All of my friends are cutting off their breasts. Top surgery. Breast reduction. The trans and the genderqueer and the top-heavy alike. It’s got me taking stock.
Grapefruits, melons, cannonballs. Bazoongas, sweater puppies, jugs. Fun bags, wocka wockas—god knows, I don’t love them. But they define me.
I’ve tried to weigh them. Laid myself face-down on the floor and tried to thrust one onto a scale. It was a no-go. Some people say use the water displacement method, which goes something like this: start by getting a baking tray, a kitchen scale, and a bowl big enough to submerge one breast. The tray is for the displaced water. A small bucket or cooking pot or carved watermelon should also work if you don’t have a bowl that you can easily fit a breast into.
After you fill the bowl—with water, not Jell-O or anything whimsical—position yourself over the bowl and tray situation, and slowly lower exactly one breast. Lean forward enough to submerge your entire breast. Rest your ribcage lightly on the bowl’s rim, if you must, but be careful not to push down so hard you displace excess water or break a rib. Don’t forget to take off your bra first, because bras absorb water and interfere with measurement.
This method is easiest if you have relatively large or droopy breasts but not a lot of abdominal fat. If you are apple-shaped or balloon-shaped, this method may not work.
When you’re done, carefully lift your breast out of the bowl and set the bowl aside. Put the watery tray on your kitchen scale. Subtract the weight of the tray from the result—it’s like the tare on the mason jar you bring to the co-op’s bulked goods section and fill with raw quinoa. Be careful not to spill any of the water. Since breast tissue and water have slightly different densities, they won’t weigh exactly the same amount. Convert the water weight multiplying it by 0.9. Repeat the process with the other one. Since most breast pairs are not exactly equal in size, don’t be shocked when you get two different results. For accuracy, repeat this process 2-3 times per breast.
To me this seems like a lot of work for a value that has no consequence. Maybe I do love them. Is the light of god in them?
The boobs came in when I was nine. That year, I sat on the bed belonging to my gloriously flat-chested best friend as she urged me to show her my tiny mountains. I was mortified, but we told each other everything. Her bedspread was purple and flowered and covered with old-fashioned dolls we made talk in British accents. Slowly, timidly, I lifted my shirt. She squinted like a scientist, and rubbed her hand against her skinny thigh. Then, she gleefully reported her mother’s assessment—I wasn’t developing; I was just fat.
The next year, I moved to a new town and a new school. My first and only friend there was heavy-bodied and had a long-haired dachshund named Taffy, who smelled, and a mother who chain-smoked Virginia Slims. In gym class, as is the law of nature, the two of us were the last picked for any team. The Presidential Fitness Test, with its public sprinting, was as bad as any kind of torture I could imagine at that age. At the finish line, a group of boys gathered, chanting as we ran. “Butter butt,” “butter butt,” “butter butt” they called my friend. “Butter boobs,” they called me. I’m still unsure which was worse.
Among the heap of things I left behind in my old town was the idea of friendships with boys. In my new school, boys would never think to speak to me except to mock me. One summer day at the town beach on Pearl Pond, my parents decided they’d had enough of me feeling outcast, and urged me to approach a boy my age. I was acutely aware of the “just fat” breasts pushing out of my child’s bathing suit—though I loved swimming with all my heart, enough to brave the beach without a t-shirt over my swimsuit, I could never approach a boy looking like that. So I refused even though it meant disappointing them.
But kids grow out before they grow up. Just a couple of years later, at thirteen, I was as slender as I’d ever be, browsing at the bookstore of the university where my mother worked, when a college student tried to pick me up. He wore a polo shirt and a kind smile. “What year are you?” he asked, looking down my shirt. “I’m a freshman,” I lied. This bookstore happened to carry the same brand of fancy storybook dolls that populated my friend’s bed, and I thought about wandering off to look for Rapunzel. Instead I picked up a copy of an Organic Chemistry textbook and pretended to engross myself until he got bored and left.
Was the light of god in my breasts when I was sixteen? Dating my very first boy? Skater, rakish sporter of manic panicked hair, wearer of a metal fish pendant, owner of the Anarchist Cookbook? When I heard the gossip that he only liked girls with big titties, and I didn’t know how it was supposed to make me feel? The girls he dated before me, the rumor mill said, were just like me: “stacked.”
