“Mere, pere, și bretele,” went the old Romanian joke, which loses all its rhyming wordplay in English: “apples, pears, and suspenders.” This was my first exposure to the indignities of female body image, and it came not, as you might imagine, from my mother, but from my dad. A recognized world-class curmudgeon, my father never even tried to reign in his colorful expressions to shelter the budding sensibilities of his daughter and only child. He would repeat this joke with glee, ignoring my mother’s frowns; I would giggle blithely.
If you haven’t realized already, the joke refers to the physical state of a woman’s breasts through life: in her youth, firm apples standing proud on her chest; in her middle age, pears tugged by gravity earthwards; and finally, in late life, suspenders that have entirely given up their shape and the fight with gravity. There was woman, encapsulated by the male psyche into a pithy four-word joke.
My mother hated it, but being reserved and shy, especially about her body, she brushed it off. She ignored anything having to do with looks, convinced by my father’s family that she was an ugly little thing.
As development goes, my body followed nature’s course precociously and my breasts could no longer be ignored by early high school. This was not a good thing. I had come to the US in 1972, just before turning 12; two years later my English had improved from a six-word vocabulary on arrival to fluent but still accented, an indelible stamp of my otherness. On top of that, the breasts were like a one-two punch. My only school friend at the time was a tallish girl with a sweet, open face and honey-blond curls. She was almost entirely deaf and depended on conspicuous hearing aids to enhance her hearing. Even so, her deficiency made her speech stilted and marked by strangely pronounced words. We took refuge in each other.
There was no refuge from the breasts, however. They were unavoidable. At first, I did the logical thing and wore a bra, which elicited derisive quips from the popular girls, most commonly that I was “stuffed.” As if I’d choose to draw attention to myself by stuffing my bra (with what, pray tell?). More embarrassing, I had to ask what the term meant—I had no idea. In protest, I decided to go bra-less. I admired the romance of the 60’s, with its music and freedom of expression. Going bra-less was my revolt—no one could accuse me of stuffing something I didn’t wear. The problem was that it didn’t dampen the attention I was getting, and so—typical for a teenager—I oscillated between low confidence days when I hunched my shoulders and wore baggy clothes that hid my figure, and days when I displayed myself in clingy knit cotton shirts that emphasized every detail.
At 15, despite my incoherent goal of both hiding and drawing attention to myself, I finally landed a boyfriend, to my parents’ bemused horror. We had become friends in calculus class and were two of a trio, with the third being a sweet, mathematically gifted boy who was cursed with a large, cartoonish nose. The only courtship I remember was an invitation to the public pool.
Picking a swimsuit was of state-level importance. With my mother’s help and pocketbook, I decided on a satiny black one-piece from Kmart, modest yet flattering my curves. Were I to look at myself wearing that suit today, I am certain I would blush full cliché beet red. But for once my breasts were the lesser problem.
I arrived at the pool, found my friends, and stretched my towel next to theirs. We entered into relatively easy teenage banter. I stripped down to my suit but sensed something was wrong. At last, I ventured to take a look around.
Compared to the other women and girls, I was a Neanderthal. Never mind I had not shaved my underarms. I had not shaved my pubic hairs to my bikini line, either. Tufts of my dark and curlies were exposed for all to see, and no artful, nonchalant draping of my arm across my lower body could hide them. Women did not shave in Romania when I grew up there, and my mother, an economist with a Ph.D., lacked the Western social or cultural know-how to pick up on the importance of female body hair removal in American culture.
I survived, though that incident may have left deeper scars than I’ve given it credit. I avoid pools to this day.
Not long after, my dad took my cousin and me to Romania to see our grandfather, for what turned out to be the last time. On the way back, we stopped in London for a few days. My dad had looked forward to seeing the city he’d read so much about and which he revered. But seeing his own father ill and quite isolated upset him deeply, and he remained in the hotel room for most of the trip, putting my cousin, six years older than I, in charge. We wandered about the city on our own, breathing in free love and the hippie culture that still wafted about. We visited Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, saw a troupe of actors roller skating around the park in white fluttering dresses and angels’ wings, and the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, with its catchy music and its then-avant-garde nudity. Exercising my flirting skills, I traipsed about in low-slung bell bottom jeans and form-fitting shirts, showing off my midriff, my breasts bouncing unrestrained. It must have driven my cousin crazy.
My breasts and I continued our love-hate relationship through college, graduate school, and beyond. They continued to adorn me, often the early stars of my relationships with men. They were some sort of unpaid advertisement, resulting mostly in benign catcalls, and several indecent exposure incidents that I shoved into the deep, dark, Freudian recesses of my mind. I continued to hunch over or cross my arms to hide them.
Among the rare exceptions was my defense of my doctoral research in microbial genetics. I was terribly anxious. To bolster my confidence, I donned armor: a black bodysuit that stretched tight over my chest, a calf-length red and black silk skirt, and black low-heeled shoes. I remember little about the talk itself or answering questions afterward. I remember tearing up in relief when my advisor let me know that I’d passed.
Fast forward through career and life, wading through the competitive world of academic science. I wore a boxy jacket for job interviews, loose clothing or T-shirts and jeans in the lab, and was only slightly more formal while lecturing students or at conferences. I wore another boxy jacket for a public seminar I gave when I received a teaching and research award. I wanted to make my reputation based on the quality of my work and was meticulous not to attract attention because of my sex.
