I’ve got big breasts.
I have had since, at the age of 11, the startling bumps that had recently appeared on my little-girl chest suddenly inflated into something with a definite cleavage.
Mortified with shame, I grew my hair longer so that if I bent forward it would form a curtain to hide the cursed things from view. I wished for an ironing-board flat chest, like every one of my friends, with all my soundly-insulated heart.
Things change, and by the time I was 16 I had accepted my lot, and grown quite fond of my now fully-developed and rather splendid bust. My hips had grown in proportion and my mother’s friends told me I had “a lovely little hour-glass figure”. I received more attention than I wanted from men of all ages. I tried to ignore the intrusive comments and piercing whistles, and even slapped a face or two when male hands wandered where they had no business wandering.
I enjoyed the shape of my breasts; their soft roundness, their heaviness. The pencil test, as recommended by the women’s magazines of the Seventies, told me they were, alas, not perfectly pert, but I didn’t care. I liked my boobs and remarkably, through over forty years of struggle with negative body image, have continued to be happy with them as they’ve evolved.
If I tried the pencil test now, aged 57, it’s possible that implement might never surface. My nipples point much further south today than at 16, but I love the sagging fullness that surrounds them. These are the breasts that nurtured and nourished three infants over five collective years of breastfeeding. Lactating, they looked like barrage balloons, but my babies were grateful and so was I.
They have brought pleasure to me and my few partners in love, and throughout adulthood I have felt a gently powerful connection to the Goddesses of ancient times, with their huge hips and pendulous breasts. Despite the struggle to maintain a healthy weight I rather enjoy resembling that primal feminine archetype
Now to the point; the reason I have just devoted 400 words to my mammary glands: I have big breasts, and I don’t like wearing a bra. For a large-breasted near-sexagenarian to go braless is a big taboo. Recently, in Greece, I delighted in wearing just a sarong, every day; my very favourite way to dress. Back home, meeting Important People in a business capacity and dressing accordingly, with the full complement of underwear, I feel contrastingly compromised. Inauthentic. Diluted. Disempowered. Cowed.
Some women have a lifelong happy, carefree relationship with their bras, and I’m glad for them. I have no beef with bras per se. But I love going braless. When I’m at home I assess my day’s plans upon waking and decide at which point, if at all, I need to don the cursed contraption. If I am staying in and writing for the morning, I’ll throw on a T-shirt, sweater and slouchy trousers, or a voluminous kaftan, and get happily to it. If I am only going shopping or meeting a woman (or maybe even man) friend in the afternoon I’ll leave the bra off all day long (ah, bliss!). But if I have a meeting or more formal social engagement; if I expect to see people I don’t know so well, or want to “make the right impression”, on it goes.
Why, when I am happy with my breasts – delighted to go topless on those European beaches where this is allowed – do I feel I have to hoist them up in a contrived strangle-hold to make them more acceptable to others? At what point will I say “to hell with it” and stash the tortuous garments at the back of my knicker-drawer for very occasional use?
I’m getting close, but conditioning and social acceptability still have me in their vice-like grip, much as my bra has these poor, strangled breasts.
Less generously-endowed women can get away with wearing stretchy cotton cropped top/bra hybrids that look blissfully comfortable compared to the highly-engineered nylon and wire devices available to me. At 38 FF, there is no simple, gently elasticated cotton comfort (if you have found it please tell me!) – although there are now more acceptable alternatives to the regimented, clinical black or flesh or white apparatus of my earlier years.
I have to admit, I like the look of a nice pert boob (or two), but pendulous is also beautiful. Boob-diversity is something to be praised and celebrated – isn’t it?
Tired of compromising my comfort and integrity, I’ve resolved to practice setting these beauties free as I approach my sixties. I’ll break myself in gently, stepping out of my comfort zone in increments. The shame I feel when someone I want to impress encounters me without upper support is not shame really, although it feels distressingly similar. It’s the embarrassment of being caught in an act of unconventionality. But I have never been conventional, or wanted to. Far from it. Why, at the age of 57, should I still pretend I am? Because I care what other people think? I’ve spent far too much of my life doing that.
As I approach my sixties I feel an increasing need to stand up to the insidious agism that has joined the comprehensive list of discriminations I’ve experienced in my long and interesting life, and affects so many of the glorious women who attend my workshops.
We live in a culture in which older women are required to cover up and be invisible. No short skirts, vibrant colours or anklets with bells for us! We are instructed not to be “mutton dressed as lamb”. Not to show what we’ve got, or draw attention to ourselves and our less-than-perfect bodies. We are an unsolicited reminder; a warning: “”This is what happens with the passing of time. It will happen to you. It is happening already”.
In my culture, the young are frequently disgusted by the old, because they don’t want to accept that we are an inevitable later version of themselves. We are the living proof of their mortality. Our sagging, wrinkling, liver-spotted visage must be wrapped in beige and hidden from their sight. When a woman who’s pushing 60 lets herself be seen, it’s only acceptable if she is disguised. Cosmetic surgery, regular workouts, make-up, potions and designer clothes claim to render today’s grandmothers and great-grandmothers “youthful”, albeit in a way no youth would aspire to.
If I go openly braless, I am demonstrating a taboo non-perfection. If I had a breast reduction, nipples moved a few inches upward, saggy vessels filled with perky silicone, perhaps I could get away with bralessness. But with natural, big, low-hanging bazookas I am taboo. I fear I will be called disgusting. Is my wrinkly skin thick enough to take the risk?
There are contrary reports to be found online about the pros and cons of bras and I have found some excellent blogs and a great comic strip to help me in my quest for liberation. I’ve read about the Free the Nipple Campaign and a beautiful book featuring the breasts of 100 diverse women. I’ve discovered that the bra-burning of the my 1960s childhood was probably a myth.
This is most definitely a double-F-for-Ffeminist issue, worthy of much further exploration. I find it is generally women who overtly judge the most, and it has been the damning comments of Sisters that have cowed me into mammary conformity on numerous occasions.
Perhaps that is a subject for another blog. For me, right now, the bottom line is comfort, and discarding the oppressive apparatus gives me that – on a physical level anyway. I need to practice shrugging off the more insidious discomfort of social conditioning and fear of harsh reactions as happily as I shrug off the offending garment. “To bra or not to bra” is not the major question here. Liberation from the quagmire of societal expectation is more challenging by far.