I spent a great deal of my teenage years and early twenties thinking about breasts. Specifically, my breasts and their size. It didn't help things that the majority of my peers seemed focus on breast size as well. My last name, Witte (pronounced like "witty"), was paired up with a really cool nickname in middle school, where some of the boys would call me "Titty Witte." SO GREAT, right? Adolescent boys can be so sweet. This nickname wasn't bestowed upon me because I had large breasts and these teenage boys thought that was awesome, no. It was the opposite. It was made to poke fun at the fact that I had small breasts, I was "flat-chested," one of the most undesirable physical characteristics for teenage girls, right up there with acne. I spent so much time crying about it, humiliated, wishing that I looked different, wishing that I looked "better," wishing that I fit in more according to the extremely skewed 8th grade boy idea of beauty. I can still remember walking home alone from middle school after a particularly humiliating day, pulling my backpack straps up over my shoulders tightly, actually covering my breasts with these straps almost accidentally in an effort to hide myself, angry with myself for caring so much, just wishing I could disappear.
Even after I became a little bit more mature and actually wore a bra in high school, the nickname still stuck, based solely on the fact that the mean kids had been using it for so long, and it stung, just like any mean-spirited nickname would. It stung because it was a joke about my appearance, and it was something I couldn't hide. Even if I wore baggy tops or something to camouflage the fact that I wasn't some busty goddess at the age of 15, I felt somehow inadequate, and I carried that feeling with me, unshakable.
I was self-conscious about it, embarrassed about it, and I hate to admit that it took me so long to finally just get over it. My mom helped. She explained to me that of course everyone comes in all shapes and sizes, and that although middle school can be a minefield of mean nicknames and awkwardness, it eventually (mercifully) ends and you can choose to hang out with people that aren't focused on what your bra size is. And I did get over it. Now, when I think about the teenaged torment "Titty Witte" caused, I mainly feel bad for the kids that felt the need to humiliate someone else based on their appearance. There must have been something going on in their lives to make them take it upon themselves to put others down, and I only hope they've gotten over it too.
After having my first child eight years ago, I went from having these really fantastic pregnancy and nursing boobs to literally going back down to the size I was as a teenager. I went back to Titty Witte size. As an almost 30-year-old. I was crushed, and felt that self-consciousness about my appearance rush back even though I tried to tell myself how silly it was. But I was a grown woman, I wanted to look like one. I thought that having big breasts was what "looking like a woman" meant. At least I thought that having breasts bigger than an AA cup meant that. It didn't help things that I had to find bras in the kids section. The ones meant for teenagers, "training bras." The ones in the same aisle where they sold underwear with My Little Pony on them.
Thankfully as I got older, I also accepted my appearance and really started to appreciate it. Clothes actually fit easier when you have small breasts, my flat-chested friends will all agree with me on that one. You also don't get that "My eyes are up here guys" thing that can be really embarrassing. Jogging? No problem. My back didn't hurt because of large breasts. I could buy super cute bras with teeny thin little straps and didn't have to deal with thick straps cutting into my skin because of the weight of my breasts. Bathing suits were great; I could buy ones with little tops that didn't make me feel exposed or like I was showing too much, because I didn't have much to show. Strapless dresses were my friend, and I could wear a low neckline while still being pretty modest and conservative in my style.
Three more kids later, my mind is once again focused on breasts on a daily basis like it was in middle school, partly because I'm breastfeeding my daughter, but mainly because my mom was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Coincidentally enough it was during Breast Cancer Awareness Month that my mom became aware of her own breast cancer, and she started out on the very scary and sometimes very confusing path of surgeries, treatments, doctors appointments, and difficult decisions that have come with the diagnosis. She faces a long road, one that might have to include a double mastectomy. It's a road I now have to consider myself; it might be one my daughters have to consider as well.
And of course, I cried. I cried because of the unfairness of it, I just cried because I was scared. I cried and I laughed a little bit, because of how much attention I paid to my breasts and their "shortcomings" when I was younger. How important they were, how much focus I put on them, when they were perfect all along. How much I let small-minded people make me feel small. And when my mom first told me about the cancer, my knee-jerk reaction was "Get rid of them.
I sat there in the waiting room at the hospital a couple weeks ago, waiting for my mother to get out of surgery. I had the baby with me, since it was a long day of tests and surgery and I wanted to be there for the whole time, and I needed to nurse her. I had one of those light bamboo swaddles with me as a cover, a pretty dusty rose colored one, light enough to let the air come through but heavy enough that you couldn't see through it. Talley though is a noisy nurser, she burps and snorts and makes it completely clear that there is a baby breastfeeding under this cover even though you can't actually see it. The man next to me was bothered, I could tell, and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, looking around the room to see if anyone else was bothered by me. He leaned over the three (three!) seats separating us and asked me in a low voice, "Isn't there somewhere for you to do that? I mean, do you have to do it right here?"
I was embarrassed at first, my face flushed, and I felt like everyone in the waiting room was looking at us. Part of me wanted to scream at this guy. Are you serious?! I wanted to yell at him, pointing out that all of us were there waiting for someone we presumably cared about to get out of surgery and he could be a little more sensitive. I wanted to tell him to mind his own business, to tell him to piss off, to tell him to shut his stupid mouth because he couldn't even see what I was doing in the first place. I was angry. So angry that this guy was telling me not to feed my baby, under a cover, in a hospital waiting room, while I waited for my mother to get out of breast cancer surgery. All of these things were pinging angrily around in my brain for about 15 seconds simultaneously before I responded with, "Yes, I do need to do this here." He shot me a nasty look, got up, moved closer to the door and avoided looking at me for the rest of the time he was there. When the nurse came to get him to tell him his wife was out of surgery and led him away, I felt a weird and unwelcome rush of sympathy for him, glad that his wait was over.
There's nothing like a sudden serious illness of a loved one to make you get your priorities right where they need to be. At this point I really could not possibly care less about my breasts, my appearance, or what anyone else thinks of it. I also don't care if anyone has a problem with me feeding my baby using my breasts in public. This is what breasts are actually here for, people, so you can get the hell over it. Women who nurse in public are not exposing themselves to you, they have no desire for you to see their breasts, they aren't "showing off" or making everyone "uncomfortable"; they are feeding their child.
I've been trying to find the right way to wrap this piece up, but it's hard because there's still so much going on. Feelings I can't articulate and pin down. And I'm trying to remember why I started writing it. I started writing it because I feel like there is a constant lump in my throat, a constant pit in my stomach, a constant worry on my mind, and sometimes by writing about it, I can let some of it go. I know many of you have been through this already, and I wanted to write this as a way to send out support. Also as a way to tell you to not stress about the little stuff, not to worry about post-breastfeeding boobs or stretch marks, not to stress about breastfeeding or not breastfeeding, because none of it matters that much. We are all so incredibly beautiful, and it is such a shame that we often don't let ourselves feel it until it is too late. Embrace your body, embrace yourself and embrace those you love.