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My Bonsai Breasts

My Bonsai Breasts

We are each haunted by some harsh imperfect thing that we believe sets us apart. My bonsai breasts are my thing.

Her name tag said CONNIE, and she was offering to measure our breasts. We were in the fitting room line at the bra store two summers ago, where a sign on the wall warned that 75 percent of women are wearing the wrong size bra.

I wasn’t wearing any kind of bra that day, wrong size or right. I never wear a bra, other than a sports bra when I’m exercising. I was simply in line to keep my buxom sister-in-law company. My breasts are tiny, stunted somehow, for reasons that I’ve never quite figured out. Not just small breasts; bonsai breasts. But the idea of having Connie tell me my bra size was strangely intriguing.

A woman behind me asked to be measured. She was four months pregnant, she said, and she was sure her bra size had changed from normal to humongous.

“My name’s Connie,” said Connie, pointing redundantly to the name tag on her baby-blue smock. “What’s your name?” A nice touch, I thought, an introduction before the intimacy. Next she launched into her canned banter: “I measure here and here, and that’s your band size; I measure here, and that’s your cup size. It isn’t rocket science, but it works pretty good.” Lift up the arms and whip, whip, whip. “You’re a 38-C,” Connie told the pregnant woman, who squealed.

I stepped up. Let’s see how she handles someone like me, I thought, feeling a familiar wave of defensiveness.

“My name’s Connie,” said Connie, repeating her rap word-for-word as she measured me. Then she lowered her voice, something she hadn’t seemed to feel a need to do for Miss 38-C. “Well, your band size is between a 32 and a 34,” she whispered, “and cup size is a Nearly-A.” Sotto voce, she suggested I try a 32-Nearly-A.

Nearly-A. Does anyone even make a bra that small? Isn’t that what we used to call a training bra?

I thought that I had gotten past fretting about my tiny breasts; that I was at last able to think of them as something not to be ashamed of, but something to be proud of—they make me look younger than my age, and thinner, and busty women often tell me that having big breasts is a pain. But when Connie lowered her voice, that stung. She announced everyone else’s measurements out loud. But she was embarrassed on my behalf; by whispering my bra size, she thought she was doing me a kindness, and that’s what hurt the most.

Now, I am not a petite person. I’m tall, five foot eight, and I weigh 141 pounds, plus or minus a few. If I were small everywhere, that would be one thing; my tiny breasts would at least be proportional. But I have long legs and, to my distress, plenty of heft below the belt. I once walked into a store wearing high-waisted blue jeans and a salesgirl who saw me coming actually said, “Wow, that’s a lot of blue jeans.”

But the top half of my body looks like a painting I saw recently at MOMA, an Edvard Munch portrait of a long-haired girl sitting naked on a bed, her arms crossed protectively in front of her. Like the breasts of the girl in the painting, which is called “Puberty,” my breasts are stuck forever at the age of twelve.

John Updike, in a beautiful essay called “At War With My Skin,” once wrote that every major decision of his life was driven by the source of his deepest private shame: his psoriasis. He chose to be a writer so he wouldn’t have to risk exposure to office co-workers during one of his flare-ups. He chose to live in a beach town so he could lie in the dunes year-round and bare his skin to the sun, which dried up and healed his lesions. He chose to marry young because he couldn’t believe, once he had found one beautiful woman who forgave him his scaly skin, that he would ever find another.

It sobers me to think that maybe my own private shame about my appearance was the driving force of some of my big decisions, too. Like Updike, I married young: I married my sweet and indulgent college boyfriend—who called my breasts “pearls” and thought they were perfect—one month after we graduated. Did I grab Jeff so quickly because he loved my lopsided body, and I worried that no one else ever would? Marrying young is often an exercise in insecurity, and when I was 19 my breasts were a proxy for all my insecurities—about my looks, my critical streak, my femininity, my talent, my moodiness, my ambition—just as Updike’s psoriasis was a proxy for his.