‘A Few Words About Breasts’ From Nora Ephron

I was about six months younger than everyone else in my class, and so for about six months after it began, for six months after my friends had begun to develop (that was the word we used, develop), I was not particularly worried. I would sit in the bathtub and look down at my breasts and know that any day now, any second now, they would start growing like everyone else’s. They didn’t. “I want to buy a bra,” I said to my mother one night. “What for?” she said. My mother was really hateful about bras, and by the time my third sister had gotten to the point where she was ready to want one, my mother had worked the whole business into a comedy routine. “Why not use a Band-Aid instead?” she would say. It was a source of great pride to my mother that she had never even had to wear a brassiere until she had her fourth child, and then only because her gynecologist made her. It was incomprehensible to me that anyone could ever be proud of something like that. It was the 1950s, for God’s sake. Jane Russell. Cashmere sweaters. Couldn’t my mother see that? “I am too old to wear an undershirt.” Screaming. Weeping. Shouting. “Then don’t wear an undershirt,” said my mother. “But I want to buy a bra.” “What for?”

I suppose that for most girls, breasts, brassieres, that entire thing, has more trauma, more to do with the coming of adolescence, with becoming a woman, than anything else. Certainly more than getting your period, although that, too, was traumatic, symbolic. But you could see breasts; they were there; they were visible. Whereas a girl could claim to have her period for months before she actually got it and nobody would ever know the difference. Which is exactly what I did. All you had to do was make a great fuss over having enough nickels for the Kotex machine and walk around clutching your stomach and moaning for three to five days a month about The Curse and you could convince anybody. There is a school of thought somewhere in the women’s lib/women’s mag/gynecology establishment that claims that menstrual cramps are purely psychological, and I lean toward it. Not that I didn’t have them finally. Agonizing cramps, heating-pad cramps, go-down-to-the- school-nurse-and-lie-on-the-cot cramps. But unlike any pain I had ever suffered, I adored the pain of cramps, welcomed it, wallowed in it, bragged about it. “I can’t go. I have cramps.” “I can’t do that. I have cramps.” And most of all, gigglingly, blushingly: “I can’t swim. I have cramps.” Nobody ever used the hard-core word. Menstruation. God, what an awful word. Never that. “I have cramps.”

The late, great Nora Ephron, writing for Esquire in May 1972. “A Few Words About Breasts” later appeared in Ephron’s classic 1975 essay collection Crazy Salad. 

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