By then I was used to being objectified. But now I came to understand that romance—being chosen for, instead of in spite of, my breasts—wouldn’t protect me. It was an objectification of desire rather than horror, but they were tangled up neatly.
Isn’t that what a fetish is, anyway?
The most action my breasts get these days is from a mammography tech who looks like a nurse in German eugenics films. Though I have a live-in partner, desire is far down Maslow’s hierarchy of need. For a time, I oriented myself to this state through the lens of the relationship. For a time, we discussed What went wrong between us. Who had what problem with their body. Who needed to exercise more. Who needed to let go more. Who needed to instigate more. And then that became too much work and we learned to resolve our fights about loading the dishwasher, and things became calm enough that neither of us wanted to risk rocking the dinghy.
This is my third visit to the German mammographer, because a spot of hazy white appeared on my first mammogram—an irregularity of some kind that caused the tech to inquire if my left breast had recently been wounded. Now I must return at regular intervals to make sure the irregularity is stable, a part of my breasts’ essential nature. The first time my partner wanted to come with me, but I said no, because I didn’t want “medical procedure” to be the context in which we interacted with my breasts.
Would it be easier for the radiologist to study my breasts if they were smaller? Dense tissue, I hear, tends to occur in small breasts, not large ones like mine. If I reduced them, would I be more or less predisposed for cancer?
I consider asking this of the mammography tech, but she is too busy manhandling the fat under my arms to move it out of the way of the machine’s gaze. I must hold my breath after she moves it, and hold the side of the machine. But no, don’t grasp it that hard. The mammography tech apologizes for the discomfort.
Some people like discomfort. Some people must fetishize mammography machines as others fetishize elaborate shibari ties that make the breasts appear both detached from the body and decoratively adorned—a body part removed from the human it is attached to, a glorified object of worship.
After the mammogram, a slender short-haired ultrasound tech anoints me, rubs jelly and a sensor onto my breasts, checking for changes in the structure and density of my tissue.
“Wouldn’t it be nicer to marry a woman?” I told my mother when I was four, “Since they’re so much prettier than men?”
This was not long after I’d had my first orgasm, horsing around on a jungle gym in preschool. Of course you can’t go around confessing things like that these days without sounding like a pedophile, even if you’re talking about yourself. I didn’t know what an orgasm was, of course, let alone that an orgasm is what I’d experienced. But I learned something vital nevertheless. There was an untouchable place, deep in the core of my body, that could bring me abiding pleasure—transporting pleasure, joy—if I applied just the right measure of pressure.
This private sexuality became a space apart from the jeers and taunts at my early-developing body. And it was for years, silent and dark and warm, a pillow fort of pleasure. It wasn’t until I was thirteen, idly reading my mother’s copy of Sex in Samoa, that I had any idea I was engaging in sex at all.
I couldn’t apprehend its boundaries or its nature, but I toyed with my sexual agency in the way that young girls do. In seventh grade math class, I sat in front of Tommy Flynn, who wore a uniform I found appealing, a denim jacket covered in patches of his favorite metal bands. Unlike me, Tommy was a terrible student, but he had sweet cheeks and sprinkled freckles and a troubled gaze. I was drawn to something about his presence, even though I was too shy to ever open my mouth. By then I knew all about like liking someone, and it’s not that I felt that way about Tommy. He just had an energy that attracted me.
Throughout the school year, I flipped my long black hair over my shoulder, doing my best to graze Tommy’s desk. I was a pariah, so I expected no return on my investment. It was idle, a private game, a contest with my inner pulse. What would happen if it were manifest in the world, like static electricity?
And then on the very last day of school that year, Tommy’s friend Jeff approached me. I had never spoken to Jeff either, but there he was, talking directly to me. “Tommy wants you to have this,” he said, and held out his hand. Startled, I looked down. He was offering me a Trapper Keeper, that once-ubiquitous organizational folder. The folder was covered in rockets and stars, ringed planets and signs of a faraway cosmos; paper (folded, torn, notebook, mimeographed) spilled out the sides.
