I am 11 years old in ballet class wearing a baby blue leotard, flesh colored tights and ballet slippers. My leotard is baby blue because I am in Ballet Level III. When I graduate to Level IV, I will get to wear cobalt blue, which is far more forgiving than baby blue. Cobalt blue is darker--not quite navy but still deeper than baby blue-- and far closer to the ultimate black, the color worn by professionals. But today, I am in a baby blue leotard daydreaming that I will one day prance around stage behind Julie Kent while dancing Swan Lake in the American Ballet Theater. (I am pretty aware that this will never happen, but I am reasonably certain that I will soon be promoted to Level IV and allowed to wear cobalt blue.)
I examine my figure in the mirror through my coke bottle glasses, which are being held on my head with a string. I am fighting to balance on one leg while lifting the other as high in the air as possible when I am struck by two extremely important realizations. First, my leg is nowhere close to being high enough; and second, I am pudgy. This is the first time I am aware of my body as something that is evolving because last year, when I was in the fourth grade, I was not pudgy. This year, I have a belly, no breasts and very little in the way of hips, so I’m shaped a bit like SpongeBob. Although I am not fat, it is very clear to me that I am not thin. I am now living in a pre-adolescent body that American mothers have affectionately named pudgy in an effort to comfort themselves from accepting the notion that in a few years their daughters may actually turn out to be fat.
I share this because I understand now that the foundation of my relationship with my body began solely through my aspiration to become a dancer. When you want to be a dancer you want to look like a dancer. Dancers are thin and most often have flat chests with long arms and long necks and even longer legs. They most certainly are not pudgy. Dancers may not look like movie stars, pop-singers or other celebrities that girls admire on the cover of teen magazines, but they do look like dancers, and girls who want to be dancers want to look like stick figures who double as fairies, princesses and birds. And that’s exactly who I wanted to be.
I spent the summer before 8th grade reading articles in Seventeen Magazine about how to lose weight. It mostly involved an insane amount of lying on my side performing leg lifts and butt crunches, but I committed to the program, performed the exercises faithfully, and by the time the summer was over, I was actually pretty thin (not skinny, but thin). It helped that I had also shot up a couple of inches in height and because I hadn’t yet started menstruating, my breasts had barely developed; I still wore a bra without underwire. That fall, when I returned to ballet class, I stared at myself in the mirror (through my newly acquired contact lenses) and thought, I actually kind of looked like a dancer. This moment of joy was short-lived.
I got my period the week of my eighth grade graduation. I’m pretty sure I was literally the last one in my class, though I had never been much preoccupied with having one anyway. It seemed inconvenient to have to go to ballet class with a pad on, and God forbid I had to learn how to use a tampon. I knew eventually that this would all happen, but trust me, I was in no hurry. One morning I woke up and noticed an odd looking stain on my panties and, terrified that I was possibly dying, ran into my mother’s room almost in tears, where she, in turn (and almost in tears), informed me that I was menstruating. Later that day my Granny called to congratulate me on going through “the change.” This is what southern Black women call getting your period—“the change.” Again, it was all rather unremarkable to me, even more so since I was performing a ballet solo in a white leotard for my eighth grade graduation and I’d rather not have been bleeding while I was doing it. This is the last distinct memory I have of ever being in that body-- the thin one without the boobs-- and I’m positive if there wasn’t a photo of me in that white leotard dancing at my eighth graduation framed in my mother’s house, no one would believe I ever had it.
I assume that girls who wanted breasts must have given a lot of thought to getting them and so they must remember when they got them. Because I never wanted breasts, I honestly have no recollection of them growing. I don’t know if they showed up gradually over months or just popped up like pimples overnight, but by the time I started my freshmen year in high school, my breasts were a D-cup and apparently the only person who was not aware of this was me.
It is the summer after my freshman year and I am sitting in an auditorium nodding off at the first parliamentary session of the Jack & Jill Midwestern Teen Conference. There is a row of boys sitting behind me, which means there are also slightly above me because we are in a theatre. This allows them a perfect view down my white butterfly printed spaghetti strapped tank top, which I have purchased just for the occasion. Soon they are giggling, and giggling, and giggling, and more people join in the giggling until the giggling is so loud that I turn around with attitude and ask them, “What are you laughing at?”
“The Twins,” says James Wooten, a junior, who is the guy who sits on the back of the bus and terrorizes unknowing subjects mercilessly to the humor of everyone who is cool enough to sit beside him.
