When I went through adolescence, I grew breasts—a normal process for a female—except that mine kept growing. They expanded like balloons, blocking my way when I reached for something. I no longer saw my feet when I looked down. Instead I saw drips of queso, crumbs, bits of anything I had just eaten resting on my breasts, like a shelf had been installed on my chest. I grew through the alphabet of cup sizes: AA, A, B, C, until finally landing on DD. My resulting, bounteous cleavage alarmed and embarrassed me—it divulged adolescence’s strange secret: the dawning of sexuality.
Boobs, breasts, tits, bangers, hooters, these names made me think of how Dolly Parton juxtaposed her monstrous breasts with a down-home, overly cheerful demeanor. She worked her persona like a feather boa, softening the edge of her sexuality and hiding any substance with a frilly cascade of giggles.
I harnessed them in with a jog bra during my daily runs. Without it, the loose jiggling caused bruisy feeling cramps. If I didn’t rein them in, they threatened to sag, but strapped in, my breasts felt contained, wrapped like a package. I hid my curves with oversized shirts. Inside, I still felt like a girl, but outside, I had a cleavage. How far down should I leave my shirts unbuttoned—to the second or the third hole? Leaving the third hole unbuttoned felt exciting but also naughty. Why did I feel like I needed to hide this part of my sexual potential? I wondered at the shame or guilt in becoming a woman.
“You should be proud,” said my best guy friend, who proceeded to list the girls in our high school with excellent tits.
There was a list? And I was on it? I was definitely not a varsity cheerleader, and yet my friend had lumped me together with one, even though the thought of prancing around in a white mini-dress, sticking my breasts out, mortified me. Cup size was the only common denominator among those of us listed. Why couldn’t I have A’s like most of my friends? Instead I had DD’s, melons, jugs, the bad grade of boobs.
This was the beginning of my bad posture. My shoulders curved in, not just for the weight but the shame of it. I was a young girl who was expected to behave like a lady, but with unsolicited cat whistles and leers, suddenly I was a chick with tits.
Where did they come from, my mother and grandmother wondered. To my disappointment, they determined my breasts came from Dum Dum, my maternal great grandmother, a large, matronly woman. Studying old family pictures, I saw no definition to her breasts beneath her frumpy dress—just a bland heaviness. I didn’t appreciate how these large, heaving historical grandmother breasts overshadowed my perky new ones.
The woman behind the name is cloaked by time’s forgetfulness. Did she ever feel sexual? In her devout Catholic world, where Jesus was immaculately conceived, sexuality was repressed, even erased. I never learned how “Dum Dum” came to own her name, but both of its meanings—mute or stupid—imply an unknowing, a powerlessness. In the same way Dolly Parton softened her edges, Dum Dum’s name disempowered her wisdom and age. It was an unfortunate name, as grandmother names go, and in her case, I couldn’t miss the double D allusion to her chest.
Grandmothers are often called by repeated, assonant single syllables, their names mirroring an infant’s nascent language. I called my father’s mother “Nana,” and my mother’s mother “Me Me.” One of the best jog bras I can find is called the “Tata Tamer.” With the same repetitive syllables saved for grandmothers, this cutesy title objectifies and infantilizes women’s breasts, like pets. It reminded me of how my high school friend’s list dulled the dangerous sharp edge of my new breasts. Turned into objects, disassociated from the woman who they are a part of, they lose their primal power, like a female version of castration.
From our female predecessors we inherit not just genetics but also their notions of femininity. Posture is formed early in youth, when children unconsciously mimic the posture of the people around them. My mother had always been so beautiful and petite that her posture hardly seemed noticeable. Yet if I applied all of the pointers about posture to her, I could see what once had been invisible to me start to reveal itself. In her, I saw my own curved shoulders and un-zipped stomach and wondered how her stance reflected her relationship with my father.
I now know (from an endless study of Pilates on a piece of equipment aptly named the Reformer) that good posture emerges from the inner core. A first impression gets made in only seven seconds, but it takes me that long to remember how to plant my feet correctly, zip-up my abdominals, align my hips, and straighten my spine in order to present a held-together, radiant presentation to the world. When I stand this way, my breasts seem secondary to my physique.
Standing in a morning stupor in front of the coffee maker, I find myself hunching and uncurl, growing upwards like the frond of a fern. I catch my bad posture in a reflection, or when my daughter gets in the car after ballet and I see the lines of her protruding breastbones, graceful and proud, like a bird.
I read recently that you can tell more about a person from her back than from her front. My back is my blind spot. The molding of my body, my rounded shoulders, is caused by unconscious feelings channeled straight to this invisible place, yet, as I age, my blind spot is rendered visible by pain.
At 48, I’m not so horrified about having Dum Dum’s breasts as I am of having the grandmother hunchback. The correct term for this is kyphosis. My problem area—where I hunch—is the place where the wings of my shoulder blades come together, the thoracic area of my spine. Historically, women are prone to kyphosis because of the work they do: nurturing, cooking, and housework. The feminist in me doesn’t like how stereotypical this sounds, but I carry my own muscle memories of cutting onions in the kitchen, carrying a load of dirty laundry, and nursing a child.
This is also the spot where I carry my stress. If it is my blind spot, invisible to me in the mirror, it is also the physical reservoir of what remains unconscious, a bodily template of powerlessness and dejection. Choosing to be a housewife and a mother still feels like moving into a secondary class. The loss of power is demeaning, coupled with the loss of furthering my career, of mattering to the world. In my own, personal feminity, I inherited a sense of the abject, watching my mother’s fair complexion pale further when my father disregarded her or suggested she “go put on her face.” There was an inordinate importance placed on physical appearance, as if beauty alone could rectify their discord.
Old pain turns to new when, after a long run, I feel a throbbing in my neck. One exercise to improve this is to stand against a wall, place my hands at my sides, palms against the wall, and then move my arms up and down, as if making snow angels. Going through these movements with their echo of play feels both childlike and empowering. Even though it’s only a few centimeters of altitude gained, my view is transformed. When I remember to stand up taller, I take stronger, more assertive steps, I throw my shoulders back and straighten my spine, feeling my power. Not Dum Dum. Me.