I didn’t realize my breasts were too big until it was too late. Mid-leap in ballet class, I noticed cleavage protruding from my spaghetti-strap leotard. The black Lycra fabric could not contain a new feeling of shame. As I landed, I attempted to hold the required position — one foot neatly in front of the other, head tilted toward imaginary box seats, arms wrapped around an invisible basket of flowers — but my breasts prevented such a statuesque landing with their own arrhythmic pas de deux. They continued their performance long after I had completed mine. For the rest of class, I watched one 13-year-old after another leap and land in one graceful motion. But I was always moving in two parts. First, my technically precise legs, arms, hands, feet, neck and head. Then, two unruly breasts. In that moment, I knew they were not mine.
So I stopped dancing. After dedicating 10 years to various New York City studios, I could not attend class without fixating on those alien lumps jiggling in the mirror. Trading ballet slippers for books, I started high school a few months later, bereft of a label — “the dancer” — that had been my pride for a decade. For the next four years, I was determined to avoid a new label: “the girl with the big breasts.” I wore loose blouses and hunched my shoulders to minimize their appearance.
If not for gym class, I might have succeeded. Twice a week, under fluorescent lights and in front of my peers, I was forced to move, again, in two parts. Each activity added to an ever-growing series of routine embarrassments. I couldn’t jump rope — my breasts were always a step behind me. As I jumped up, they slammed down against my rib cage; as I landed, they nearly smacked my chin. During soccer drills, my teacher instructed us to deflect incoming balls with our chests. Instead of bouncing off my sternum, the balls bruised my breasts and ricocheted at unpredictable angles.
Neither of those periods, though, compared with the day we completed the state-mandated cardiovascular endurance test, The Pacer, which required students to run across the gym before a beep sounded. As the test progressed, the beeps occurred more frequently, forcing us to run faster. My gym teacher had told my class we would be doing push-ups during this period. When he announced we were doing The Pacer instead, the young women in my class immediately and unanimously protested.
“Mr. McVeigh, none of us brought our sports bras!” cried one. “It will be humiliating,” another pleaded. “Everyone will be able to see us!” Unconvinced, he announced that the boys would run first and then the girls would follow, as though an all-male audience would improve our plight.
After the test began, my female classmates dropped out one by one. Soon, I was the only runner left. I was surprised by the number of laps I completed. Though I detested physical activity, the test suggested I had the best cardiovascular endurance of any woman in the room. I felt strong. I felt confident. But those feelings were abruptly crushed when a scrawny boy approached me afterwards and casually said, “Hey, Liana, you showed me why all of the girls didn’t want to run without sports bras on.” Then he chuckled and sauntered away.
My final few laps, I realized, had been a solo performance for the whole class. But the scrawny boy was wrong about one thing. I hadn’t shown my class anything — my pendulous breasts had. I was no longer strong or confident. I was mortified. For a moment, I thought of slicing my breasts off myself. Such a mutilation seemed worth it to get rid of them permanently.
Shortly after, I started doing research online. Switching my browser to incognito mode to hide my history, I searched “ways to make breasts smaller.” Most sites recommended exercise. I considered enduring the embarrassment if it meant that soon I would be able to move freely. But there was a caveat: Weight loss helps shrink only breasts composed mostly of fat. Thin, young women with large breasts have a lot of tissue — not fat. So weight loss would only shrink the rest of my body, making me look even more disproportionate. The second most common solution was a well-fitting bra. But I had many of those, and despite having them altered, the weight of my breasts caused the straps to indent my shoulders and leave bright red grooves. And then I found my answer: reduction mammoplasty, more commonly known as breast reduction surgery.
At age 15, I didn’t mind the physical risks. Every site emphasized that many women can’t breastfeed after having the procedure, and some lose sensation in their nipples. I scrolled through pages and pages of plastic surgeons and printed out the biographies of the best ones. I didn’t know anyone who had undergone such a procedure. What I did know I had learned from tabloids stationed by the check-out counters in grocery stores, magazines that speculated about celebrities’ alleged plastic surgery as if to reveal shameful secrets. Plastic surgery was for actresses who needed bigger breasts to get roles in movies. Plastic surgery was for groups of girls in Malibu who all wanted the same nose. Plastic surgery was for moms on the Upper East Side who wanted to reverse the tolls their pregnancies had taken on their bodies. But I wasn’t like any of those women, and I didn’t want to be. Fearing my parents would find my stack of research, I shoved it into the bottom of a drawer in my room.
