I never noticed my breasts when they were round, fleshy, and upright. They were parts of me: a complete being.
I notice them, now, when I step out of the shower. My self-image has fractured, narrowed to single aspects of myself. They sag, deflated and listless, reaching for the ground. The loose skin at my stomach crinkles as I bend over to dry off my legs. I wipe beads of water off the perfectly straight, perpendicular, decade-old scars on my thighs, always in groups of three.
I am only twenty-seven.
I saw a woman my age on New Year’s, at my brother’s old apartment in Brooklyn. She wore a black blazer with nothing underneath, and every time she turned to the side, I caught a glimpse of her pert, undulating curves. It winded me, my lurid admiration of her body, and the weight of a life I will never get back. A black leather miniskirt wrapped her ass closely, like a jealous lover. I tried to pretend I wasn’t looking but followed her legs all the way up with my eyes, wondering what it took to make skin so shiny that it looked like it had been rolled in Crisco, and so smooth you couldn’t make out a single hair follicle. Unmarred. She spent New Year’s Eve doing cocaine and having sex with her boyfriend in the bedroom upstairs. I spent New Year’s hanging out with my brother, and then went home to my three kids.
My breasts survived the first two children. Like me, they are resilient and spunky. And then I had Milo. Milo, the love of my life who measured small throughout pregnancy. Milo, born with fluid in the lungs. Milo, whose eyes crossed and whose spine was slightly too long. Milo, who spent one week in the NICU, and went from the NICU straight to the third floor of my best friend’s house because our power went out the day he was discharged.
Milo, who couldn’t eat.
His small mouth clamped down on the edge of my nipple, too shallow a grasp to drain milk. I winced every time he latched, the pain a clear indication of something amiss. He’d stay there for only a few minutes at a time before turning away, and I’d wonder if he was the first in a long line of men to express dissatisfaction with my breasts. When it became clear that my body could not sustain him, we switched to bottles.
No one told me this at the time, but when you wean abruptly, your breasts cannot adapt. Fatty tissue doesn’t have time to replace the milk-producing glands. I was so busy trying to keep my son alive that the cost of the decision didn’t occur to me. I carried my too-small son in an infant car seat to a hospital, stayed up with him all night as a fleet of nurses attempted to pierce an IV into his collapsing, dehydrated veins. It was morning by the time someone finally worked their magic, and I released the breath I unconsciously held, knowing, finally, that modern medicine had not failed me: my son would survive this day.
The doctors and the med students and the nurses and the OTs brought in a pharmacy’s worth of various bottles and nipples and formulas, and they all dribbled out of the side of my son’s perfect, pink mouth. Now, I understood what all the labor and delivery nurses meant when they’d told me my firstborn had a “strong suck.” I burned to feel that pull of small lips around my areolas settling into the rhythmic suck, suck, swallow pattern, to feel the accompanying flood of oxytocin in my brain. But mostly my breasts burned—large, circular, and swollen with milk. I hooked myself up to the hospital-grade pump, the torturer called Medela, turned the crank all the way up, grimaced as I listened to the steady suction, but it could never drain me the way a baby could, and hard, warm lumps remained in my breasts, painful to the touch.
I woke, pumped, tried to feed my child, cleaned the pump, tried to nap, prayed. This last step could not be skipped. A lanky resident in a button down and bowtie appeared in the doorway. He heard from the nurse that my breasts hurt and offered to take a look. I might’ve had mastitis. I don’t consider myself a prude—certainly not when it comes to medical concerns—but the answer to this question was as firm as my engorged breasts: no thank you. I would have stripped for the female nurses in a minute, but after a week of sleeping on a pull-out hospital bed and watching my son wither, something inside of me felt too tender to let a man anywhere near my breasts. I chose pain over exposure. The kind resident brought hot packs, and I waited until he left before placing them on my round, pulsating rocks. It burned like hell. I definitely had mastitis. There was a song on the radio that went, “I would give you my body, but I’m not sure that you want me, I’m not sure that you want me.” I sang this to my son as I cried and tried yet another bottle type, yet another formula.