I was so shocked by the success of my plan, I didn’t know what to do. I glanced down and up at Jeff again, dumbstruck. I shook my head, and refused to take it. What was I to do with a Trapper Keeper? But even more, what was I to do with Tommy, now that I actually “had him”?
On the way back from the HMO, I decide to experiment with my breasts’ erotic potential. A small-breasted friend once told me she could orgasm from nipple stimulation alone. I stop at the progressive sex toy store and buy nipple clamps. At home, I lock myself in the bathroom and test the theory.
The clamps send jolts of electricity through me. I can adjust them to hurt more or less. I feel silly, experimenting this way, like I’m playing with a toy I’ve outgrown, or one that’s designed for someone else’s fun.
What comfort can my breasts give me if I befriend them? Adorn them myself?
And what is the cost of this pleasure?
What kind of relationship would I want with a breast that might eventually become cancerous and need to be removed?
I will never name my breasts, but how will I know them? What relationship can I create that will tell me whether I would get breast reconstruction after a mastectomy, or what tattoo I might get to adorn the scar?
A wood-paneled bar in Indiana. In my twenties, graduate school. My drink is vodka soda with extra lime, the one my slim friend swears is least caloric. I’m single. The academics around me are partnered, the law students are too straight-laced, the townies only want sex, the long-distance romance I cultivate explodes in a flash of gaslight. At the bar, I drink and flirt with strangers as I never have before nor will do again: an air force pilot on leave, a bassist for the famous band, a mysterious local who shows up at square dance night. Now, a drunk man beside me is trying very hard to get my attention. His eyes can barely leave my chest. “Tig old bitties,” he repeats, as if he’s a stuffed animal with a pull-string programmed to say only one phrase.
The men I fall for in that decade of unrequited love are dreamers, artists, glasses-wearing readers, soft-hearted poets. And they all fall head-over-heels for willowy creatures who won’t return their affection. At night, they tell me about these loves—on walks, on the phone, in my kitchen. I try to make myself small but I will never be small enough for the men who want the wispy girls, the nature girls who seem to emerge like dryads from the woods in oatmeal-colored sweaters and perfectly mussed hair. The fragile artist girls who can go braless and look easy and sexy and impossibly cool. Occasionally I glance down at my tig ol bitties. My excess.
I develop a half-cocked theory, convince myself that the men who like my body are a type. Blue-collar. Workers. Men from matriarchal cultures or families. Men who live in their bodies, like me. These are the men who compliment my body, after all. “Compliments.” Catcalls. Desire. They explain my ass, what they would do to it. Sometimes they are sweet in a way. Like that time in New York, when I tried to leave a store but I tripped on the threshold. A construction worker nearby said, “You’re lookin so good, baby, it doesn’t matter if you fall. If I was your man, I’d be there to catch you.”
The men I like don’t like me, so I learn to bend myself to the men who do. Men who want to suckle me, want to put their cock between my breasts for a “titty fuck,” want to fetishize them, want to stare at them, want them to be objects apart from my tender heart, my sardonic sensibilities, my easy laugh, my dreams of motherhood, my love of A Different World and cinnamon tea and stuffed dinosaurs and paper boats. My domesticity, my independence, the private pulse they will never see. I can tempt and seduce, but the men I seduce do not find me relationship material. They ask me for tips to pass on to their next girlfriend who is “terrible at giving head.”
My breasts keep growing. I size up in bras. I lose weight and size down, and then gain it again and size up even more. I take off my shirt for a man, wearing my prettiest bra, and he says, “whoa, that’s a lot of boob.”
In graduate school, I had long conversations with my similarly endowed roommate, who repeatedly expressed a desire to reduce her breasts. I hate carrying these things around, she said. Another well-endowed friend fantasized about cutting off one breast like the Amazons, for archery if nothing else. A breast reduction with its nipple resection can sometimes cause problems with breast-feeding. I’ll consider it, I once told myself, after I’ve had a child.
I have not had a child, and likely never will.
Sherman, who is next in line for top surgery, has a bowl cut like Ursula LeGuin and hosts a monthly mending night. When they were younger, Sherman told me that they hated their breasts, but they guessed they’d keep them, because, “people seem to like playing with them.” I laughed, but I wonder why I laughed, now. Now, it seems obvious that the relationship between Sherman’s breasts and their sexuality was a matter of what other people seemed to like. In this culture, for people assigned female at birth, sexuality is usually a matter of how others perceive them.
