I’ve had boobs since I was 8. At recess, I looked like the lone woman in a sea of dainty little girls. From afar, people probably thought I was a student teacher or something. Not only did my boobs come in young, they came in big, too. My breasts were ragweed in your backyard, they just wouldn’t stop growing. By my early 20s, I was rocking an H cup. I know, right? Did you even realize they made bras that big? I didn’t, until I had to buy one.
The very second I grew them, my boobs made me a target for unwanted touching. As the only girl with a developed chest in my elementary school class, 11-year-old boys regularly walked up and grabbed my tits on the playground. Many were so aggressive they left bruises, but I never told our teachers. I was too embarrassed to say the word “breast” in front of an adult. Truth be told, I was humiliated and ashamed at the violence my body provoked. Too young to know better, I felt like it was somehow all my fault.
For a while, I erroneously thought that if I dieted, my boobs would go away and I would be free. At the tender age of 11, I more or less stopped eating for a few months. When my mom packed my lunch for school, I took it with me and threw it away when I arrived. At dinner, I ate only half my plate, lying to my parents that I had consumed every last bite of my lunch, so I simply wasn’t hungry. I was a sneaky child and lost almost 18 pounds. My period stopped coming. My hair began falling out in clumps. But my breasts stubbornly refused to disappear.
After a year of anorexia, I began eating again. My menstrual cycle returned, and my hair gradually grew back, but I still hated my breasts as much as ever. That much hadn’t changed.
By the time I got to university, my boobs were absolutely epic in proportion. They were everyone’s first impression of me, and boys I knew had bets with each other about what bra size I wore. Even in a regular old crew-neck T-shirt, the surface area of my breasts was so great (in the mass-related sense), I usually had cleavage. The only item of clothing I owned that was baggy enough to hide my boobs was a sweater from Old Navy the exact color of, well, shit.
My identity was reduced to being that nerdy girl with the giant rack.
In my early 20s, I experimented with embracing objectification in an “ironic” way. I figured that if my breasts were going to define me with every dude I knew, I might as well embrace it. In service of this mission, my friends and I went to the bars in our university town wearing those lingerie tops Summer Roberts used to sport on The OC. (These tops were always hopelessly low-cut on me.)
I pretended to find the leering stares flattering: “Isn’t having big boobs a blast? Men come up to you and demand to know whether or not they’re real. Isn’t that funny?” I pretended to see sexism as a silly joke that my body was helping to tell. The thing is, however, anonymous men pretending to graze your breasts “by accident” at a nightclub is not actually that humorous. Subjecting yourself to it in the name of being flippant or unmoved, that isn’t all that humorous either.
Not only did I see my boobs as the site of icky encounters, but I was paying handsomely for the privilege of this sexual harassment. Bras in my size cannot be fished out of the sale bin at Victoria’s Secret. Oh no, they are investment pieces, whether you want to fork over hundreds of dollars a year on lingerie or not. Most mainstream lingerie stores do not carry sizes over a DD cup, so I am forced either to go to specialty stores that charge around $200 for a single brassiere or undergarments from clearance sites on the internet and pray to God they aren’t falsely advertising that a given bra will fit me.
For years, I thought of boobs as a black hole that sucked up sexual harassment and an exorbitant percentage of my bank account. Exasperated and sick of not be able to find blouses that fit, I started weighing my options around the time I turned 25. As I saw it, my choices were these: either dismantle the patriarchy in order to rid the world of sexual harassment and ensure affordable, government-subsidized lingerie for all or breast reduction surgery.
While I do hope to dismantle the patriarchy before I die, I decided that it was probably more of a long-term project and not an immediate solution. In light of this, I decided the most expedient plan was a breast reduction. I began googling the procedure with the same dedicated approach to research with which I approached my master’s thesis.
