Last October, I stood on a tailor's block at a fancy New York City bridal boutique for my third, and supposedly final, dress fitting. The seamstress brought out the flowing A-line gown made of English netting and lace, and I held my breath as I stepped into the cloud of fabric and she began to zip. The dress clung perfectly to my hips and torso-so far so good. But the sweetheart cups jutted out over my size-2 frame like a pair of gigantic pastry puffs. Pastry puffs minus the filling. Needless to say, this was not the ta-da moment I'd been hoping for.
My mother had spotted this dress within weeks of my engagement and forwarded me a video of the model gliding down the runway, the fabric floating lightly around her body. It was love at first sight, not to mention something of a wedding miracle; I must have been six the last time I'd felt this enthusiastic about one of my mother's fashion suggestions. The fact that she had worn a dress by the same designer 30 years before at her own wedding only made it seem all the more fated.
But now that feeling of destiny felt more like doom. This was fitting number three, remember, and I'd been very specific from the start about wanting the dress to fit my body and hug my curves-such as they are. I'd been a 34A when the saleswoman wrapped the tape measure around my chest, and it was highly unlikely, barring thousands of dollars' worth of plastic surgery, that I was going to have a sudden growth spurt in that area. "But that will ruin the integrity of the dress," said the appalled saleswoman, as though the integrity of my body were utterly irrelevant. At the second fitting, when I tried to gently remind the Italian seamstress of what I'd requested, she just laughed and said, "All the other brides say they want double Ds. 'Give me double Ds!' they say." She threw her hands up, half in jest and half in exasperation. "Don't you want to look good for your husband?" asked another saleswoman.
"My husband knows what I look like under this dress," I replied. "What is he going to think when I come down the aisle with breasts he's never seen before?" I said this with a smile, but the truth was that I hadn't felt so awkward about my A cups since junior high. Back then, saleswomen at Nordstrom routinely directed me toward the children's department, and I had the distinction of being one of the only girls without a strapless dress at her own bat mitzvah. Most party dresses billowed out from my chest like deployed air bags. My mother is small-busted, too, so she had plenty of empathy for my situation on these ill-fated shopping expeditions. But where I was blindly optimistic (hauling clothes into the dressing room that could never fit or flatter), she harbored no such illusions. On one occasion I tried on a beautiful crushed-velvet dress with a scooped neck that sagged forlornly, as though the dress itself were upset at having such an ill-equipped body to show it off. But I refused to accept defeat, insisting, "Well, by high school, I'll definitely be able to wear it." My mom was silent, but her expression said it all. She'd been through this same struggle, and she didn't want me getting my hopes up.
Soon enough, the world would teach me to see the (bra) cup as half empty rather than half full. By 14, I fumed with jealousy over my camp friends' underwire bikinis and scowled at the supposed mortification of Molly Ringwald's character in Sixteen Candles, when her grandmother exclaims to her grandfather, "Fred! She's gotten her boobies!" I wanted to know when my grandmother was going to embarrass me like that. Jesus, Molly, I thought. At least you have boobies. I didn't even want large breasts, just adequate ones. I decided 32Bs would be enough to wear the clothes currently in fashion—Empire waists and, lord help me, bodysuits. A friend of mine looked amazing in a black bodysuit and low-waisted jeans, but she had the right curves: beautiful breasts and a small waist. I was skinny, sure, but I was also straight. Like a ruler. Or a straw.
It seemed perfectly clear to me that this lack of boobage (as it was known in junior-high parlance) put me at a serious disadvantage when it came to the opposite sex. I was sitting in the hallway at school one particular day I'll never forget when a boy walked by and said to his friend, "Jen will be pretty-once she fills out." His comment confirmed my fear that I would never have a boyfriend without the right breasts. And even if I did, how would we ever get to second base? Could he find second base if it was virtually invisible? I imagined a poor boy frantically racing around a baseball diamond, searching for a landmark too small to see.
Some girls would have addressed the issue by making a beeline to Victoria's Secret, but I had no interest in magic bras-Wonder, water, or otherwise. Every time I was on the verge of making such a purchase, I'd think of the frat guy in Animal House who tries to feel up his (heavily intoxicated) date and pulls fistfuls of tissue out from under her bra. Sexy! I wanted a boy to be attracted to my actual body-was that such a crazy idea? There were a few signs that it wasn't. As it turned out, not one of the guys I dated in high school jumped back in horror after removing my shirt. If they were a touch disappointed, they at least had the sense to not let it show. In college, I started to meet men whose insistence that they genuinely preferred small breasts served as a novel and interesting pickup line. There were fewer guys out there who fit this description than the opposite, but their mere existence was encouraging.
