My Bonsai Breasts
Like Updike, I, too, became a writer—a journalist, with a specialty in health and medicine. I wonder sometimes whether my breasts led me to that choice as well. As a science journalist, I write about how the human body works, and how it fails to work; how expectations about function can so easily go awry; how the things we take for granted occasionally derail, bringing us face to face with the unbearable. It’s all related, tangentially, to curiosity about natural variations, which at its heart is wondering how I got this way, so different in at least this one respect from any other woman I could see.
We are each, in our own internal prisons, haunted by some harsh imperfect thing that we believe sets us apart. My bonsai breasts are my thing; Updike’s skin was his. Other people might suffer from things that are less physical, more emotional; a yearning to look at pornography, maybe, or terror when speaking to strangers. It’s not too great a stretch to think that, if I had been a woman with C cups instead of nearly A, I would not have been quite so drawn to writing about the things that make people feel isolated, different, and afraid.
My breast epiphany, when it finally came, happened while searching the internet. I was writing an article about body image, and came upon the Normal Breasts Photo Gallery web site. There I stared at screen after screen of photos of women’s breasts—non-air-brushed, non-sexualized, non-standard breasts, the kind you would see in a locker room at the neighborhood YWCA rather than on a movie screen. No lingerie models here: just a bunch of ordinary women and their ordinary breasts. Lumpy breasts, saggy breasts, misshapen breasts, tiny breasts, huge breasts, breasts of two vastly different sizes, or with gigantic nipples and areolas, or that pointed in opposite directions.
This is what normal is, I finally realized, in all its splendid, flawed, dizzying variety. Scrolling through the images of breasts—each pair with its own brand of poignancy and beauty and, yes, sometimes even ugliness—I felt part of an endless and spectacular parade. It did not escape my notice that the women whose breasts looked the most like mine were in their teens or twenties, but somehow that no longer bothered me. Instead of longing for the shapely breasts, I was finding solace in the small ones, taking heart that there were so many women with breasts like mine, even if most of them were barely out of puberty.
What did trouble me, though, were the statements some of those small-breasted women had sent in to accompany their photographs. “The fact that I have hated my breasts since childhood outrages me,” wrote a 24-year-old woman who, naked from the waist up, could have been a younger version of me. “I am healthy and beautiful and happy, but I have never looked at my breasts in the mirror without feeling sad.” That was me, too; I could recite the facts of my fortunate life, but that didn’t keep me from feeling bereft when I looked at my breasts in the mirror.
Amid all those women’s breasts, though, something changed in me. A tenderness grew, and I wanted to take care of this sad and angry young woman with the tiny breasts. I wanted to take care of myself at her age, too, a 24-year-old Robin who was seething with a similar sorrow. I wanted to tell us both, from the vantage point of thirty years later, that we should stop feeling sad, should work hard to get past the anger and the grief, and should treasure what there was about the body we had and the people who loved it.
I wanted to tell my younger self the truth that my older self is finally, slowly, learning: that “normal” is a vast, forgiving country, and there is room enough.
Robin Marantz Henig is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine whose last article was “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” She has also written 8 books about health and medicine, most recently Pandora’s Baby and The Monk in the Garden.