From my internet searching, I learned that breast reduction is a serious endeavor. It’s no fucking joke. After one or two cuts are made into your mammary glands, tissue and excess skin is removed. Sometimes liposuction is involved. Often, the nipple and areola have to be removed and repositioned. There is a chance you will lose all feeling in your nipples for the rest of your life.
After a few months of debating the procedure with myself, I concluded voluntarily going under anesthesia, with all the health risks the surgery entails, was not for me. Plus, the idea of losing feeling in my nipples freaked me the fuck out. What if, one day, I accidentally got one of my nips caught in my bedroom door and felt nothing until it started bleeding uncontrollably and eventually fell off?
It turns out, I do not have the mental fortitude for breast reduction surgery.
So what was a busty girl who’d ruled out a reduction to do? Well, fortunately, around the same time I opted not to get my boobs sucked off my chest, I saw an episode of The Good Wife guest-starring Christina Ricci, who is basically the Winona Ryder of my generation. On this episode, she portrayed a comedian who was in hot water after whipping off her shirt on live TV to demonstrate the correct way to perform a breast self-exam. Suddenly, I thought, “You know what? I’ve never done a self-examination of my boobs! I should probably check that out!”
Within minutes, I was in my bathroom, fondling my breast tissue in search of cancer. Happily, I found none. While you’d think this experience would have been morbid and depressing, I found it quite empowering. I wasn’t treating my boobs as an object of the male gaze that just happened to be positioned in front of my person; I was finally treating my boobs like they were a part of my body. I was taking ownership of them, protecting them by checking in on their health, making sure they would stay part of my body for a long time to come. As a reward for being kind to my boobs for the first time in my life, I discovered they were soft and pillowy pieces of lovely flesh. On that fateful day, I decided I liked my mammary glands very much. Just as much as my hands or my calves, or any other body part I took care of with moisturizer and the occasional massage.
Examining my breasts helped me reclaim ownership of them, the ownership I thought I’d lost the first time a boy put his hand up my shirt without asking. I wanted more of that positive, empowering feeling my breast self-exam had given me. I wanted it every damn day, and that’s how I discovered my love for body-positive blogs.
I am grateful that, just as I started my mission to love my breasts, the body-positive movement was really taking on steam. I was spoiled for choice when it came to body-positive social media accounts, and happily spent hours immersed in this world. A particular favourite of mine is the tumblr Boob and Body Positivity, which collects uplifting (no pun intended) illustrations, photographs, and listicles that made me laugh, sometimes made me cry, and ultimately made me feel less alone.
What I loved about body-positive blogs was how they didn’t perform for the male gaze. Don’t get me wrong, if a woman wants to use her boobs to turn people on, I don’t judge her for that. What I do not want, however, is to let strange men who say they’d like to “wank my tits” define how I feel about my body.
Thanks to the body-positive messages I have explored, I learned to love the look of my boobs on my body. They are soft but firm, pale but silky, and I honestly appreciate the look of my own cleavage in the mirror. Today I try to imagine myself as a Renaissance painting of a busty milkmaid—but preferably one done by a woman.
With blogs and breast exams, I stopped seeing my boobs as the albatross below my neck. And, as I came to terms with these pretty sacks of fat, I became a more confident dresser. No longer do I feel self-conscious walking around in a V-neck sweater, fearing straight dudes will call me a slut for revealing some cleave. No, today the only thing that determines whether or not I wear something is if I like it. I know, I know, that sounds so, so cheesy, but how much does it say about sexist beauty norms that I didn’t learn to dress for myself until I was nearly 30?
Now, 22 years after growing a pair of breasts, I’ve stopped seeing them as something inherently shameful and pornographic. Sure, I still wish bras were less expensive, but I no longer wish I could make my breasts disappear. I am no longer that little girl playing a non-consensual game of tag with the pre-pubescent male gaze. Instead, I’m a confident, busty woman who loves her body and wears whatever she damn well pleases. And no, you cannot touch my boobs unless I say so.
This article originally appeared on xoJane by Sarah Sahagian.