Song of Myself
I am lying on my back on my bed, fully clothed, cupping my breasts in my hands. I am staring at the ceiling and trying to think positive thoughts. One of my dearest and oldest friends is having a bilateral mastectomy this morning in Boston, and I don’t know what else to do but to lie here, trying to send out good breast vibes.
As anyone who has breasts or is acquainted with someone who does (read: everyone) knows, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The pink wristbands and ball caps appear. The self-breast-exam reminders go out. The American Cancer Society walks and talks take place. The mammogram jokes (“It’s like slamming yourself in a refrigerator door”) make the e-mail rounds. In a word, October — and I am not merely describing the run-up to the election — is all about boobs.
I have to confess that my breasts have largely been a back-burner issue for me. You see, I am what might be described as modestly endowed, petitely busted or, perhaps, buxomly challenged. Those of us in the fold (or lack thereof) simply call it being flat-chested. While I was comfortable with my simple size, I didn’t always celebrate the fact. I took it for granted.
Not that early on in life I didn’t hope for a little amplitude in the cup. That sexpot Barbie of mine sure offered promises of curves and open-toed mules and bubble-beehive hairdos that would provide passage in a pink convertible, with a Ken or G.I. Joe (always in the passenger seat), off into the horizon — or at least to the end of my driveway, the point at which I had to turn them around.
But, alas, as destiny and my equally underendowed mother’s and grandmother’s genes would have it, I would always be more Skipper than Barbie.
The worst of it, of course, was in prepubescence, before I learned my fate. See, back in the olden days — before young girls’ bodies were pumped up with a steady diet of antibiotics that now jumpstart pubescence in third grade — we all “blossomed” at about the same time: around the age of 13 or 14.
Gradually, one by one, chest bumps started to appear on my female classmates. One by one, the outline of bra straps could be seen beneath their blouses. There were whispers in the hallways, jokes about “over-the-shoulder boulder-holders” and Mark Eden. Chants of “We must, we must…” But you were either in the club or out, and I was slow to grow.
When my time to pubesce finally arrived, I suffered the indignity of being fitted for my first bra by a dowager at Porteous, whose glasses, on a pearly chain around her neck, balanced atop the shelf of her ample bosom. She stood on the other side of the dressing room door, calling out every minute or so, “How we doing in there?” As I gazed in the mirror at my only slightly convex form swathed in a lilac stretch bra, I wanted to cry back, “We are having a moment!” Instead, all I could do was think, I waited all that time for this?
But I quickly made peace with my physique. I was a tomboy and athletic, and I was glad I didn’t have to worry about flopping around — or, worse, taking a strategically jabbed elbow — during field hockey games. (Those Rumford girls would stoop to anything.) My form fit in with my rapidly developing (at least something was) feminism. Just think of all the money I saved by not having a bra to burn in the first place. And I don’t ever remember a boy having a conversation with my chest instead of me. (I guess that’s because I had such a nice personality, which remains with me to this day, right? Right? Right?)
I like to think I blossomed, instead, in spirit. And free spirits weren’t suited to the confines and constraints of latex and eye hooks — or “bust constrictors,” as one of my more buxom friends refers to her bras. When I traipsed around Europe in college and went topless on the Riviera, I felt exotically gamine. I felt safe to drive solo cross-country (twice), to sit alone in a bar, to forge out on a dance floor by myself. While my poor, chesty comrades were getting ogled and harassed, I could disappear right under all those leering eyes. My smallness made me free.
But I guess I hadn’t really thought that much about it, until my friend, who has a similar build, and I spoke on the phone right before her surgery. We didn’t talk about risk or odds or numbers, only about how she’d always loved being flat-chested. Me too, I’d said, suddenly feeling more attached and grateful for my breasts than ever before — and for this friend I’ve known since girlhood, my sister of the A-cup.
When’s the last time I did a breast exam? I think, as I open my eyes and look at the clock. It’s well after noon now. The surgery should be over. I decide I better get moving. There’s work to be done.
Elizabeth Peavey will be walking with City Councilor Cheryl Leeman’s team in the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk in Portland on Sunday, October 19. To make a contribution, go to cancer.org, click the “Making Strides…” link at left, and follow links to walks in Maine.