I was the first girl I knew to get breasts. I remember being in sixth grade and this horrible girl named Erica coming up to me before social studies and saying, “You don't have to stick out your chest like that,” and I almost cried. (I cried very easily as a child, and by “as a child” I mean “up until this morning.”) Because I wasn't actually sticking my chest out at all, it was just like that. I also had unusually good posture because I did gymnastics, so I was probably standing up straighter than most of the other kids, and as a result sticking my chest out a little, I guess, in retrospect. But mostly, it was just like that.
I was wearing real bras, with underwire, before I was out of middle school. Not for fun, but because I needed them. I gave up gymnastics for a lot of reasons, but embarrassment over the way my breasts looked unsupported in a leotard was definitely a factor. I was consistently mistaken for old enough to drink — and occasionally asked out by older dudes who had no idea how creepy they were actually being — from age fourteen on. By my junior year of high school, I was wearing a 36DD. And they just kept getting bigger.
There were things I liked about being The Girl With the Rack. By nature an extroverted person, I have to admit I enjoyed (some of) the attention. And, in high school, I thought getting hit on by older guys was cool. I eventually figured out that if a dude in his 20s is trying to get with a girl in her teens, it's not because the girl is just way smarter and awesomer than anyone else her age. It's because ladies in their 20s will not touch said dude with a ten-foot pole, probably with good reason. But at the time, I was really into going out with guys who had cars and being offered the wine list at restaurants. I was one of those teenagers who fetishizes standing out, and as far as I was concerned, having bigger tits than anyone else in my class was one more thing that made me unique.
The thing is, my breasts didn't stop growing when they hit the dreaded double D. For a while, unaware that you could get a bigger cup size than that, I just kept going up band sizes, which — as every well-endowed woman reading this knows, which is why they are all sadly shaking their heads and going “Oh, honey” right this minute — is a terrible idea. Too-small cups plus a too-big band equals back pain, those red marks on your shoulders, and, of course, a decided lack of anything that could be confused with perkiness. When I finally went to a real lingerie store and got a fitting, I discovered that my band size hadn't actually changed since I was 15 or so, but I needed to be wearing an H cup. (My skinny best friend: “Are you saying they make the entire alphabet?”)
I had always gotten a lot of attention for my breasts, but as I got older I became more and more aware of its disturbing undertone, and my own negative reaction to it. There are a lot of people in the world who view breasts as public property, only tenuously related to the person they're attached to. I've endured some truly appalling pickup lines. I've had guys ask “Are those real?” before asking my name. I've been followed down the street by scary men making extremely graphic comments. And I've been groped, a lot, mostly by people who think feeling me up is hilarious and “ironic” and not at all invasive or abusive. Frequently these people are female. It still astonishes me to hear the kinds of things complete strangers are comfortable saying about my body — and their inevitable defensive follow-up of “It's just a joke!” You know, if someone ever did make a joke about the size of my breasts, I just might find it funny. I don't know. All I know is that simply pointing out that my breasts are large is not inherently hilarious to me.
Interestingly, many of the people I've dated or hooked up with have gone out of their way to emphasize that my breasts are not what attracted them to me. Because that would just be too mainstream, I guess. They usually go on to explain which body part of mine they are interested in — usually my legs or hips — lest I get the mistaken impression that they're above objectifying women's body parts. Although to be fair, my legs really are awesome.
I don't remember exactly when my mother started offering to buy me a breast reduction, but I know I was still in high school. Her idea was that I would get the surgery the summer after graduation, and start college pretty and proportional. I can't say it wasn't tempting. My top-heaviness was already causing me occasional lower back trouble, and I was fed up by my limited clothing options. (Empire waists tend to hit me at about nipple level, and button-down shirts exist solely to mock me.) I was starting to realize that my breasts, and the attention they attracted, made me deeply uncomfortable. At the same time, the idea of “fixing” my body didn't sit right with me. Something in my burgeoning feminist consciousness hated the idea that my shape was flawed and needed adjusting. I told my mother I would think about it.
