In the year between the middle of the seventh grade and the middle of the eighth grade, my breasts grew from an A to a D cup. At age 16, I had become, as my family called it, a boobsicle — just a skinny stick with very large breasts attached.
By the lime I was 17, I felt the unadulterated hatred for my body that women aim only at themselves. No longer a boobsicle, I had fleshy thighs, a rounded belly and an even larger chest — a DD cup. Like many unhappy teenagers, I became desperate to alter myself physically. Dieting didn’t work, especially because I used to turn to food to quell my depression. I set my sights upon a breast reduction.
One day in the early fall of 1989, when my mom was out of town, I made an appointment for a consultation with the doctor reputed to be The Boob Man in town. I don’t recall exactly how I’d heard about Dr. Boob Man, but suffice it to say that young women in my predominantly Jewish, mid-western suburb know about area plastic surgeons the way Mormon women know about obstetricians in Provo.
I approached my mom with the news that I had seen the doctor without her knowledge, and she realized that I was serious. I said that I wanted a breast reduction to lighten my load, to be able to run, to play tennis without a ten pound weight bouncing on my torso. But mostly, as I told her, I hated how sexualized I felt by men who, almost universally, stared at my chest to the exclusion of my face. My boobs identified me and embarrassed me.
There was also a Jewish dimension to my decision to make my breasts smaller, albeit a somewhat paradoxical consideration. It is not incidental that I disliked most of the Jewish women of my mother’s generation in my community. The women in my hometown communicated that, for a woman, whom you married was of much greater import than who you were. From my vantage point, these women defied the stereotype of the zaftig Jewish woman; they seemed singularly concerned with working out and staying rail thin. I was conscious of the fact that I both disdained the ideal of a string-bean physique and sought to emulate it by diminishing my own size. I think I thought that getting a breast reduction would make me look not only thinner, but less womanly and less sexual — less marriagable.”
As it turned out, my breast reduction surgery still cast me in the role of sex object among my peers. Plastic surgery was not all that unusual in my high school; that is, a girl walking the school halls with post-rhinoplasty bandages wasn’t an uncommon sight. Still, I expected some gossip if I came back to school after Thanksgiving vacation with noticeably smaller boobs. To protect myself, I didn’t keep my impending surgery a secret. I quietly informed the guys and girls in my inner circle about the reduction, and told them I didn’t want them to do a Paul Revere — THE SMALL BOOBS ARE COMING! THE SMALL BOOBS ARE COMING! But, if rumors about my breast reduction began to circulate, I told them, of they should discretely confirm. I thought that if I approached the surgery as though it were nothing to be embarrassed about, my peers wouldn’t make a big fuss.
The night before I was to return to school as a cute little B cup, a casual guy friend called with a shocking question: Would I be angry at him if he wore a black arm band to school the next day, along with 30 or so other guys, to mourn the loss of my breasts? I told him that I would never forgive him. I was horrified.
When I got to school the next day, I saw six guys wearing black arm bands around their rugby shirts. I walked in a wake of whispers to the principal’s office and entered without even knocking. I took a deep breath and blurted out the news before sheer humiliation had a chance to leave me voiceless. I was concise. “I had a breast reduction last week and x, y, and z are wearing arm bands to mourn the loss of my chest,” I announced. I told him I wanted the arm bands removed immediately and that I wanted the guys disciplined even more quickly. I think the principal was more uncomfortable than I.
The consequences? The boys were disciplined, though not suspended. My senior class voted me “Most Likely To Sue For Sexual Harassment.” My classmates found my behavior more objectionable than the guys’.
About eight years later, I wrote about my breast reduction for a women’s magazine. I wrote mostly about how difficult athletics can be when you have big boobs, and how mine had made me feel insecure about my body when I was an adolescent. Even in that article, I failed to understand some of the emotional machinations at work. I didn’t recognize that, deep down, I did — and do — worry that femininity is at odds with feminism.
Even post-reduction, I am a curvy woman. Every day I am conscious of my breasts: how they look, how they protrude, whether or not I can be proud of my shape and still be taken seriously. Just as I was sexualized by men when I was a teenager — the countless men who never once looked me in the eye — I feel just as sexualized by men today. I will not put my real name on this essay because, just as I didn’t want to be known as the high-school girl with the big knockers, I am desperate not to be known as the writer with the tits and ass. The sad fact is, even after undergoing a breast reduction, I still wonder, is it the boobs or the woman attached?
That is the crux. From an early age, I felt my breasts were coopted by men who stared at them shamelessly, grabbed at them, “accidentally” brushed against them — who mourned them after I had them reduced as if they had lost a piece of personal property. And though I now love my body and consider my breasts one of my favorite features, I wonder if self-assertion — or mutilation — played any role in my decision to have a breast reduction. Did I want to show the world, and myself, that I alone own my breasts and that I can do with them whatever I choose?
Charlotte Wyman is the pseudonym of a writer living in Manhattan.