When it comes to self-esteem, more is not always better.
I started wearing a bra in seventh grade.
At 5’1”, I’ve always been small in stature for my age. By the time I entered high school, my C cups seemed overlarge for my body. People noticed. I remember one day after English class my sophomore year, a friend came up to me and told me that one of the most popular boys in our class had been asking about me.
“Oh, yeah?” I said, flattered.
“Yeah,” she said. “He just noticed how big your boobs were.”
I wanted to die.
Chest size notwithstanding, I’ve always been a late bloomer. At 15, I didn’t view myself as a sexual person and I wasn’t ready to be sexualized by others. But genetics disagreed. I began dressing in loose clothing and I got very into wearing overalls when they were briefly en vogue. I eschewed sweaters, I quit both soccer and swimming and stopped going to places where I might be asked to wear a bathing suit. I also started making myself throw up.
Telling women to “be grateful” is a cheap, time-honored method of brushing us off. It’s an easy way for authority figures to shut down our concerns, while simultaneously making us feel guilty for having them in the first place.
I was incredibly secretive about my disordered eating habits. I knew they were wrong and shameful and I also knew they weren’t working (as it turns out, I was much better at the binging part of the equation). When I graduated high school, twenty pounds heavier than when I started, everyone assumed that I had just put on weight; that the rest of my body had finally caught up to my chest.
I continued to binge and purge, off and on, throughout my freshman year (I really finessed my purging techniques in college). My sophomore year, I went to a Weight Watchers meeting with some friends. I learned healthier habits and was able to drop the weight safely. I started running and practicing yoga. Soon, I was down to purging once a week, then once a month, then once every few years. These days, I can’t remember the last time I purposefully made myself vomit.
But even after I felt okay about the rest of my body, I still took issue with my chest. It stared at me, mocking me, deflated, lopsided, but still too heavy for comfort. I refused to date, unable to envision a scenario in which I’d feel comfortable being naked with another person. After college, I sucked it up and asked for a breast reduction. I was lucky?—?my grandfather was a plastic surgeon in Montreal and he knew a guy. I didn’t have to deal with physical therapy or insurance or hefty medical bills and I had the support of my entire family behind me. There are many, many women who are not as fortunate as I was.
Eight years later, I still struggle with body confidence; I rarely talk about my food issues. I maybe mentioned them once in college to my closest friends, dropping the tidbit casually into conversation, in a tone intended to prevent follow-up questions. I didn’t tell my husband until our honeymoon.
For years, I thought my issues with my breasts were unique; that my dissatisfaction with my body was a combination of privilege and a lack of more pressing problems to contend with. But it turns out I was wrong: 70% of women report feeling dissatisfied by the shape or size of their breasts.
Breast asymmetry, which I also suffered from, can wreak havoc on the self-esteem of young, still-developing teens. Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital found that young women with asymmetrical or overlarge breasts tend to have lower emotional health than their more symmetrical peers.
I spent so many years isolating myself, feeling ashamed of my body and allowing that shame to manifest into self-hatred?—?all the while completely unaware that I was part of the majority. My self-loathing was mainstream.
The word I most closely associate with having breasts is “grateful.” As a teen, whenever I could work up the courage to ask my doctor about the asymmetry I saw or the pain in my back, neck and shoulders, I was told to be grateful. “Breasts,” I was told, “are symbols of femininity and fertility. Don’t you want to be both feminine and fertile?”
If one doctor had listened—really listened—to my teenaged worries about my chest, I probably would have saved myself years of disordered eating and self-harm.
No, I did not. I was 16 years old. I wanted to be able to buy a bra from Victoria’s Secret without one breast swimming in one oversized cup and one breast busting out of the other. I was angry and confused and in pain and embarrassed and I was not grateful.
Telling women to “be grateful” is a cheap, time-honored method of brushing us off. It’s an easy way for authority figures to shut down our concerns, while simultaneously making us feel guilty for having them in the first place. Women are told to be grateful for the jobs that don’t compensate us fairly, the political system that doesn’t represent us accurately, the legal structures that can’t or won’t protect our safety.
We are told to be grateful for whatever is hanging off our chests, regardless of the way those sacks of mammary fat actually make us feel. If we have big breasts, we should be grateful because some women have no breasts. If we have small breasts, we should be grateful for our ability to run and exercise without discomfort. If we’re breastfeeding, we should be grateful our bodies can produce milk to sustain life, despite what that might do to our minds. If our breasts are healthy, we should be grateful because 40,450 women die every year from breast cancer.
And we should be grateful and empowered by our healthy, milk-producing, sexually useful and enjoyable tits. But we’re also allowed to explore our less positive feelings, especially within a medical setting. If one doctor had listened—really listened—to my teenaged worries about my chest, I probably would have saved myself years of disordered eating and self-harm.
And even outside of the examination room, there are tangible efforts we can make to improve relationships between our minds and our mammaries:
We can have frank discussions with our teenage daughters about our bodies, without diminishing their concerns and fears.
We can fight school dress codes that place the burden of developing sexuality solely on the spaghetti-strapped shoulders of young women.
We can continue to pressure the mainstream media into showcasing diverse women with diverse body types.
We can normalize public breastfeeding and fail to elect a president who views postnatal women as “disgusting.”
We can continue to raise money to fund breast cancer research to keep our loved ones?—?and their breasts?—?healthy.
Women are conditioned to ask a lot of our breasts: We expect them to be functional, decorative, healthy, milky, full, perky, seductive—but not distracting. And when our chests fall short of our expectations, it’s understandable that our reactions will be mentally and emotionally fraught. So do yourself a favor: Cut yourself and your breasts some slack. You’ve earned it.