"Have Your Breasts Always Looked Like That?"
My mother was a woman of large and voluptuous personality, the kind of person who fills up a room when she walks into it. Her body was large and voluptuous too, which left her an intermittent if never particularly successful dieter. But there was one body part -- two, actually -- in which she seemed to glory: her breasts.
In our family, the story was told of how she battled the maternity ward nurses in Exeter, New Hampshire, where she gave birth in 1953, for the right to breastfeed her daughter. That baby was me.
For all my years of growing up, my mother possessed a prodigiously energetic style of demonstrating her love (the kind that seemed to burst out of her dress and spill onto you), and even after I'd grown up and left home, she didn't let up a whole lot in the mothering department. Being the recipient of all this attention and affection was a mixed blessing, but this much I knew: There was no more comforting place to be than pressed against her bosom. It probably says something about my marriage that, even into my 20s and 30s, this continued to be true.
On Mother's Day of 1989, I got a phone call telling me that my gloriously robust 66-year-old mother was suffering from an inoperable brain tumor. Within the hour I'd hired a babysitter to help my husband take care of our three children -- ages 5, 7, and 11 -- and flew to Toronto to care for her in what turned out to be the last summer of her life.
One afternoon, the two of us were out on her patio, soaking up the sun. I had taken off my shirt, and my mother leaned over from her wheelchair and studied me hard. She said, "Have your breasts always looked like that?"
Well, no, they hadn't. Although, unlike her, I'd always been small-breasted, I had, like her, enthusiastically nursed all of my children -- and I had the droopy chest to prove it.
But there was no time, just then, to grieve over my breasts; I was too busy grieving for my mother. And for my marriage. My husband and I had been going through hard times for months (truthfully, years) before her diagnosis; now, facing the loss of my mother, I wanted desperately to salvage my relationship. I flew home partway through the summer for what was meant to be a romantic weekend with my husband at a little bed-and-breakfast, but the trip didn't go well. Sitting across from me at a restaurant in the picturesque town of Newfane, Vermont, watching as a single tear flowed down my cheek and splashed onto a very good cut of untouched steak, my husband had regarded me, not unkindly, but much as an interviewer would in the moments before easing out a job candidate who was not going to be hired. "I'm sorry, Joyce," he'd said. "I just don't have anything for you."
My mother died that October, around the time I learned that my husband had fallen in love with our babysitter. So my mother was dead and my marriage was over, and I found myself, at 35, entering what I look back on as the darkest, loneliest season of my life.
My mother was nowhere close to being wealthy, but she left me some money and I used it in a number of odd ways to relieve the grief that seemed about to pull me under. I joined the Y and swam laps like a woman training for a channel crossing. I bought a great many CDs. I purchased tinted contact lenses to change my eyes from brown to green, and when the world looked no different, I tried purple ones. In the new house I'd found, I installed a very fancy kind of shower, in which the water squirted out from all directions. None of this did the trick.
I did acquire a boyfriend, however. And sometime that winter, I found myself lying naked beside him as he looked over at my breasts with a faintly troubled expression. "Not that you need it," he said. "But have you ever considered cosmetic surgery?"
From that moment on, I thought of nothing but. At the Y, I studied the breasts of women in the locker room with as much attention as any man has ever given any breast -- analyzing size and shape and the various ways they might sit on a woman's chest, other than how mine did, which now struck me as a metaphor for how I was feeling: deflated (empty, in fact) and heading in a steadily downward direction.
If I had been living in New York City -- or, god knows, Los Angeles -- this would be a different story. But my kids and I made our home in a small town in New Hampshire, inhabited mostly by married types more likely to spend their extra cash, if they had any, on a cord of wood or a new belt for the tractor. To my knowledge, I had never met anyone who had visited a cosmetic surgeon. So I did what we all did in the days before the Internet: I consulted the Yellow Pages.
Three days later, I was driving two and a half hours south to Boston and sitting in the office of a doctor whose name began with A. Because I was a bit unsure about this implant business, I asked him how large my bust would be if I had the surgery, explaining that -- except for the brief period in which I'd nursed my babies -- I had never been a large-breasted person and that becoming one was not my objective now. Firmness, perkiness, and a certain reversal of gravity were what I was after.
