at a time, if need be. Breast Cancer has touched nearly everyone in some way. It is time to prevent it from ever taking someone from us again… thank you, Estee Lauder, for the wonderful opportunity to spread the word.
Our breasts truly are miracles. Let’s all keep them healthy by giving Breast Cancer Awareness all of our attention. Yes, go out and CONNECT. COMMUNICATE. CONQUER. WE CAN PREVENT BREAST CANCER ONE WOMAN AT A TIME.
THE PINK RIBBON. WEAR IT. SHARE IT.
And maybe you’d like to share a breast story or two… or a photograph… along the way. TAKE THE PLEDGE to spread the word.
(Oh, one more thing. My Mom’s bras are still lined up in her lingerie drawer like beautiful nesting dolls. Mine are rolled into balls and usually found in a random gym bag or at the bottom of a pile of laundry. Definitely not keeping their shape. Sorry, Mom!)