Lisa W. Rosenberg | Longreads | November 2018 | 15 minutes (3,844 words)
Dr. Alvarez furrowed his brow, crouching to view my right breast head-on, inscribing something on it with a dark blue marker — a map for his scalpel.
“You’ll notice a real laterality here,” he said, glancing up at one of his two male assistants, presumably residents. “Not so much on the left.”
“Yeah,” The younger physician concurred. “Wow.”
I bit my lip, amused. I was too giddy to be mortified. Nothing in life prepares you for a situation where three guys in white coats marvel at the nuances of, and the contrast between, your breasts. I sat, compliant, tolerant. My greatest wish was coming true. On the other side of this day would be relief from my aching middle back, from carrying around twin entities that had never felt like mine, and which had contributed to a struggle with body image that lasted through my mid-40s.
When Dr. Alvarez finished marking me up, he asked if I had any more questions before they wheeled me in for anesthesia. He had explained everything already: what kinds of I incisions would be made for minimal scarring, what the healing process would be like, how long before I’d be able to run.
“How small can we go?” I said, though we’d been over this as well.
“A C-cup,” he said. “Any smaller would compromise the integrity of the breast.”
Integrity and my breasts had never belonged in the same sentence as far as I was concerned. I felt no guilt about my choice, no reservations. A woman I’d met at physical therapy a few weeks before, who had overheard me talking about the upcoming surgery, had clicked her tongue at me.
“God don’t mess up,” she’d said.
But he did in my case, I’d wanted to tell her. I pictured a boob conveyor belt where God’s helpers — whoever they might be — awarded specially-selected, custom-designed boobs for every female in the queue. I imagined a woman in line before me: broad, tall and brash, with frosted, feathered, Barbara Mandrell hair, pausing to fix her slingback heel. Then me, pushed forward, forced to take the double E knockers that God had designed for her, instead of the nice, delicate A cups intended for my slight frame.
“A B-cup might be nice.” I told Dr. Alvarez.
“I’ll do my best,” he said.
From the first whispers of puberty, I considered my boobs a disastrous mix-up. Sometime around the third grade, I was lying in bed, running my hands up and down my rib cage. It was something I routinely did to reassure myself that I was still small, still thin, far from the abyss of adolescence, which could spread and swell your body in various places in different ways. I’d been warned by my mother, and by my own observations of teenage neighbors in our Manhattan building. My parents were thin. I wanted to stay thin, like them, and I learned early on that you couldn’t necessarily rely on genetic predisposition. My mother had grown up chunky in a working-class Jewish family that valued food when it was scarce and thinness when it wasn’t. I grew up hearing Mom berate herself for gaining weight, watching her consume nothing but cottage cheese on Wasa crackers while the rest of us had pancakes. My father grew up in a midwestern black family in which women placed more emphasis on style, grooming and presentation than they did on body size. Once I’d heard my father tease his sister about the prodigiousness of her “behind,” but he did so lovingly, without judgment. The goading made her laugh and swat him. Regardless, from my mother, and from my personal observations, I learned that if you weren’t careful, if you drank whole milk, or ate potato chips, you could blow right up. You could be yourself one day and wake up “a house” the next.
Despite being 5’ 3” and 88 pounds, my boobs were not ballet boobs — not dainty A-cups or slightly defined B-cups — but real boobs, woman boobs.
That night, counting ribs from the bottom up, I knew I was still myself. One. Two. Three … but at the seventh rib on the right side, my fingers ran up against a patch that felt grizzly and coarse, different from the usual slips and peaks of skin and bone. The coarse patch circled my nipple, which was decidedly raised. My heart raced. I felt the other side and found less texture, but still a raised section in a matching spot. I screamed for my mother, who came running to find me in tears, shaking. I was inconsolable. Through gulps of breath, through tears and snot, I explained to my mother what the trouble was. Something was growing under my skin. I showed her where. My mother empathized, reassured, denied that it was a real change happening to my body. Maybe I had banged myself with something? Surely it was too early for breasts to develop. I shouldn’t worry about that at my age. But I was worried, filled with dread and foreboding. I was too young, too young for childhood to be over, the lightness, the freedom. Not yet, I pleaded with the air, please not yet. But I knew this growing thing was happening. And it wasn’t going to go well.
Driven by their own will, my breasts continued to grow. I could not control that. But I would make every attempt to stave off growth in other places. I took to disordered eating, consuming a single carrot for breakfast, and swearing off sugar by the time I was 11. By now, the weekly ballet lessons I’d always taken had become more serious and multiplied. I was dancing four times a week, determined to dance on pointe within the year. Maintaining svelteness was no longer just a matter of escaping puberty, it was mandatory for my chosen career path as a dancer.