Like our friend Rae, who grew up on fishing boats and was trotted out in a skimpy shirt when her parents needed a favor, like cheaper gas prices or mechanical work on short notice. “My sexuality was so much about pleasing men,” she tells me, “that I had no idea what I wanted myself.” For years, she thought she wanted male attention, but maybe she just wanted the zing of power. Even now, she says, “I have to be careful not to automatically give men what they want.” We are in the dressing room of a sex shop, where she wears a fringed lycra suit. Sherman is not with us, because they would never set foot in such a place. When Rae parts the curtain to show me her look, we can’t help but laugh. “I look like a mime.” “You look like you’re on a high school dance team.” “Maybe a cat burglar?” “Mummenschanz. You just need the toilet paper.”
I am wearing a fishnet dress; my nipples poke through the holes in the fabric. I’ve taken my bra off for the full effect, and study myself in the mirror. When I was twenty, I would not have been brave enough to wear this, and now I have no occasion to. How much do I know what I want, and how much do I make myself a vessel for another’s pleasure? Are my breasts decorative or functional?
I call Sherman when I get home. I will help change their bandages, after the surgery. Start a meal train. Empty the drainage ports. Whenever they need, if it will help.
The second time a boyfriend of mine was mocked for liking “big boobs” was in college. His friend—a handsome-yet-smart bodybuilder who resembled Henry Rollins—teased my boyfriend for his tastes. His proclivities? I wasn’t there. I only know my boyfriend felt the need to relay this conversation to me one night after dinner.
Did he think I would be flattered? Or was it an act of manipulative cruelty? I surprised us both by crying.
“But you’re so confident in your body,” my boyfriend said.
“It’s hard fought,” I answered. “There’s a reason I don’t talk about it.”
My bras were Wacoal, white or “nude” or black, with elastic straps the width of a measuring tape. Fitted by old ladies in musty stores, costing twice as much as the Victoria’s Secret beauties I longed for, sheer confections like bonbons in drawers I was forbidden from opening.
This was no era of body positivity, to be sure.
Confidence in my body, in its naked form anyway, was tied to the earth, to my ancestors, to sex. I felt good in black lingerie, naked in the sun-warmed dirt, straddling a partner. “You have the body of a goddess,” my resident advisor exclaimed on first meeting me, before she fell in love with me. My confidence was both private and universal, outside any era.
I could cut myself and feel the blood connect me to the living pulse of the world. My body could engender feelings that stopped time.
From my partners, I heard about other women who were “frigid” or “buttoned up” or “inhibited” or “religious.” In women’s magazines I read about women who had never had an orgasm, who didn’t know how.
My body, in contrast, seemed attuned to, if not created for, pleasure. I could orgasm continuously, in a steady heightened state, without even Sting’s tantric practice. I was grateful: grateful to my body, grateful to the earth that made it, grateful to the private space inside myself where I nurtured that pleasure unknowingly over so many years.
In my twenties, I am sexually assaulted. I offer my agency, my lips, my power because I don’t want to be violated. His hands inside my body devastate me, and I don’t want his cock. He overpowers me physically, in spite of my strong back. He is a friend. A friend of the house. A friend of my dearests. And though he comes to understand what he did, I cannot digest it in a way that I can heal.
Fifteen years, it spins. Cramps my stomach, arises in the strangest of ways and moments. In a kitchen, in a field, in a conversation with a friend, in bed. I lay in bed with this man before he assaulted me. I kissed him, willingly. I showed interest because he showed interest, though I did not want to be with him. And then I had no choice.
Two years later in the city I have fled to, I am dressed as Little Red Riding Hood. My boyfriend is the Big Bad Wolf. I have had one drink, but no food, and I find myself drunker than I have ever been in my life. My boyfriend’s friend is there. He is high goth: shaved head, silver earrings, eyeliner and raver pants. He is in an open relationship with a high goth girl; they take sexy pictures together, wearing the silver and black of the new millennium.
