A Boob's Job.
By Sara Hartley.
“Modern lingerie has given us a thousand ways to pass off our meaty cabochons as something to make us feel more like ourselves. If we want to be alluring, if we want to be androgynous, if we want to be looked at, or if we don’t, there’s a bra for that.”
Red by Michal Zahornacky.
A bird came down the path. He didn’t know I saw.
He fluttered out to save the world in nothing but his bra.
~ Not quite Emily Dickinson
My grandmother had the most huggable, powder-sweet bosom a child could ever nestle into. We called it her “fluffy downies.” She wrapped us in her cloud-body and a rosy dreamlike haze moved through our bones. Her hugs were as close to being enwombed as you could ever get postpartum. But I don’t recall ever equating my grandmother’s body with my own. I never imagined pillows blossoming over my little ribcage. Grandma’s form stood so far apart from mine that seeing any similarity between us would be like guessing in an instant that there is a connection between larvae and moths.
And so, the arrival of my own less-than-fluffy downies made very little impression on me. I didn’t giggle with my girl friends anticipating the day these swellings would show up and, like a coy Molly Ringwald, we would hold our Trapper-Keepers to our chests like armor. Without fanfare my new body just gradually arrived, developing on my chest like little shrunken heads that caused me to walk rolled-shouldered, caving in on myself to offset my change of shape. Some girls were ogled. Some parents whispered about us “growing into our bodies,” as though we were born as shriveled balloons waiting to be inflated. People didn’t hug me as tightly anymore, and seemed embarrassed if parts of my body snagged theirs. I began to wonder if, like my tonsils, these bumps might be removed some day if I didn’t need them.
Grandma had her gallbladder removed. I’m not sure if she still had an appendix. She had a hysterectomy some time after having her children. It is rumored that somewhere there was still the shadow of a spleen. Each time there was a surgery, or the whispered story of a surgery, I was once again made aware of these superfluous parts, tucked into our corners, imitating more necessary organs. After I had my tonsils removed I never missed them or looked into the back of my throat to reminisce – Ah! And there I used to have two beautiful tonsils. And so, I thought, of course they may remove other things too – moles, cysts, a nip & tucks here and there at the jawline when I’m older, and maybe someday these things on my chest.
They were not fluffy downies, but I thought if I named them, perhaps I could at least have a relationship with them. This was not a moment of great reflection or poetry. A friend of mine had named hers Lefty and Righty, which was one of the stupidest things I’d ever heard. I named mine Flopsy and Mopsy, which wasn’t much better. I didn’t often look at them and neither did anyone else. I was happier to be dismissed as “Miss Mosquito Bites” than to have the boys-pretending-to-be-men pay attention to me. I only remember owning one bra throughout all of high school, a pitiful threadbare undergarment which had once been white but began disintegrating into ivory by junior year. I could never put it on without clasping the hooks in front then sliding the whole thing around and threading my arms into it. The cup size was too big, the elastic eventually wore out, but it got me through adolescence despite the constant struggle to keep the straps on my shoulders.
It seems that women have often struggled to fit into the shape of themselves. I once thought that the billowing hourglass bulge of the corset or conical torpedoes of the modern bra were invented by the same cruel men who force-fed capons and broiler hens into the hobbled buxom commodities that they are today. I thought it was the men during WWII who repurposed the bra factories, vesting pigeons into snug little girdles around their hollow bones to bind them to an earth-bound paratrooper. How odd it must have been, if a pigeon could take notice, to fall from the sky and land without wings, confined in a bird-shaped bra.
But, to my surprise, men have been largely hands-off in the patent history of women’s underpinnings. Women themselves have created these exoskeletons, lined with bone, wood, or steel to hermit crab into. Since ancient times, brilliant and interesting women have been innovating a perfect pocket made for support, modesty or immodesty, attention, restriction, convenience, character, confidence, and occasionally comfort.
In modern history Roxey Ann Carlin first patented the corset that crushed our ribs, as though our organs were a homogenous paste in a malleable tube. She wrote extensively in defense of her contribution to women’s health and beauty and showed her invention at the Great Exhibition of 1851. In defiance, Herminie Cadolle sawed those corsets in half, giving us two-pieces which premiered at the Great Exhibition of 1900. Caresse Crosby, who lived a scandalous life with multiple lovers and a dog named Clytoris, gave us bandeaus to tame the teat and streamline women into “flappers” in the 1920’s.