“What twins?” I say, sincerely and completely confused. I even scan the audience to see if there are twins in the groups of teens from other cities that we don’t know.
“You know, the twins.” The choral of giggles gets louder.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, who are the twins?” I am now confused and irritated.
“You do know the twins. You know the twins Leigh, don’t you?” He chides.
“I do not know any twins.” This foolishness has lost my attention so I turn around, still just as confused but now annoyed, and try to pay attention to what is happening on stage. Moments later, James leans over and whispers into my ear, “the next time you take a shower you’ll look down and know what I’m talking about.“
Later that night in the communal shower stall on the campus of St. Louis University, with the sound of their giggles still taunting me, I went through a mental rolodex of all of the kids I had met at the teen convention thus far and for the life of me I couldn’t recall any twins. As I lathered my body with soap I thought about what James had said. Why would I understand when I was in the shower? But then I looked down and I saw them. I saw my breasts—the twins-- and understood. I understood that a group of teenage boys had spent 15 minutes earlier in the day laughing and encouraging others to laugh (including girls), at the size of my breasts, and when they told me they were laughing at me, I was too naïve to even get the joke. I understood that my breasts prompted boys that I considered friends to laugh at me in a packed auditorium surrounded by hundreds of other teens I didn't know. Perhaps in hindsight I may be overstating the importance of this moment, but I’m pretty sure that it was then that I decided I hated my breasts.
In high school, girls with small breasts wore backless shirts and I could not. Girls with small breasts wore tube tops and tank tops and I could not. My mother policed my wardrobe like I was intentionally auditioning for pedophiles, which made me hate my breast even more. I hated that my first strapless bra was purchased in a corset shop that had been in my neighborhood since whenever it was that people actually wore corsets. It had boning that felt like someone was literally trying to break my ribs and it showed through my tank tops enough that boys intentionally tried to find reasons to touch my waist so they could figure out what was going on underneath my shirt. I was always hiding my breasts under chunky sweaters and loose fitting t-shirts, flannels and button downs that I could never button across my chest. I hated having to ask our dance team to consider a different team uniform because the cute ones everyone voted for would not support them. Above all, I hated that the arrival of my breasts finally gave my mother a valid reason to begin dissuading me from my dreams of becoming a dancer. Before breasts, she had to bite her tongue in fear that she would crush my teenage dreams, after breasts, it was open season. “Baby”, she would say, “I’m afraid you don’t have the body of a ballerina, perhaps we should focus on something else.” This is when I hated my breasts the most, when I felt like they were holding me back from my destiny, when they – not my actual lack of talent or physical ability, were the sole reason I would never become a dancer. This is also when I decided that the answer to my problems was a breast reduction—a breast reduction would solve everything.
After a significant amount of amateur research on Yahoo, I launched what I thought would be a very effective countermeasure for my crisis: go to my father, cry, beg and plead for a breast reduction until he agreed. Surely my father, who has never been able to deny me anything will understand how important this is to me; and surely, my father who is a doctor understands that this is perfectly possible and safe; and surely my father will not want me to walk around for the rest of my life with these two protruding objects attached to my chest ruining my hopes and dreams forever and ever and ever. “Daddy, please! “ I wailed. My father, measured and calm as he always is, said this, “Sweetie, you’re too young to get a breast reduction. You’re only 16. Wait until you’re 25 and see if you still want one. If you do, we can talk about it then.” I was reeling and inconsolable. My life will be over when I’m 25. Surely I will be married with three children and the size of my breasts will be the last thing on my mind. How could he do this to me? How could he not understand that my boobs were preventing me from becoming the person I truly wanted to be?
My dear friend Torian Robinson was born on December 30th and every year he has a birthday party that is so amazing we are all too tired to actually celebrate New Year’s Eve the next night. The year I turned 25, I wore a tight spaghetti strapped silver and black dress, with a sweetheart neckline and all of my breasts proudly on display to his party. I had two ex-boyfriends to make jealous and finally I was aware there was some power in these protrusions attached to my chest. Not into the night night, my left dress strap gave under the weight of my boobs and was left to dangle off my shoulder for the duration of the evening. (I suspect this is the exact type of moment that explains why grandmothers always have safety pins in their purses.) At midnight, when it was time to sing “Happy Birthday” to Torian, our joyously outspoken friend George went to the DJ booth, got on the mic, corralled the crowd’s attention and right before he commenced us to sing, he specifically gave a shout out to my breasts.