,He has hit on me, repeatedly, hungrily, in the past, and I have repeatedly rebuffed him.
I am wearing a red cape, a white shirt, a green corset that pushes my breasts high and serves them to the spectator. This man takes my hand, my drunk hand, pulls me with him down to the basement. I black out for the only time in my life.
I come to awareness as he pushes me against a wooden support beam, lifts my skirt, sticks his fingers up and inside me. I come to awareness as he probes me, tests me, tells me I want it.
Somehow I have agency, clarity, enough to get upstairs, find my boyfriend the wolf, puke in the bathroom, apologize to him for what I have allowed to happen.
What I have done.
I am at my cousin’s wedding in Chicago; another cousin and I share a hotel room. We hold up dresses to each other’s bodies, each of us having brought several. From thrift shops, from previous weddings, from Anthropologie, from Kohls. Later, all the female cousins scan photos of each other on Facebook as a kind of digital window shopping. Though our senses of style adapt to personality and geography— L.A., Oakland, Portland, Atlanta, Boston—the proportions are always similar.
My Sicilian family is full of large-breasted women. The female cousins, almost to a person, have the same figure—large bust, ample hips, the strong arms and legs of peasants—grape stompers, we joke. Line us up side by side for a family photo, and you will see that ur-figure extended and shrunken, stretched a few inches or pounded down. Among these women, my breasts are part of a lineage I can’t deny.
We also all deal with the breast reduction conversation. One cousin’s tiny Mexican mother regales me at the wedding when her daughter is not around, gravely concerned about why her daughter would not reduce her breasts. She clearly hoped I would explain my own decision in her daughter’s stead. Later, a cousin overhears an aunt-by-recent-marriage ask her husband, “what is wrong with your family that the women are all so fat?”
Some large-breasted people experience constant back, neck, and shoulder pain. My back is a peasant back, strong from swimming and dancing, so strong that I used to show off by carrying things on my head, such as the trunk I took to girl scout camp. I walked over pine needles, on a winding path through trees, avoiding dirt, balancing this hard padlocked trunk atop my head, my back a strong triangle of muscle.
Among my cousins, I feel powerful—the private strength at the core of me made manifest, ancestor women filling my skin with a confidence I never otherwise had.
Sherman has gender euphoria. Stella has gender euphoria. Ralph uses a binder, but says if he had come of age now, he might not have transitioned to male but claimed a nonbinary identity. Arbol has gender euphoria. They make elaborate social media stories sharing their bodies raw in the mirror, raw in the lens. Heart confetti sprinkling over each reel. Glitter. A joy crinkling their eyes, a respite from the everyday violence they swim inside. Worth it, they say.
I am cis, not trans, so I can never feel that in the way it’s discussed. I can never have the relief of alignment after years of misalignment. I am not entitled to it. But I can’t help but ask myself what it means to feel not only at home but euphoric in one’s body. Or perhaps euphoria is simply the word for feeling at home in one’s body after years of imprisonment.
My body is too much for others, too much for me. Yet I have never been imprisoned in it.
Pleasure has healed me in the past. My body has taken me outside time, outside roles, inside pain to transcend pain, into connection (human, spirit, body, electricity). My body has been my salvation.
I watch the reels over and over, and somehow I find I am tuning my tuning fork to what I want.
I take a picture. And another. My body. As it is.
My body as “fantasy.” My body as “matronly.” My body as “surface.”
Over and over and over, I manipulate my breasts into poses, into a square.
Strange to try to translate the earth and the ancestors through an iPhone screen, but that’s what I do. I am trying to record. To study. To understand. To set that deep-down-private-pressure- pleasure place onto a kind of film that isn’t even what we call film anymore. Capture it like the uncapturable moon, in hazy fuzzy dreamy impressions, in blurred-edge light, in metonym, in gesture, in evocation.
I wonder what I look like, more me than I’ve ever been.
I observe my partner’s skin. A single square inch, just the texture. Minutes of sleeping skin. I feel my own hairs rise, the cilia whose movement sends signals of arousal.
The light of god. The weighing of the breast. The weighing of the soul in the breast, the breast of the beloved.
Will I let myself be found?
The fire, the innate power, that will always and never be known.