We were discharged with a feeding tube that I had to thread through my son’s nose every time he sneezed it out. My days and nights blended into a mess of tension and doctor’s appointments, and my house and I smelled like spit up. Hygiene was overrated. Supervision for the older two children was also overrated. Finally, I got childcare. Somehow, we all survived.
A year and a half later, Milo has made it. He eats. He walks. He does not talk, but he signs and appears mentally present and engaged. I am vindicated before every dismissive doctor. I kept my son alive. This is all that matters.
But in the mind of every mother is a small voice saying, “Maybe I matter, too.” My breasts now hang on my chest like two deflated water balloons. I mourn for my body, for the toll the world has taken on it. The scars from teenage hormone-fueled self-harm on my thighs. The stretch marks of protruding pregnancies fulfilled. The memory of an old man’s words grooming my ears, his lips molesting my skin in his backyard pool house. I have shared my body with three distinct human beings over the course of five years, have been confined to bed for nine-month stints as I vomited to dehydration, have hobbled to the ER for IVs.
My husband and I are separating now. He is learning how to fly airplanes and run marathons. He works full time. He has his body, and people can easily enter and exit his life.
I am home with three children. My body is worn. I have come through the wood chipper. While my husband is out meeting with the coworker he’d promised was just a friend, I am home, struggling to complete my education and embark upon a career, sleeping alone in a king-size bed—until my daughter climbs in, seeking refuge from nightmares. Her small arms and small legs wrapped around my body remind me it has been months since I have been touched by a man, and I wonder how much longer I will wait, what man will have the energy and wherewithal to climb into my bed and into my life, what his hands will think when they reach my breasts and find there is not much left, that I have already given all of me.
I mention my lack of a chest to my friends—not something I mentioned while I was pretending to be happily married, while I told myself my husband loved me as I was—and my friends offer a practical solution: Shove some silicone in there. This thought entices, though it does not line up with the person I have always thought I am. Instead of thinking of the procedure as altering my body, I frame it as reconstructive surgery, a taking back of what little ownership of my body I can claim. I bring this up with my husband when we’re standing in the kitchen on a Friday night, the idea of him paying for breast implants for his soon-to-be-ex-wife. This conversation does not make sense in the context of any relationship except the one my husband and I have. He knows what our family has cost me. He tells me he wants me to have the life I always wanted—education, career, breasts, and all.
But, his analytical mind adds, those things are weird. They break down after twenty years. It’s obviously my decision, but I should do my research.
My research consists of a two-minute Google search where I scroll down and reach the side effects: loss of sensation in breast and nipple. I instinctively fondle my chest as I read, my softer curves now akin to the weight of small bean bags instead of voluptuous handfuls. The feel of them carries me back through the pull of my children’s lips, then bigger, fuller, and more insistent lips pulling me toward more insistent sensations. My back arches into these memories, and I know, then, nobody is filling my deflated water balloons with silicone. It is not worth it. Two friends text me their doctors’ numbers, but I don’t do anything with this information.
I slide my phone into a back pocket and perch on the edge of my bed, my thighs constrained by too-tight jeans. My mother, in town to see my children and I through the divorce, wanders into my doorway, waiting for me to tell her what is wrong. My face, which bears no allegiance to me, has revealed all to her. I stare at the wooden floor, watching this hope of reviving my body evaporate.
My mom seats herself in an armchair in the corner of my room, and she begins telling me about Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. My mom follows celebrities and from the tone of her voice, I know, somehow, this will circle back to my dying hope of breast augmentation. Demi Moore felt like a fifteen-year-old kid when Ashton was dating her. He left her and she was heartbroken. Wanted to kill herself. Demi Moore, my mother emphasizes, is a fabulous, beautiful, successful woman. What more does it take, my mom asks, for a person to feel validated?
You can see it as losing your body, she says. But I see it as all part of the beauty of pregnancy and childbirth. This is you. This is who you are. The feeling of knowing your worth has to come from within you. You will find a man who wants you for more than your breasts.