As a young child, I had been very excited to start growing breasts. Right before middle school, I first noticed quarter-sized lumps on my chest. It was happening! So I informed my mother that there was absolutely no way I could go to the first day of fifth grade without a bra. I didn’t really need one. But I wanted one.
In Target, my cheeks flushed as my mom held different styles to my chest in front of the other shoppers. I had wanted a “real one,” the kind with cups and clasps, but the bra she settled on was little more than a piece of polka-dot cloth with straps. Once we got home, though, I could not wait to put it on. I had a bra! I was ten years old and maturing. Was this growing up?
Four years later, during my first semester of high school, my mom booked a measurement for me at a lingerie store called Journelle. Everything in the store was lavender: the walls, the carpets, the tables. The delicate, intricate undergarments were displayed like masterpieces. When my mom told the associate I wanted a fitting, I was led to an ornate room appointed with hazelnut chocolates and miniature Evian water bottles. The associate asked me to take off my shirt and bra. In most department stores, the bands run from 32 inches to 38 inches and the cups from sizes A to D. Like every woman in America, I thought I was a 34B. It’s just so normal. Not too big. Not too small. The associate pressed a tape measure against my skin and analyzed my chest with a clinical gaze. I had never shown my breasts to anyone before. As she did a few calculations, I hoped she could explain to me why my breasts spilled out of all the bras I had tried on before.
“You’re a 30F,” she declared.
That couldn’t be right. I knew my breasts had grown, but this size didn’t seem real. It wasn’t a combination of the range of band sizes and the alphabet of cups I knew existed. I waited for her to give a reason for her cruel joke. “Most American brands don’t carry it,” she explained. “But we have a lot of stock from Europe.” This was not a joke. The first thing I noticed about the see-through, lacey bra she brought in was how sexy it was. Even thinking the word “sexy” made me squirm. The only thing I could fathom that was worse than seeing my own body was someone else seeing it. They would think I was a fool for believing pink lace could make the lumps less horrible. I didn’t want to be seen naked, or with the bra, or really at all. I wanted only to suffer less shoulder pain, to worry less about how much my breasts bounced as I walked from class to class. I would soon learn that bras for large breasts were either extremely risqué or extremely matronly. That bra was only the first of my many imported bras designed for older women. I liked the next bra store I went to more than Journelle, because it was hidden in the basement of a dress shop. At least anyone who saw me enter on the street wouldn’t know I had to go somewhere special to buy bras. But even this store had its faults: The fitter there affectionately called me “chica” because of how tiny my ribcage was compared to my breasts. It seemed that each time I went I needed a bigger bra. “You’re always a bit of a problem,” she told me. “But we’ll find you something.”
I was the only person I knew who had to order a sports bra from Germany and wait two weeks for it to arrive. My friends bought cute bras without underwires that they wore more for the look of lace than for actual support. They seemed to find my giant cups hilarious. Once, during a sleepover, I returned to the bedroom to find a friend trying on my bra, laughing at the disparity between the size of her breasts and the enormity of the cups. Another time, after going to the bathroom, I found another girl wearing my bra on her head like a cap.
Joining my school’s feminist club in tenth grade didn’t help. Our weekly discussions often focused on rejecting society’s beauty standards. So my classmates stopped wearing bras altogether. We discussed slut shaming and resolved that no one should be judged by what she wears. They felt empowered to wear less and less clothing, while I continued to cover up in loose-fitting shirts. We scrutinized advertisements that Photoshopped models’ bodies to meet unreal standards of perfection. They criticized people who wanted to change the human body. But was it so wrong to want to change your own body? Was a scalpel just the real-life version of Photoshop’s despicable cropping tool?
In private, I spent more and more time examining my breasts. I liked their pale, pink color scheme. I liked their softness and their weight. One night, hoping no one I knew would see me, I left the house braless for the first time. I could feel my breasts swaying as they never had while contained in a bra. I felt comfortable letting the cool night air seep under my shirt and touch my exposed chest, without the constraining band crushing my ribs. So this was why my friends didn’t wear bras. The feeling was wonderful.
