I'm not sure what prompted me to stroll in my underclothes to the neighbourhood store, but on that summer day in 1959 it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. I like to think it was my first fashion statement. Decades ahead of Madonna, I had wriggled into a pretty white nylon slip that stretched over my flat chest and flared at the waist. Then I decided I wanted breasts. Nice saggy ones like my mom's. Two warm, soft, comforting pillows of flesh that you could plop, plop into a lacy brassiere. So I stuffed the bodice with balled-up Kleenex. Finally, the pièce de résistance: a crinoline fitted over my head and flipped back to turn me into a beautiful eight-year-old bride.
The scent of freshly mown grass laced with gasoline filled me with a sense of well-being. A neighbour was pushing his lawnmower in a tidy path across his lawn. "Hi, Mr. Chisholme!" I waved. The roar of the engine must have drowned out my voice. When I saw that he was not going to notice me, I breathed a small sigh of regret and pranced down the road to the sidewalk, careful to avoid stepping on the black bubbles of melting tar. With an imperious nod I acknowledged every admiring glance that came my way. That may have been the last time I felt normal.
By the following summer, my own breasts were making their first painful appearance. Two tender bumps, they got in the way when I slept on my tummy. Worse, they attracted comments. Relatives and family friends coyly observed that I was starting to "bud."
The buds blossomed. They bloomed. My mother took me to Simpson's. The situation called for what she called the "royal we."
We're here to buy our first bra.
The buxom, frog-faced saleswoman fixed her eyes on me in an eager, unpleasant manner that made me feel like prey. She slid the tape-measure off her neck and wrapped it around my chest, right in the middle of Simpson's lingerie department.
Oh, my. She is well-developed, isn't she? How old did you say she is?
I wanted to crawl under the counter. With my pixie haircut and precocious hormones, I felt like a freak. Eighty pounds of sugar and spice, 40 of it on my chest. People still thought I was a boy, from the back.
The three of us squeezed into the change room. I looked at my mother in horror. Mrs. Froggy-Went-a-Courting was going to see me naked? I wanted to die. Twenty minutes later I emerged from the stuffy dressing room with my breasts well supported in a size 32A white cotton bra with a yellow daisy planted sweetly between the cups.
How I dreaded Mondays at camp! Six days a week we wore pale blue, button-down shirts. On Mondays, the laundry went out and we wore camp-issued navy-blue T-shirts. Boys' T-shirts. Too tight T-shirts that drew attention to the fact that I was wearing a 32B cup bra when most of my cabin mates weren't even wearing training bras. I spent the better part of that summer, the summer I turned 10, wearing a heavy, zippered sweater. My mother had knit it for me in sky-blue wool. Two brown poodles sat on the front. A third begged on its hind legs on the back. I remember her knitting as she relaxed in front of the TV watching the news, or something cultural, like Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. When she needed a new ball of wool, she would call me to come and hold my hands apart. Then she'd slip the loose yarn over them and wind it into a ball so it wouldn't get tangled. Like magic, the sweater grew, row by row, in her capable hands.
I loved that sweater, partly because I had chosen the colours, partly because my mother had knit it for me, but mostly because it concealed my breasts.
Every night, before we went to bed, the girls in my cabin performed a series of exercises.
We must, we must,
we must develop our bust.
The bigger the better,
the tighter the sweater.
I participated half-heartedly, worried that the exercises might actually work. Every morning I awoke with a sense of dread. Were they bigger? As the sun rose higher and higher in the Michigan sky, I perspired into the heavy wool of my poodle sweater, wishing I were nestled instead in my mother's arms.
One day I visited the camp infirmary to get an excuse from swimming. I had my period-not my first. I was the only girl in my cabin to have reached this milestone. While waiting to see the nurse, I flipped through a Reader's Digest magazine. I stopped cold at an article about breast reduction surgery. I could have them cut off? That sounded just fine to me. For the rest of the summer I invented a variety of ailments-sore throats, stomach aches, earaches, any excuse to visit the infirmary, just so I could reread the article. I mentioned it in every letter home. I begged to have the surgery. My mother wrote back that I had a lovely figure and that one day I'd appreciate it. Many years later she told me how those letters had sent my father into gales of laughter.
Jugs, tits, bazookas, hooters. Melons, headlights, bongos. When I entered high school, the 10th grade boys slouched against the walls in the hallway, a leering row of testosterone.
Here she comes. Hey, Shelf!
I looked straight ahead, clutching my school binders close to my chest as I walked by.
The boys in the youth group at my synagogue called me "BB." They claimed it stood for "Beautiful Barbara." I would have liked to believe them, but knew from their smirks that "Big Boobs" was more like it. My breasts were a great source of amusement, it seemed, to everyone but me.
As I write this, it strikes me that 34C isn't unusually large. Certainly not pathologically well endowed, which is how I perceived myself at the time. After all, bra sizes go all the way up to K. Perhaps my relatively small circumference combined with my generous cup size to create an illusion. Or maybe it was my posture. Or the shape of my breasts, or their weight. Or their bounce. I learned to run with my arms crossed. To me, they really didn't look so big. But something about them seemed big to others.
