Culture Feature: MY BREASTS – The Feminist Wire

Culture Feature: MY BREASTS

By Elizabeth Burns

I explained to the saleswoman that I didn’t want to try on a shirt in her (overpriced) boutique because, “I’m wearing the wrong bra to try on any clothes today.”

She nodded, smirked, and said: “Breast reduction surgery.”

“Really?” said I.

Where was the grown-up fifty-two-year-old woman in me, who, at age 12 had been shyly fitted with a 36C and is now proudly gathered in the lace and satin of a 44E?

This woman, ostensibly there to please and accommodate customers, considered anatomical advising as part of her retail hospitality.

“It’s the best surgery I ever did,” she said. “And my husband loved it.”

“Really?” I said.

“I can give you the name of my surgeon. I think I have his card. Or you can come by and I can get you his number.”

Was my face registering nothing? Was I over-compensating with politesse because of years of good manners, or years of shame instilled by nasty boys, jealous girls, and abusive relatives?

I related the exchange to my dear friend, who is well endowed–with rich, lustrous, auburn curls. She is often a subject of envy, but she endures slighting comments, too. We recognized a parallel to my situation would be someone saying to her, “I know a great way for you to straighten your hair.”

Altering a woman’s size and shape has been this culture’s Russian Roulette: anorexia, bulimia, hair relaxers, rhinoplasty, implants, Botox, waxing, lye and dye treatments,…

I don’t mind that breasts are admired. A lover recently expressed satisfaction at encountering a pair of “real” breasts (highlighting an age difference that caught me off guard), and I felt both admired and shocked.

The story of my breasts can be encapsulated by the saleswoman and the lover, but the forty years in between include waking to a brother-in-law’s hands on my breasts while he masturbated in the darkness (I was fifteen), a doctor “arranging” my naked breasts against a cold X-Ray screen (I was sixteen–in a different country–and didn’t discover that this was not typical practice until another student had the same exam), stalkings, grabs, yanks, pokes, and numerous nicknames at school–from students and teachers.

This is an era crowded with breast references, iconography, and obsession: internet porn, implants, pink ribbons lighting up entire skyscrapers, “I love boobies” bracelets, radio lyrics shouting out “titties,” and an overabundance of hormones in the milk linked to earlier onset of puberty.

My breasts have been useful: they have nursed and nourished two astounding babies, and provided aesthetic inspiration when I was an artist’s model. But today, right this minute, I am going to affirm that my breasts are mine. Not for doctors, lechers, deranged in-laws, surgeons, or assertions from a shopkeep.

Breasts are, of course, natural. And these ones are naturally mine.


Elizabeth Burns, a Boston native, lives in Minneapolis with her two amazing daughters, Cece and Molly. She is an advocate for women who are homeless and marginally housed, and the author of, TILT: Every family spins on its own axis (Sourcebooks/Berkley), a novel that explores a family surviving through diagnoses of autism, bi-polar disorder, cancer, and…humor.