At 45 I finally decided to have a child. At 53 I found myself still lugging around my pregnancy weight, which had compounded in interest, plus a fuzzier brain than I cared to admit, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. I made excuses and let work take priority. Yet I hated every photograph of me and avoided mirrors, to the exasperation of my partner, who pointed out my messy hair or the occasional poppy seed left in my teeth after a breakfast bagel. I felt mentally slow and physically awkward, unable to keep up with my little girl. A shopping trip with my partner and daughter at Nordstrom’s crystallized the problem.
He had been invited to testify in front of Congress on behalf of a conservation effort. To dress him for the occasion, off we went to Nordstrom’s for a sober-looking summer-weight suit. We spent a couple of hours picking through options, having him try out various suits, matching shirts and ties. Our daughter, despite being proud for scoring the winning tie, was getting antsy, so I stayed behind to pay while they went off to vent some kid energy.
While the register was being stubborn, our saleslady felt obliged to entertain me with small talk, and commented how nice it was to see three generations spending time together. I was speechless for a good ten seconds. True, I am almost nine years older than my partner, and my daughter—given her age—could easily be my granddaughter, had I gotten around to having kids sooner. Eventually, I smiled and said, “That was my husband,” and the saleslady, flustered and red, couldn’t stop apologizing.
It was a defining event. Having heard a friend praise her personal trainer, I decided it was time to get serious, and over the next two years I dropped over 30 pounds, built up some muscle mass, and felt 400% better.
Shedding the pounds brought the confidence to show off my figure. My breasts reappeared and now, in my mid-fifties, I decided they and I would finally make peace. I started wearing clothing that displayed my regained shape and was pleased by compliments from friends and colleagues.
I felt pretty damn good. Until, on an overdue sabbatical leave in the Washington DC area and, experiencing fall weather again after 20-odd years in Southern California, I searched for warmer clothes. The shop in Bethesda was my kind of place. The more outgoing of the two saleswomen picked up on my attraction to black and chose a number of garments for me to try. As I looked in the mirror outside the dressing room, she coughed politely as she adjusted a dress on me and said, “Excuse my forwardness, but you really need a new bra.” The second saleslady gave a faint uncomfortable giggle, but my helper was not dissuaded. “I don’t mean to be impolite, but it will do wonders for how your clothes fit and how you look.”
In truth, I’d heard about the difference a good bra fitting made but had never had one. I had taken my 80-year old mother to a bra fitting long before, to get her something that didn’t cut into her flesh, but I hadn’t had one myself in, well, never that I could recall. A Google search and a couple of months later, I walked into a lingerie shop in Adams Morgan. I was led through the gray-white front room with its displays into the back, where two fitting rooms had been curtained off with sumptuous red velvet drapes. Each of the rooms had a gigantic mirror in a Rubens-style gilded wood frame. I had given my bra size online when I made the appointment, but now I sensed the sales lady’s amused dissent. With authority, she said, “Just as I thought when I first saw you. You are NOT a 40DD.”
“Absolutely not. More like a 36F.”
I let out a little-girl giggle, which I immediately wished to retract.
She left with a “hmmmm,” and returned a few minutes later with a half-dozen lacy bras draped over her arm, in several colors. She showed me how to fit my boobs into the garment correctly, the right arm crossing over to fit my left breast into the cup and vice versa, then walked me through the jiggling adjustment. She mentioned rogues, the slightly bigger of the two breasts, which nearly all women have—who knew?
“There,” she said, looking me over, quite pleased with herself. “I knew it! 36F. Perfect.”
I stared in the mirror. Whoo boy.
“I’m going to leave you to try the others. Call me when you need me.”
Soon, I’d split her suggestions into yes, no, and maybe piles.
“I love these. I like that one too, but do you have it in black?”
“You know, some variety is good – try that in nude, it looks really good on. You don’t have to always wear black.” I was fully prepared to give myself over to her expert hands when it came to bra fitting, but I wasn’t prepared to give up my favorite non-color. “But I do,” I said, with a smile.
I walked out of the shop with three bras. The cheapest of them cost twice as much as my usual bras and made me feel ten times more confident. The most expensive cost four times as much and was sexy as sin.
I’ve worn them all: never two days in a row, never more than twice a week, hand-washing and line-drying them as recommended. I’ve bought more like them online and even tried a couple of different styles, all in 36F. But that fitting was special—like those first three bras, it was an investment.
I’ve stopped hunching my shoulders. I even texted pictures of myself wearing the bras to my partner. He sent catcalls back. My sabbatical leave is ending and, thankfully, so is our temporary separation. In the gains column, in addition to various professional accomplishments and a long to-do list, is the refreshed self-confidence. Priceless.
Author’s Note: Women’s breasts are ‘out there,’ among the most obvious sexual characteristics and tightly tied into both society’s and a woman’s own view of her body image. Almost always her breasts are too small or too big, but never “neutral.” Anca’s piece is not overtly political; rather, it is a lighthearted and very personal view of the influence of her own body image and her confidence that may, nevertheless, resonate with many other women. It also suggests that it’s never too late for a woman (or girl) to build confidence, even in fairly trivial ways. She recognizes that economics, politics, and society play too large a role in the confidence of women, and she hopes to continue her mentorship and increase her work to help more women and girls build their own confidence.