When I was alone in my bedroom, they seemed exquisite. I took photos of them to celebrate their fullness and their near-perfect semicircles. In my favorite photo, I am thrusting my chest proudly upward, throwing my head back so my hair looks like a waterfall and closing my eyes. My mouth is open, as though I am exhaling after holding my breath for too long.
I knew then, seeing myself, that I didn’t hate my breasts. I loved them. But that didn’t prevent them from hurting me. Even though surgery would leave me with scars, they wouldn’t compare to those from gym class and from my bra straps. My decision to have surgery did not come from a “body image issue” caused by airbrushed advertisements. Instead, it was brought on by a deep self-respect: I had the power to eliminate the perpetrators of my pain. So I returned to the chest drawer and pulled out my medical research.
A year later, I sat in Dr. Doft’s office. She wrapped my breasts with a tape measure and examined my chest. For the first time, I wanted someone to tell me how big my breasts were. “You are an excellent candidate for the procedure,” she told me warmly. We set the date for a few weeks after this consultation. She assured me, “You will be so much happier after the surgery.”
But when I woke up from the anesthesia, I was a mess. Bloodstains expanded on the sides of the matronly surgery bra they had put me in. A few hours after the procedure, Dr. Doft called me, happily proclaiming “how well everything went” while I vomited into a pink plastic bowl that the hospital had given me, filling it all the way to a line on the side that read 32 oz. When I looked in the mirror, instead of the creamy complexion I was used to seeing, I saw nipples brown from blood loss and encircled by speckled purple and yellow bruises. I had lost almost a pound of tissue from each breast and all sensation in my left nipple. I gained an anchor shaped scar on each — a raised red line that loops around my nipple, cuts down the front of the flesh and runs underneath, where the breast meets the chest. The shape was near perfect, but that only made me feel like they were fake Frankenstein breasts. Even Dr. Doft told me at a follow-up visit that women usually have breasts this round and perky only after augmentation, her declaration affirming that they were so lovely in shape and size because they were constructed. The uneven red scars proved that they were still not mine.
When I returned to high school, no one commented. It was like I hadn’t changed at all. I expected etiquette would dictate that no one mention my chest, but I thought people might say, “You look different.” No one did. As I walked down the hallways, I was the same. Though I didn’t want to be “the girl with the breast reduction” — a girl so self-loathing she had her own body cut up — I wanted some sign that my surgery made a difference and that people saw me.
Now a college freshman, I am burdened by new worries as I try to fall asleep in my dorm room. I think about the first time a guy will see my scarred breasts as I take off my bra. What if he’s turned off? What if we have to stop what we’re doing and put our clothes back on because I’m repulsive? I worry about whether or not I will be able to breastfeed my future child. Will I regret the surgery when I can’t feed the crying baby in my arms? Most of all, I worry about my breasts returning to their original size if I gain weight. Then what will the lack of nipple sensation, the inability to breastfeed, the obtrusive scars and the dangers of surgery have been for?
The most maddening aspect of these questions is my inability to answer any of them now. The scenarios are all just possibilities in my head. I don’t yet know the consequences of my decision. I had made it hoping that the benefits I could foresee would ultimately outweigh the disadvantages I could not.
Six weeks after surgery, Dr. Doft allowed me to stop wearing the surgery bra and cleared me to exercise. I entered my favorite dancewear store unsure of my size. For the first time ever, though, I didn’t need anyone’s help to find the right one. I was overjoyed in the fitting room as I tried on leotard after leotard that fit perfectly. I bought the red one with spaghetti straps. I wanted everyone to see me in it.
I started dancing again, though my technique never returned to its former level. My center of balance had shifted. Dancing still felt strange, but for a different reason now. In one beginner’s ballet class, the instructor had us perform a simple jump combination.
“Higher, higher!” she proclaimed. Suddenly, “Stop.” She pointed at me. “Everyone watch her do it. Just her. Notice the power in her plié before she takes off. Look how high she jumps. See how she lands.” The accompanist started playing just for me. The whole class watched as I jumped in my red spaghetti straps. For the first time in years, I thought: Notice me, look at me, see me. wSee what I can do with this body. I am not jumping with the body I grew. This new one lets me land as one piece.