For the next few years, the topic came up semi-regularly in conversation. I kept saying that I would think about it, that we'd talk about it later. Finally, in the dressing room of a David's Bridal trying on bridesmaid gowns for my best friend's wedding, I got fed up. I was already emotionally exhausted by the salesgirl's obvious contempt for my body and her insistence that “nothing here is going to fit you without being altered horribly.” Horribly was the word that stuck in my mind. (I'm now planning my own wedding, and no power on this earth could induce me to give David's Bridal a goddamn cent.) So when my mom suggested, for the eleven thousandth time, that I'd have an easier time finding clothes that fit if I just got myself trimmed down to a D cup... well, I kind of lost my shit.
“Can we please stop talking about fixing me?” I raged. “The dress doesn't fit! That's not my fault! Can we fix the dress, please, and stop talking about how I need major surgery in order to fit into clothes?” And then I cried, of course, and then I bought the freaking dress, about four sizes too big everywhere except the bust, and got it altered, which cost like $20, and then it looked totally cute.
These days I'm wearing a 36J. I'm sized out of pretty much every store within reasonable distance of my house, and I have to buy bras online, which is a gigantic pain in the ass. (Just because a bra is nominally your size doesn't actually mean it will fit you properly, and it sucks to spend $50 plus shipping just to try something on.) There are styles of clothing I will never be able to wear, but there are also lots of clothes that look awesome on me. I still get cat-calls that offend me to my very core, although if I didn't have this rack I'm sure plenty of people would find something else to make douchey sexist comments about. I've never been able to find a sports bra that works for me, so certain kinds of exercise are total non-starters. I have more back pain than most women my age.
What I'm saying is, I understand why people choose to get breast reductions. There are days when all I want in the world — more than hot sex, more than a honeymoon in Greece — is the ability to walk into Macy's and buy a freaking bra. There are major drawbacks to large breasts. So why do I still have mine? No big reason, a lot of little ones. I'm kind of a sissy about pain (unless we're talking tattoos), and every breast reduction testimonial I've ever heard has made me cringe and whimper and curl up into a ball. The fact that surgery would leave me permanently scarred isn't a major deterrent, but the prospect of decreased nipple sensation does put me off.
But mostly, I've realized that my breasts are a huge (I'm sorry) part of my self-image. And in some mildly perverse way, I actually like them. As anyone who knows me personally can attest, I am a loud, opinionated, silly, often obnoxious kind of person. There's nothing I love more than taking a joke or a train of thought WAY too far. My breasts are kind of like this awesome visual metaphor for my personality: too big, too sexual, taking up too much space. If I got a breast reduction, I would still be me — I'd still wear red with pink and make “yo momma” jokes at inappropriate times — but in some way, I'd be blending in. Making myself less remarkable. I don't think I ever truly got over my adolescent urge to stand out in a crowd, to be seen. As a queer, femme, tattooed fat chick with titties for days, I'm kind of unmissable, and if I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I really dig that.
I'm not saying — I would never say — that women who want breast reductions shouldn't get them. Large breasts can cause a lot of pain, and physical pain is not the only kind that counts. Plenty of people really don't like being the center of attention, which is a valid lifestyle choice although not one I understand. I've been lucky in that, so far, my back problems are minor and don't interfere with my everyday life. I've also been lucky to have a lot of support (that was a bra pun did you notice) from my friends and family, which many women with non-normative body types don't receive. There are so many variables that go into the decision (32B or not 32B? Oh God, I'm so sorry) and no two women with above-average boobs are ever going to have exactly the same experience. The factors that make surgery an absolute necessity for one woman may be totally negligible for another.
In fact, despite my deep-seated belief that I know what is best for everyone at all times, it's almost impossible to offer any real advice, except: Do what makes you happy. Take whatever steps are necessary for your physical and emotional health, taking into account your financial situation, your relationships, et cetera, et cetera. And I hope you can approach it from a place of self-love, whether that means loving your giant breasts or loving your post-surgery scars.