At 25, my high school 34D breasts had grown into 34G breasts and while I no longer hated them, they certainly were not my favorites. But over the years, we had learned to live with each other and had discovered some valuable lessons along the way. Here are the highlights:
- I cannot shop at Victoria’s Secret. No one should shop there but I cannot shop there. My bras must come from shops where no bra cost less than $100.
- It is incredibly rare that my panties will ever match my bra and that is fine.
- I have no real interest in a man sucking on my nipples; he might as well be giving me a high five.
- Always wear clothing that hugs your waist or people will think you are three sizes bigger than you actually are.
- I will never be able to do a push-up or a pull-up because my breasts are simply just too heavy. I also probably weigh six pounds less than the scale says if you deduct my breast weight. I totally made this up but I fully believe it.
I suppose now is as good a moment as any to take a minute and acknowledge that my breasts are Black. Black breasts move through American society differently than other breasts. One of the sexiest black nipples in the world almost brought down the great American institution known as the Superbowl, so clearly Black breasts are ominous. Also, Black men are ass men. They are all about the booty; they are not all about the breasts. Black men have no vocabulary for big breasts. They say things like, “fun bags”, “big titties”, “the girls” or the absolute most horrible “tig’ol’bitties.” Believe me, there is nothing even remotely romantic or sexy about any of those phrases. I often tell my friends that if I died and was reincarnated, I’d prefer to come back as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed White woman. I say this because I fully believe this would allow me to really experience the advantages of what it feels like to be an American woman with big breasts. Sometimes I feel like my breasts are just out of place, like I was handed the wrong cultural endowment and I should figure out how to somehow 'make them work' as if I attempting to make a ball gown out of trash bags on an episode of “Project Runway.” If I were really winning out here, I would have been born with an incredibly round protruding ass. A good black ass will get you the keys to the kingdom. Big black breasts get you unwanted attention from men that you would never otherwise even blink at—and sanctions from CBS.
The following has happened to me on more than several occasions throughout my life:
I have become friendly with a woman that I’ve recently met on a job, at school or through mutual friends. Some months later, after we have become fond of each other over dinners and riotous email banter we find ourselves with plans to attend something together that requires us change clothes in front of one another. As I remove my top, she looks over at me, and stares. Then she says something like, “I had no idea your breasts were so big, what size are you? Your breasts are huge!” I respond to this inquisition—which feels more like an accusation—the same way every time. I confess my breasts size and then explain how I tend to look bigger in clothes than I actually am because, well, my breasts are big. Then she goes on to lament her smaller breasts, which I indulge because I am conditioned like a pro for this encounter. Then I mention that I’d like mine to be smaller, to which she almost always says, “I wish you would give some to me!” She thinks this is funny because it’s honest and self-deprecating, but it’s mostly annoying. It is annoying in the same way that women who are models talk about how hard their job is—it’s a thinly veiled way of asserting her privilege to walk through the world in a body that will never be perceived as vulgar, which is a luxury I will never have.
I honestly hate when women who tell me they want bigger breasts. I don’t hate or dispute their desire; I hate the implication that big fake breasts and real big breast are comparable. Let me tell you something plainly: fake breasts and real breasts are not created equal. Fake big breasts sit upright and will most likely be symmetrical and the same size. Fake big breasts don’t require specialty store bras because they are made of silicon and they barely move. Fake big breasts are not breasts at all -- they are magical female figure enhancements that should be spoken about in the same we talk about Spanx, faux eyelashes and waist trainers. Do not look at my real big breasts and tell me you wish yours were bigger. It makes me want to slap you or spit in your food when you are not looking. You do not want bigger breasts, you want breast implants and these two things are not the same.
Before I enter my house at the end of a busy day, there is only one thing on my mind–well actually, there are two. First, I have to pee. Second, I cannot wait to take my bra off. Sometimes I even unfasten my bra on the subway or in the cab in anticipation of ripping it off the moment I walk into the house. People underestimate how much it easier it is to breathe without a bra on. I think I’m legitimately more intellectually adept without a bra on. I am not being hyperbolic, this is something I seriously believe. I do not believe that small-breasted women can possibly understand what this feels like. I do not believe that small-breasted women would ever want to understand what this feels like, and I think, if they had to choose between a closet full of $100 dollar bras and the ability to wear a backless dress by Oscar de La Renta without concern, they would pick the latter. But despite my convictions, women still continue to approach me to whine, complain and express their sincere desire for larger breasts; and I continue to smile and listen dutifully to their concerns. I hear what they are saying and I believe that they believe what they are saying, but I have to be perfectly honest with you: I think they are all full of shit.