An experience in my late teens also helped to boost my confidence. At 18, I was cast as a stripper-slash-cocktail-waitress in a school production of Cabaret. When it came time for costume assignments, the director instructed all the other stripper/waitresses to go buy black satin bustiers. After one quick appraising glance at my chest, she declared, "You can wear a sexy camisole." I was mortified. She might as well have announced to the entire cast, "News flash! Jen Miller can't fill out a bustier!" But when the show opened a few weeks later, a strange thing happened: I suddenly felt sexier than I had in my life, even in my nondescript camisole. I'd been so focused on my chest that I completely failed to appreciate my other assets. My legs, for example, looked long and shapely in my costume's fishnet stockings and garter belt adorned with small black bows. And because I wore a different top than the other strippers, I stood out from the crowd. As an actor, albeit an amateur one, it was my job to convincingly play a sex bomb, breasts or no breasts. To my surprise, I discovered that exuding sexiness was far more important than having a conventionally sexy appearance.
I put this knowledge to good use over the years and was feeling pretty content with my bust (or lack thereof) by the time I got engaged. My now-husband, it should be noted, is a self-described breast man. Before he proposed, he came out and admitted that one of the only reasons he could think of to not get married was the fact that he was sentencing himself to a long, if happy, life without gigantic gazongas. When I heard this, I was more surprised than disappointed, since Jason had never given any indication that he found my breasts lacking. In fact, just the opposite. It turns out he liked my breasts very much; he just wasn't one of those men who actively preferred small chests over large ones. For my part, I'd always dreamed of settling down with a tall, macho cowboy type, but what is marriage about if not compromise? Finding our physical ideal was ultimately not as important as ending up with a partner who felt secure with his or her body. That's what I find most attractive about Jason. He's only five-seven, but he carries himself like that lanky cowboy I thought I wanted. I might only fit into a 34A cup (with room), but the Weimar-era sex bomb is in there when I need her.
Except around the time I was getting my wedding dress fitted, that self-assured woman vanished. While bra shopping, I started surreptitiously poking around in the drawers myself, too embarrassed to ask for a smaller size. I worried that the dress would never fit correctly and that the guests would whisper about me at the reception. I couldn't stop thinking about my fiancé's admission of preferring big breasts. What if he'd always, on some level, consider my body a disappointment?
All this was weighing on me as I showed up to my for-real-this-time final fitting. The seamstress helped me into the gown and zipped it up; I looked at myself in the mirror. At long last, the bust fit my body, and the dress could be considered ready for my big walk down the aisle. But I still left the boutique that day feeling deflated. I'd always imagined that shopping for a wedding dress would be a magical experience, as close as I would get to being a movie star on the red carpet at the Oscars. Instead, I felt like stuffing the dress in the nearest trash can and starting over from scratch.
I stood on the sidewalk outside the bridal boutique and looked up at the mannequins draped in lovely, opulent gowns. They all fit the mannequins perfectly, but the dresses themselves were artless on the stiff, plastic women. I'd grown up believing that my wedding dress would not just be perfect itself, but would also somehow make me perfect, if only for one night. Now I realized that I was responsible for making the dress look beautiful, not the other way around. It was a lesson I'd learned again and again growing up with a small bust: The size of my chest mattered far less than the amount of pride I put behind it. Apparently I needed to learn it one last time. And guess what? When the day came and I was walking down the aisle, I wasn't thinking about my dress or my breasts. I felt beautiful for the simple fact that I was about to marry the man I loved-and who loved me.
I still think that my frustration over the fitting fiascoes was justified, but I also know that I shouldn't have blamed everything on the pushy saleswomen alone. By holding on to some impossible ideal of what a wedding dress should be, I'd allowed my old insecurities to get the better of me. I let a few yards of fancy fabric undermine my confidence and make me doubt my fiancé's attraction to me. And though the dress wasn't perfect, the experience of shopping for it still brought out the most perfect version of myself. I'd held fast to my own idea of beauty, stood up for my own body, and reaffirmed a long-held belief that my breasts are simply a fact of my biology. They are one feature among many. Whether I choose to see them as a flaw or a matter of pride is entirely up to me.
This article was originally appeared in Allure.
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