The doctor told me that it was impossible to know in advance of the surgery exactly what size implant my case would require, but not to worry: My breasts were going to be terrific. I'd love them and no doubt others would too. He brought his nurse into the room, and she unbuttoned her shirt to show me the breasts he'd surgically provided for her. They were impressive. Three days later, I was heading down to Boston again, writing a rather large check from my modest inheritance fund and climbing onto the operating table.
When I woke up, I was heavily bandaged. It was only after I got home and unwound myself (in the company of my boyfriend) that I could look at the results. The sight was astonishing.
Perched on my 110-pound frame was a pair of size 40 breasts. I could have carried an entire tea service on them. All the old metaphors used to describe the type of breasts I'd never before possessed made perfect sense. They jutted out like the proverbial set of headlights or a pair of melons glued to my chest. For the first time, I understood the use of the term rack. These were breasts a person could hang a hat on.
You might think I was horrified, and no doubt I should have been. But the truth is, I was sort of fascinated and thrilled. In my whole life (but in particular, the twelve and a half years of my marriage), I had never been perceived as anything remotely like a sex goddess. Suddenly I saw how different life was for a woman with a body like the one I now inhabited. It was different walking down the street. It was different pumping gas. (It was different ice-skating and Rollerblading, incidentally: The old center-of-gravity problem had me falling down a lot.)
My former husband, when he came to pick up our children, looked perplexed. My sons, then 6 and 8, said the new breasts were fun to snuggle up against. But my 12-year-old daughter, Audrey, who was beginning to develop her own small, tender bosom, was mortified.
Oddly enough, my boyfriend -- the same man who had planted the surgery suggestion in the first place -- expressed ambivalence. One day we were at a Red Sox game, where, as usual, my breasts and I were getting a fair amount of attention. "I hate it," he said, "that wherever we go, I get the feeling people think I'm some kind of breast fetishist." (Which, to be honest, he sort of was.)
We broke up not long after that. But I continued to feel okay about my amazing new body, though the feeling I had, inhabiting it, was a little like that of a tourist visiting some exotic foreign country. I had to buy new clothes, of course. Whereas in the past the look I'd gone for was French gamine, with Audrey Hepburn as my inspiration, now my role model was Sophia Loren mixed with a little Dolly Parton. With this shelf in front of me, there was simply no way to look like a slim person. Or a tidy one. Food that once would have landed discreetly in my lap now landed right in my cleavage.
Fortunately, the breasts (I still spoke of them as the breasts, not mine) grew less insistently horizontal over the years. Even so, they made an impact. I remember a night when a group of my daughter's friends were sleeping over, and I overheard them comparing notes on breast development. One of them said to Audrey, "Well, at least you don't need to worry. One look at your mom and we know what's going to happen to you."
When I was 42, my children and I moved to Northern California. Having started a whole new life on a new coast, I thought it seemed like the perfect moment to do something about my oversize breasts. Besides, silicone implants had fallen into disfavor. I wanted saline implants, which I considered safer, and I still had some money in my inheritance fund. And so -- having no internist of my own, and still knowing no one who'd availed herself of these services -- I went back to the Yellow Pages.
This time, I knew the moment I took off the bandages that something had gone wrong. My breasts seemed to have taken a dislike to each other. They were smaller, all right, but they also drifted off in opposing directions, creating a sort of walleyed effect. I could feel a hard edge, particularly under the left one, that was irritating my skin. When I expressed concern to my doctor, she applied a piece of duct tape to the spot, as if to hold the implant in place, but I was unconvinced we'd solved the problem.
My skepticism was confirmed a month or so later when I was working quietly at my computer and felt a slosh of warm liquid pouring down the front of my shirt -- enough saline solution, it occurred to me, for the care and cleaning of many hundreds of contact lenses. A quick check revealed that the implant had rubbed right through my skin and ruptured, deflating within seconds.
