The decision to get a bra was cinched on Friday night when Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, the hosts of TLC’s What Not To Wear, my favorite television fashion make-over show, told me that “lifting the girls” with the correct size bra will hide (or at least minimize) the tummy bulge. Most weeks, the show features a fashion challenged woman whose body looks like mine. Lumpy. Maybe her increased breast size and lumps weren’t steroid-induced like mine, but we share the same beauty aspirations. By the end of each show, these CEO-teacher-barista-artist-actor-moms are confident and sassy, “girls” raised and unfortunate belly roll disguised. I peek down at my new breasts and the belly supporting them. It’s time to “lift the girls.”
Since middle school, I have worn tanks and cotton tees, my miniscule breasts blissfully unaware of the bound existence endured by other breasts on other women. This freedom came with occasional complications.
In high school, I flipped burgers on the back grill at the local McDonald’s. All the other girls worked the front counter, their hair and make up perfect for the customers, but I was out back with the guys, battling french fry grease and sprouting acne. I think I was a gender experiment, because other than me, there was no mixing of gender roles. Girls out front, guys out back, and all the managers were men.
Employees wore thick blue polyester uniforms, wrinkle-free and indestructible. The guys’ tunics sported a half zipper, flat fronts and clean lines. The girls’ tunics zipped up the front and were shaped to fit a womanly form, seams parallel to the zipper in order to accommodate breasts.
Several times each day, I trudged to the meat cooler, hefted a twenty-five pound box of frozen burgers up to my chest, and lugged it out to the grill area. I’d look around to see if anyone in the small kitchen space was watching before I dropped the box on the stainless steel counter, revealing the crushed inverted seams of my tunic. I’d rush to pluck the seams back out before one of the guys noticed. It was an impossible routine to keep private for long.
“Hey Cath, whatcha doin’?”
“Pluckin’ out my breasts, Jeff.”
I begged the head manager, an eager company man in his early twenties, for one of the guys’ tunics. I even demonstrated the inverted seams and pluck.
“No can do, Cathy, that’s not possible. Guys wear guys’ uniforms and girls wear girls’. Those are the rules.”
After awhile, I stopped plucking.
Twenty years later, I lived and worked by different rules. So I was prepared when Casey, profanities flowing, slammed through the office door Portland’s gay youth organization, seeking assistance from me, the Executive Director.
Casey could have been the fashionable high school girl from any teen television series – tight jeans, platform heels, expert makeup, styled hair. Snug shirt across full breasts. Six feet, two inches of gorgeous emerging womanhood. Pissed-off womanhood.
Except Casey was a boy. Or at least the body was. What pronoun to use remained unclear.
“The principal kicked me out of school – she said ‘my breasts are a distraction’.” Casey emphasized with air quotes. Then paused, forehead and eyes wrinkled with thought, and gestured with French tipped nails to the offending breasts. Said with unblinking sincerity, “I think it’s the stripes. Stripes make breasts look bigger.”
I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it. “Casey, I could wear that shirt and I wouldn’t look like that.”
We both looked down. Clinically observed the area of my chest where we both knew my breasts were hiding.
“It’s not the stripes,” I gently said.
“No,” Casey exhaled the solemn syllable, head tilted in consideration, “I guess it’s not the stripes.” A moment of silence followed. “It may be time for smaller boobs.”
Now at forty years old, I stand shirtless in the apricot fitting room of JC Penney, being measured for my first real bra by an older than retirement age saleswoman who was quite patient the first two times I inquired, “Okay, tell me again how you decide what size is the right size?”
Intrigued by this elderly saleswoman, I wonder what this experience is like for her. In the fitting room, hat off, my bald head is exposed. Shirt off, my stomach bandage is front and center. She can’t look up and she can’t look down. She is focused like a laser on my chest and her measuring tape, which she lays with precision across my nipples. This efficient, white haired woman sees an awful lot of nipples in a day.
In the midst of the measuring, I burst into flames. A hot flash begins at the back of my throat, fast and scorching, like a struck match in a tight space. In nanoseconds, the fire has surged through my body, an over-efficient furnace in a small house. My eyes go wide as my ears start flaming. Perspiration drops turn to rivers of rolling sweat, dripping down my hairless scalp, my back, and between my now present breasts. At this, the saleswoman looks up, meets my eyes.
“Hot flash,” I explain as I reach around her to grasp the bottle of water, the only permanent accessory I carry. “Happens when I’m stressed.” Happens when I’m eating, sleeping, or breathing, too, but she doesn’t need to know that this is an every twenty minutes occurrence that I am trying to figure my life around, just like I’m trying to figure my life around the idea that I used to go braless but now I have breasts and I used to have cancer but now I have chemo and menopause.
Measurements complete, we take a break so I can mop up before we select some bras. I’m a buxom 34B. I already miss my flat chest.
At least the tummy bulge will be disguised.
© 2010 Cathy Kidman