As a chronicler of queer family life, there are two topics I have studiously avoided: breastfeeding and my wife’s chest surgery.
It has not escaped my notice that both of these topics have to do with boobs.
All my life, breasts have been vexed. As a fourth grader under the influence of Judy Bloom, I waited vigilantly for signs of swelling in my chest area. My best friend, the frighteningly precocious Susie Patterson, smuggled 24AA training bras to school for me in her lunch box. She could afford to be generous; as Susie never failed to remind me, she had moved on to bigger (and implicitly better) sizes.
By the time I reached high school, I was furtively searching my health textbook for information about the outlying age range for breast development. Was it possible that I was just a late bloomer? Are you there God? It’s me, Paige. I’m not asking for a miracle. I’m just asking for a B cup. As the years passed, I hitched my hopes to any old wagon, grasping at stories of short boys who grew an inch or more after age 18.
Eventually I realized that a late-adolescent growth spurt was not going to happen. I purchased a Maidenform padded push-up bra and learned to make light of my plight. I was a budding thespian, and my signature monologue was Nora Ephron’s “A Few Words About Breasts,” which begins like this:
I have to begin with a few words about androgyny. In grammar school, in the fifth and sixth grades, we were all tyrannized by a rigid set of rules that supposedly determined whether we were boys or girls. The episode in Huckleberry Finn where Huck is disguised as a girl and gives himself away by the way he threads a needle and catches a ball — that kind of thing. We learned that the way you sit, crossed your legs, held a cigarette and looked at your nails, your wristwatch, the way you did these things instinctively was absolute proof of your sex. Now obviously most children did not take this literally, but I did. I thought that just one slip, just one incorrect cross of my legs or flick of an imaginary, cigarette ash would turn me from whatever I was into the other thing; that would be all it took, really. Even though I was outwardly a girl and had many of the
trappings generally associated with the field of girldom — a girl’s name, for example, and dresses, my own telephone, an autograph book — I spent the years of my adolescence absolutely certain that I might at any point gum it up. I did not feel at all like a girl. I was boyish. I was athletic, ambitious, outspoken, competitive, noisy, rambunctious. I had scabs on my knees and my socks slid into my loafers and I could throw a football. I wanted desperately not to be that way, not to be a mixture of both things but instead just one, a girl, a definite indisputable girl. As soft and as pink as a nursery. And nothing would do that for me, I felt, but breasts.
While my adolescent self was not particularly athletic or rambunctious, Ephron’s essay resonated more than I let on. I believed that breasts were a magical badge of femininity. My A-cup assets made me slightly uneasy–not just about my attractiveness–but about my identity.
My wife’s experience was quite different. Katy inherited her mother’s legendary rack. And since she refused to set foot in the lingerie department, Katy was at the mercy of her mother’s taste in bras. Thus, throughout the low-slung seventies, Katy sported Jane Mansfieldian bras that launched her boobs up and out, like minor planets orbiting her chin.
It was not a style that complemented a softball uniform. Or a basketball uniform. Or any of the other sporty ensembles that might otherwise have offered androgynous refuge for a budding butch. In the context of Katy’s broad shoulders and chiseled jawline, the bullet bras highlighted femininity as awkward and unfortunate drag.
(Special thanks to Katy for digging up this picture and letting me post it. Despite the fact that she finds it slightly mortifying. I think the transgender butch shines through, don’t you?)