I also want you to get a bra fitting. If your bra straps are leaving red, tender marks, it's not a sign that you need a breast reduction, it's a sign that you're wearing the wrong size bra. The support should come from the band, not the straps. I put off getting professionally fitted for YEARS because I thought it would be awkward and embarrassing and wouldn't make that much of a difference. It is kind of awkward, because the fitter is going to full-on feel you up and show you how your breasts should be arranged in your bra (mine called this move “The Boob Scoop”), but she'll be super cool about it and you'll probably feel way less weird than you expect it to. And it makes a huge difference. My first properly fitted bra was an amazing revelation — suddenly, I had a waist! How had that been there the whole time and I'd never even noticed? Also, my back hurt less. Get a bra fitting.
While we're talking about pain, can we all just get together and chant the mantra for well-endowed women: Fuck jogging. We all know that sports bras above a D cup are pretty universally terrible and do not protect you the way you deserve to be protected. Until science makes some dramatic advances on that front, look for a form of exercise that doesn't bounce your breasts this way and that like kids on a trampoline. Moving around and working up a sweat in a way that feels enjoyable rather than punishing will help you develop a better relationship with your body. Think outside the gym—going for a hike, a swim at the beach, or out dancing all totally count as exercise. Speaking of swimming, get a bathing suit that comes in bra sizes, from a store that specializes in large-cup lingerie. If you've been smooshing yourself into horrible halter-style bikini tops with no support, and dreading going in the water because you know you could pop out at any moment, you will not believe what a relief it is to wear a suit that fits you like a bra. (A properly-fitting bra. Because you got a bra fitting.)
No matter how big your boobs are (or your ass, or your shoulders, or your whatever other part of you), you'll feel so much better if you wear clothes that fit. You may have to look a little harder than girlfriend who fits perfectly into a size 6, top and bottom, but there are options out there. Nobody cares if you have to wear two different sizes on top and on the bottom — you're the only one who knows the number on the tag anyway. Don't torture yourself by squeezing into garments that make you feel lumpy and suffocated. And wear clothes that you like! We've all read dozens if not millions of articles on “how to dress for your figure,” and they all insist that there are Certain Rules you must follow to hide whatever giant, hideous flaws you have (of course you have giant, hideous flaws). They tend to insist that if you are more than usually curvy, you must always wear V necks, never wear ruffles because they “add bulk,” always wear belts to “emphasize your waist,” et cetera, et cetera. The hell with all of that. If you like V necks, obviously you should wear V necks (I love them because they leave room for big gaudy necklaces). If you like horizontal stripes, you should wear those. Don't bother dressing to create an optical illusion that your body is shaped differently than it is. It won't work, and it's boring. Do you.
I've found that nothing helps my breast-related self-image quite so much as sleeping with women. If you're not queer, sorry about that, but for the girl-on-girl crowd: When was the last time you thought “Wow, I wish her breasts were smaller/bigger/perkier/farther apart/a different shape”? Probably never. Probably you usually think something along the lines of “Hell yes, naked girl!” Seeing other women's bodies in a context where you're enjoying, not critiquing, can help you reframe your relationship with your own body in the same way.
And in general, it's always a good idea to stop judging other people based on their appearances. This might sound a little corny, but it's an absolutely crucial step to take before you can stop judging yourself. Find reasons to compliment people, especially people who don't fit into the “conventionally attractive” box. Does that girl with bad skin have amazing taste in shoes? Does that fat guy have an incredible smile? Tell them so (or, if you're too shy to compliment a stranger, at least take note of it to yourself). Instead of looking for reasons to scorn people, look for reasons to praise them. Once you're in the habit of doing that, it will be so much easier to look at yourself in the mirror and think, “Hey, my hair is looking really cute today, and I love the way this skirt fits!” instead of “Holy God, my boobs could be seen from orbit.”
Finally, I want you to be gentle with yourself. Self-acceptance, to say nothing of whole-hearted self-love, takes a really fucking long time, and requires letting go of some deeply ingrained cultural nonsense. If you're not a perfect ball of healing light and nonjudgmentalness by this time next week, it's no big deal. Just keep on telling yourself that you're rad the way you are, and maybe at some point you'll start to believe it. Also, seriously, your boobs look so great in that top. You don't even know.
Lindsay Miller wrote a poem about her boobs one time, and then performed it on stages around the country. She is working on her MFA and has never mastered the art of the indoor voice.