But, for all of this exhibitionism, the bra as we know it today was born out of the mid-century industriousness of Ida Rosenthal who invented our modern cups and fasteners. Women everywhere began to dream of going to parties, traveling abroad, singing at the Met, and doing housework – in their Maidenform Bras. Modern lingerie has given us a thousand ways to pass off our meaty cabochons as something to make us feel more like ourselves. If we want to be alluring, if we want to be androgynous, if we want to be looked at, or if we don’t, there’s a bra for that.
A well-endowed colleague of mine once bragged about her deep cleavage, “men are obsessed with my breasts because secretly they miss their mothers.” She was a mother herself and the deep line separating her bosom always brought to my mind the ass-crack, or the grotesque reveal of toe cleavage in too-tight shoes. I admit, looking back, that my disgust might have been jealousy, both of her brass and of the fact that her button-down shirts were pulled taught over a greater purpose. She nurtured, with what was within her and with how closely she pulled people in. “It’s so good to see you,” she would say as her arms collected bodies to hers like a giant cloud absorbing smaller clouds. Men and women alike would feel warm against her and become like children again.
Does what we carry closest to the heart somehow bleed into our hugs. Cocooned in secret, since our social regulators still can’t collectively reconcile an infant human dining out in public, my colleague carried familiarity, drams of an elixir we were born to crave, the instinct to cradle her arms around humans. It would be liberating to acknowledge openly but for these Oedipusian lawmakers, how dreadful the knowledge of truth can be! – that mothers feed children from those same mammaries that can make men hungry in the dark.
Arguments continue about lace and leather, the luxe and the lactating. Aye, and there’s the unstimulating rub. All of these straps, hooks, and elastic sausage-casings fall short of the ideal which is, for me, to not have to think about being looked at, to not have two empty little milk bladders which I will never use to feed infant humans coming between my hugs and me. My sagging canteens, swaying like cartoon jowls, fight me like the obligatory wrestling of alien toddlers into car seats. Flopsy has always been the big sister fidgeting out of her seat while Mopsy rides along quietly digging wires into her flesh. What are they good for?
The year the first silicone breast implant was performed in Houston was the year JFK announced “The Decision To Go To The Moon.” We can send humans to space but still cannot find anything more constructive to do with the non-nursing breast than to tinker with its size, shape, and consistency. Would it not be better if the overlay of foam and silk, with intricate plastic pulleys and engineered hoists, could support something useful for those of us not laden with milk, who aren’t biologically nurturing, and who still put their bras on backwards?
When my little Boston Terrier had an allergic reaction to a bee, they injected her with subcutaneous fluids, a cold bulging balloon of saline solution like a watery softball on the back of her neck. I obsessively touched it and watched, over the course of several hours, while the fluids absorbed into her body and she became alert, salivated, and her appetite returned. I wished then for refillable, subcutaneous balloons in Flopsy and Mopsy so that they could be deployed in a time of emergency. Why is it a more grotesque thought to keep some other secret life-giving fluid in my fluid bags, which aren’t impressing anyone with their size or lack of fluff? Maybe I could hollow them out and use them in ways we have never considered.
Call Houston! Have them insert a pair of pockets! Why can’t getting a boob job relieve the need for the bra altogether and just make them functional so I can have a place to carry a reliquary of poems, or perhaps a handful of jelly beans, or a pigeon? Then if Flopsy fell out in public, it would be as if a spleen or adenoid had revealed itself – a wardrobe malfunction on par with a shirt tag flipping up or a hem coming unstitched.
Please, humans, the boob is capable of more than we know. Fun-loving Flirt, Minister of Milk, and perhaps one more job for the rest of us – something practical that doesn’t embarrass, or bully, or need to empower. Just give me a purse or a pocket, a place to keep my secrets close to my heart.
The Blood Pudding – April 24, 2023
Sara Hartley holds a music degree from Alma College and is a candidate for the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Art. Sara has been an actor and director professionally and within her local community. Most recently she has written and translated devised works in collaboration with Traverse City Opera for “Found in Translation” and “The Voice of Woman,” and is currently Program Director for the Old Art Building in Leland, MI.
Artwork: Michal Zahornacky is a visual artist working with photography and the human figure. He is currently based in Slovakia. As a photographer, he tends to promote an artistic approach to each genre he focuses on. He sits his work somewhere near the thin line between reality and fiction. In recent years, he has been inspired by topics such as identity, dynamics, traditions or the body. You can find his work here.