10/18/2012 11:45 am ET | Updated Dec 18, 2012

Sisterhood Of The Self-Unaware: Why Are We Ignoring Our Own Breasts?

October being National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, women look down and ponder how aware we are -- or aren't -- of our breasts the other 11 months of the year.

They're just there, our breasts, pleasing our partners, feeding our babies and giving us pause as we assess wardrobe matters in the mirror. Before we can talk breast cancer awareness, we need to consider how aware we are of our breasts, period. What support, beyond bras, are we giving the "girls?"

My experience being limited to one pair, I ask my gal pals -- Laura, Christie, Sue, Becca, Mary, Renae, Terri and Jan -- how they feel about their (as my mother cringe-worthingly calls them) bosoms. Selected solely on the criteria of being verbally uninhibited owners of boobs, our panel represents a near-scientific sampling: early and late bloomers, the well-endowed and small-busted, non-moms and the formerly pregnant, and a breast cancer survivor who's had reconstructive surgery. Like my middle-aged-lady tankini top, it's all the coverage you could want.

As topics go, breasts don't see a lot of sunlight; if they did, girls young and old would realize how, in American society, the sisterhood, at least as represented by my informants, shares a fairly universal experience.

When our buds start bursting in grade school or later, we discover that breasts are public domain. We get teased if we're busty. We get teased if we're boards. Boys snap bras. Girls taunt in the locker room. Dads and brothers make awkward comments, and we get bodily shy in their presence. Training bras only smash back the evidence for so long. We cross our arms or slouch to conceal the emerging show, retreating to the pages of the Victoria's Secret catalog or National Geographic to try to understand what's happening. In no time flat, we learn the power that breasts have over boys.

"I never had breasts until I was 50, or so it seemed at the time," jokes Sue. "Then, when I got them, I wished I could just take them off and send them on dates without me so I didn't have to go out with the nitwits."

Over time, those of us who desire to go out with the nicer of the "nitwits" learn to work our assets, growing into satin and lace and wire artifices that pad us out, push us together, perk us up and press out our headlights. Our pointed efforts to attract The One attract many: male managers who make "eye" contact with our chests, creepy geezers who ogle an eyeful, and decent men, the lovely majority, who are mannerly in their appreciation of the female form. Mindful that men divide into boob men, leg men and butt men, we melt when our chosen guy looks beyond individual parts and loves the whole of who we are.

Which, in one of life's great hilarities, often leads to breastfeeding his offspring, whereupon ownership of our breasts transfers to the baby. On one hand, nursing forges a bond; on the other, it furthers the sense that this part of our anatomy is more others' -- be it men's or children's -- than ours.

A women's clothing boutique owner, Laura hears it all as customers emerge from the fitting room to audit themselves in the three-way mirror. "If you ask a woman the least favorite thing about her body, she'll list at least three things," she says. Upper arms are trouble. Bellies are big concerns. Rear ends? Somewhat. "Ask her the best thing," Laura continues, "and she'll give you a blank stare." Unless a woman is in dating mode, thereby viewing herself through the men lens, or has had a mastectomy, breasts rarely make the list; they're just there.

And that's the problem. We condition our hair, exfoliate our faces and take our supplements, but few of us give our breasts their due by doing potentially life-saving self-exams on a regular basis. You can bet that breast cancer survivors and those in their circles are appreciative of their breasts. The rest of us would do well to similarly replace "thereness" with awareness.

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