During my final summer as a camper, a rumour spread that I'd had sex with six guys on the beach. I had just turned 15 and was still a virgin and would remain so for another three years. Campers who had been my friends in previous summers told me how disgusted they were with me. When I protested, they presented as evidence the "tight" sweatshirts I always wore over my camp uniform. I had long ago outgrown the poodle sweater, but not my shame, which was why I always wore a baggy sweatshirt no matter how hot it was. But the more I protested, the more self-righteous the attacks.
My mother had always impressed on me the importance of maintaining a sterling reputation. Nothing was more important than a girl's reputation. I couldn't turn to her for comfort or advice because I knew she would be ashamed of me.
People believe what they want to believe. It was more fun for everyone to think I was a slut. But I didn't know that then. I felt responsible. I hated my breasts. And I hated myself even more.
The summer I turned 18, I went to another camp; this time as a counsellor. By now I was sexually active, and although I was comfortable with my sexuality, I was still not comfortable with my breasts. I insisted on wearing an oversized T-shirt to bed. I couldn't make love without it. I hated having anyone look at my breasts. I hated the hungry look they triggered.
I made good friends at that camp and my breasts seemed to be a non-issue at last. I was still wearing a 34C bra, but I was taller and weighed more, so the proportions were less remarkable. Or so I thought, until the staff awards' banquet at the end of the summer. It was a gala event modelled after the Academy Awards.
The nominees for the Odd Couple Award are . . .
The MC read the names of several unusual couples. Sam, the roly-poly canoe instructor, and Nomi, the six-foot-tall crafts instructor. Alex, the Head Counsellor, famous for his inability to hold a tune, and Kyra, the talented song leader. Geoff, the grubby groundskeeper, and Amy, the office supervisor, who could negotiate muddy playing fields and forest paths in platform heels.
And the Odd Couple award goes to . . .
The envelope was opened. A hush fell.
Only one name was called-mine.
A moment of puzzled silence, while everyone waited for the second name. Then the joke sank in and people roared with laughter. I willed myself to be a good sport about it and accepted the award with what I hoped was a measure of grace. I made a little speech about how grateful we were to accept this award, thanked my mother for the gift of her endowment, and fled the banquet.
The first time I appreciated my breasts was when I nursed my daughter. It seemed nothing less than a miracle that they could produce milk. I watched in awe as my baby more than doubled in size on a diet of nothing but breast milk. It was a miracle.
One parenting book suggested that this would be a good time to look into my baby's eyes and bond with her. Not possible. My breasts were so bountiful that when my newborn was nursing, I couldn't even see her!
Still, my breasts were less than co-operative. The ducts plugged for no apparent reason, especially the ones in my right breast, causing it to become hard and sore. The baby didn't have the strength to draw out the plug. Neither did my husband. I grew adept at locating the blockage and working out the obstruction-which appeared to be a plug of calcified milk-with a sterilized needle. Once the duct was clear, the built-up pressure would cause the milk to spray out, sometimes for a minute or longer. I made sure I had an empty bottle on hand.
My first-born taught me to be comfortable in my body. If she was hungry, I nursed her. It didn't matter where we were-at the mall, in a restaurant, in an airport. The same with my second. I cherish the time I spent nursing both of them. And when they weaned themselves my breasts deflated and I was left with nice saggy ones just like my mom's.
Over the next few years, I gradually gained weight. My breasts no longer attracted a second glance from anyone, which was just fine with me. Then one started getting bigger. The right one. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I told my friend Terri, she didn't seem surprised. "You always said it wasn't a question of if, but when," she said.
That was true. My mother had survived breast cancer. Eighteen years later she was diagnosed with merkle cell cancer, a rare cancer entirely unrelated to the breast, and she survived that too. She finally succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 84. Terri was right. I always expected to get breast cancer. But not at 41.
The night before my mother's breast surgery, she had taken a bath, soaped up her breast, and said goodbye to it. I didn't say goodbye to mine. I had never felt much attachment to it. I awoke from the anaesthetic assuming that it was gone. But there it was, swaddled in bandages. That's when I felt my first shock of real affection for it. My breast was a survivor. Today, there is hardly a scar. Both breasts are pretty much the same size and I am very fond of them.
Unfortunately, a few cancerous cells escaped the surgeon's knife. Cunning little cells that they were, they sought a nest in my brain. Five years after the mastectomy, another surgeon removed a tumour from my brain. Not a brain tumour: a breast cancer tumour. What would Descartes think of that? A metastasis that supports the notion of mind-body dualism.
The tumour was fully encapsulated and operable. But two years later it returned to the same place. Stubborn cells. More surgery.
When it returned a third time, I declined further surgery. This time, in addition to resettling in my brain, the cancer had also surfaced in my chest wall. I took a three-pronged approach: Western medicine, Chinese medicine, and-because I now believed that something within me was blocking my healing-a spiritual healer. The Western medicine involved 12 radiation treatments to the brain, and daily hormone suppressants. My Chinese herbalist prescribed herbs and tonics on a weekly basis. My spiritual healer agreed that something was indeed blocking my healing. I have been working regularly with her to release the negative beliefs I hold about myself.
Something is working. I'm in remission.
I'm glad my breasts are still here because at last I'm ready to make peace with them.
Barbara Novak, 52, passed away on October 14, 2003, due to complications associated with her initial diagnosis of breast cancer over a decade ago.