Mothers can say these things with absolute certainty because they have paid the same price. I ate at her breasts, pulled them away from the sky. I don’t know if she is correct. I don’t know if I will find a man unafraid of the force of me and my life. A man contented with leftovers.
Part of me knows that my mother lacks the full picture. That it was never about impressing a particular man. It is about the loss of youth and the lack of a rewind button. It is about resisting the degradation of life. About resilience, both metaphorical and literal, when it comes to silicone. My body has done its best to protect me, to nurture and succor the life it created. I wonder, as I watch the floor, if I can be okay incorporating resilience into the body I already have, if I can settle for just the metaphorical kind.
I step out of my marriage into a world of willing bodies and find I do not have to wait as long as I anticipated. Every time I step out of the house, people line up to ask for my phone number and tell me I am “frustratingly fine.” I stutter at these words and smile, because I do not know what else to do with the muscles in my face. Men who think I am blushing in response to their attention lead me to bed, and I rediscover my body like a pair of too-big shoes, stumbling and tripping. I am the kid at the pool wanting so badly to jump off the diving board, then realizing there is a whole line of kids watching and waiting, that the water looks a little too cold and a little too deep and I don’t remember how to swim.
I tell myself that this is practice; it is okay if I don’t have as much fun as the kids leaping, like dolphins, carelessly elegant, into the water. I see hands on my skin, venerating my body, and I feel nothing except the knowledge that I should feel something. They bite my lip in exactly the same way that the old man did, and I say nothing because I have learned to control the rage that pulses through my brain in these moments, but I have not yet learned to control my mouth enough to speak up. How do you like it, they whisper, but instead of oxytocin, my brain floods with cortisol. My body doesn’t know what it is to want anymore; it knows only how to serve. How to feed. Nourish. Placate.
I go out to dinner with my almost-ex-husband and he asks me what I want, and—perhaps for the first time in our marriage—he means it. I stare at the starters, able only to identify what he would like. He orders the appetizers and selects a bottle of sake.
Then I meet a man with a third-floor apartment in San Francisco and an elk head on his wall. He cooks me backstrap on a cast iron skillet, runs a hand down my spine to indicate where on the animal the meat is sourced, and with those same hands, reintroduces desire into my veins, drains the blood, and replaces it with lighter fluid. The only pair of hands I care about. They wrap around me from behind, squeeze my chest and drop quickly to the side, as if they’ve grazed a hot stove. The hair of my poorly shaved skin stands on end and my body screams, Is that all? With my face down in his pillow, I wonder what other bodies have warmed his sheets, if those shapes satisfy his palms in a way that I cannot. His voice is a handful of smooth pebbles in my ear (you sexy little thing), but I do not know whether to trust his mouth or his hands.
It is incredible how quickly my body snaps into submission with the breath of a man down my neck and a slight downward pressure on my head. I cannot see the world beyond his waist from down on my knees. Now swallow it, he says.
Like a single-use plastic, I fulfill my function.
I catch my agitated breath on his bed as he hurriedly pulls on a pair of pants, and I think, I wanted to feel beautiful. My body throbs with unaddressed desire, my appetite whetted just enough to sharpen my hunger. I know, then, that I will never feel anything but soiled in this apartment. That I could knock on every door of every apartment in this city, and not one man could offer me what I seek. As I watch him slip on a shirt, I glimpse the end of the road, a life treating my body like this with men like that, and one word curdles in the pit of my stomach, a single word as firm as my breasts no longer are: enough.
Back in my own shower, I scrub his appraisal off of me. My wet breasts ache to be valued as parts of me: a fractured being wanting badly to be whole. The words of my mother flood my ears, a torrent I can no longer avoid: that feeling of worth must be born inside of me. I crank off the water but hesitate as I reach for a towel to obscure my body. I leave it hanging on the hook. Registering my reflection through the fogged mirror, I pivot and arch against the shower door, drinking in the shape of my soft curves. The pleasure I feel at the sight of my own body is a new, almost uncomfortable sensation, like breaking in leather: stiff, until supple.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.