Emergency surgery was called for to remove what remained of the implant. This left me with a dilemma: Inserting a new implant was not an option, at least not until my breast healed. But if I chose, I could remove the other implant, in the interest of symmetry.
The decision was just too much for me, so I had the surgeon take out only the ruptured implant. This left me with one size 36 breast and one that was virtually flat. I figured it was my punishment for the vanity that had brought me to this place, and the waste of all that good money that should have been used for something sensible, like a car with air bags.
By this time, my sons had long since lost interest in my breasts, having no doubt found other, much more interesting ones. My daughter was in college, a progressive kind of place where she had chosen to live in the eco-friendly, vegetarian dormitory. Visiting her a few months after my partial chest-flattening surgery, I walked into the common area she shared with her five suitemates, to be greeted with an art piece they had worked on together. They'd made plaster molds of one another's naked torsos, painted them silver and hung them in one amazing row on the wall over the couch.
Of all those young breasts, there wasn't a conventionally perfect one in the bunch. They were a little goofy, in fact: not perfectly matched, and unusually shaped in a few cases. But I could recognize in the breasts of my daughter and her friends what had escaped me about my own. They were fine -- great, even -- just the way the young women themselves were.
A few months later, with heavy encouragement from Audrey, I had the final implant removed. Having returned from the land of bimbo status to nearly total flat-chestedness, I felt like Cinderella after the ball. I told myself I should embrace this body of mine. At 44, I said, I should be over this breast business already.
Only I wasn't. And I still wasn't as I approached my fiftieth birthday. I was not far from the age my mother had been when she attended my wedding back in the 1970s, wearing a low-cut Mexican lace dress with no bra (an image my friends would remember and exclaim over, years later). The man I'd married that day was now living with a young woman and their new baby. On the dresser of my youngest son's bedroom I saw -- although he had moved it off to the side, out of concern for me, perhaps -- a photograph of my ex with his girlfriend, her bare breast exposed, nursing my children's half brother. It amazed me to think that nearly two decades had passed since I'd nursed a baby of my own.
Back when she'd first enrolled in college, my daughter had taken a course called introduction to feminism, taught by a former Berkeley radical. "Oh, Mama," Audrey had said, "You have no idea what women have gone through."
Two years later, she was more ready to believe that I might know a thing or two about what women had gone through, and that perhaps it was going through some of those things myself that had led me to make the choices I'd made in years past, however ill-advised. I no longer registered the wish -- out loud, or even to myself -- that she'd shave her legs or pluck her eyebrows. She looked beautiful as she was, and I loved it that she felt no need to change herself, even though I (raised in another era, the product of a different set of experiences) could not feel equal acceptance of the toll taken by childbirth and the simple ravages of time.
So my daughter came to judge me less for my foolish vanities. She understood better how a person could find herself addressing the grief of a parent's death or the failure of a marriage with a crazy, poorly planned visit to a surgeon's office, where a scalpel would slice open the chest and a sac of silicone would be inserted.
I judged myself less harshly too, and as I did, it came to me how like a woman it was to blame herself, first for her imperfect breasts and then -- again and again and again -- for her inability to accept them.
You may think I am about to tell you how I came to love myself exactly as I was -- flat chest, scars, deflated breasts and all. But the truth is a little more complicated. Only a little money remained in my inheritance fund. With it, I took myself to one more cosmetic surgeon -- but this time, I researched my choice carefully. I didn't want large breasts, or showy breasts. You might say I just wanted there to be a soft place over my heart, like the softness that I felt within. Men have identified women's breasts as a source of comfort and refuge since time began. No great wonder, I sought the same.
I emerged from the procedure with not particularly dramatic or noticeable breasts, but they were comforting to one person: me.
Joyce Maynard is the author of five novels, including American Library Association award-winner The Usual Rules, and To Die For, made into a motion picture starring Nicole Kidman. Her best-selling memoir, At Home in the World, has been translated into eleven languages. She runs memoir workshops at her home in California and at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Read more at www.joycemaynard.com.
Originally published in MORE magazine, October 2008.