My family was not religious, so by the time I was a teenager, ballet was my faith. Being biracial without extended family around, I felt disconnected from both sides of my heritage. Ballet dancers were my tribe, my people. We marched through the city, small, round heads atop long, slim necks, our hair high up in buns and twists.
And we were Thin. Capital T. These were the ’80s, when thinness mattered to everyone. There was no body positivity movement. We knew about serious eating disorders and some of us succumbed, but you did what you had to do to maintain the aesthetic. We were in love with the ideal ballerina image embodied by Makarova, Kirkland, and Farrell. We worshipped all of them and one day, we believed, if we truly dedicated ourselves, we would look in the mirror and see visions that matched those of our idols.
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The ballet studio walls were lined with mirrors. Everywhere you turned, there you were alongside everyone else. We compared ourselves to one another constantly. If you weren’t as thin as the girl next to you, you were fat. Muscles were fat. Smiles were fat. We cured fat by subsisting on a diet of coffee and cigarettes. Air-popped popcorn for dinner. Those of us who ate real food had tricks, which included puking and laxatives. I alternated between restrictive eating and straight-forward bulimia, delaying menstruation until I turned 16.
But my boobs were going nowhere. Despite being 5’ 3” and 88 pounds, my boobs were not ballet boobs — not dainty A-cups or slightly defined B-cups — but real boobs, woman boobs. Sports bras, which might have saved me from the mortifying bounce, had not yet been invented. Or, if they had, no one told me. Who would have mentioned it? The older dancers I knew barely needed training bras. Bounce-prevention seemed to be no one’s priority but my own. My boobs set me apart from everyone I respected, even more than the brown of my skin, more than the wild, free-form curl of my hair. My boobs were the reason someone might say, “Wow, you don’t look like a ballet dancer.” — the gravest insult I could imagine.
Where did my boobs come from? Neither of my parents knew. Were they Jewish boobs? Black boobs? The women on both sides of my family had been modestly endowed.
One day when I was about 16, my mother perused the Yellow Pages and located a bra specialist with a shop in the Garment District. According to the Bra Lady’s ad, she carried the perfect bras for everyone’s needs. My mother called ahead and asked whether there was a style that would flatten her daughter’s chest while she danced. “Why, of course,” the woman responded.
I was dark enough to appear ‘really black’ in a theater program (Oh! They’ve hired a black girl!), but light enough to wash out in the stage lights (Hmm — can you find the black girl?).
In person the Bra Lady was not so sure. Sixty-ish, with a valentine-shaped bouffant of brown-grey hair and cat-eye spectacles, she did the usual double-take when my mother introduced us, reflecting the optical dissonance of a white mom and black daughter, then trying to act as though nothing was amiss. Once the Bra Lady had adjusted to our presence, she appraised my breasts as if they were an odd strain of whitefly invading her greenhouse. She disappeared into a back stockroom, returning shortly thereafter with several enormous, boned, hooked and wired undergarments.
“Will she be able to dance with those?” asked my mother.
“Dance?” The woman had forgotten their phone conversation, forgotten why we were there. I needed a bra that made me into the flat-chested ballerina of my dreams.
“Ah, yes! She’s the dancer.” The Bra Lady made the connection at last. “My granddaughter is a dancer, too, you know.”
“Oh,” said my mother. “Is she well-endowed too?”
The woman was taken aback. “Of course not! My granddaughter is very slim.”
Even the Bra Lady knew: big boobs disqualified you from being slim. I left the shop empty-handed, in tears.
In the days that followed, in private, self-flagellating fits, I would draw in my diary, grotesque pictures of myself — small torso, long delicate arms and legs, wrecked by gargantuan breasts that tipped me over in what would otherwise have been an adequate arabesque. Over and over again, I printed the word ZAFTIG, decorating the “Z” to look like a top-heavy matron whose gifts began under her chin and extended straight forward before cascading on the diagonal toward her ankles.
I hated my boobs. I hated myself for having them. But I didn’t let them stop me from working hard and dancing hard. I went from student, to pre-professional to professional. But then I committed the cardinal sin of taking time off to attend college. College — especially the kind of elite university I’d been accepted to — was for “normal people,” not dancers. My ballet teachers told me I was throwing my life away, that I was talented enough to amount to something, crazy to waste what I had on something as frivolous as a college education. But I knew I wasn’t mature enough to launch a career of any kind. College it was.
I went from dancing six hours a day to about six hours a week. After four years, that is a deficit of 2,240 hours of ballet training. My weight rose to just over 100 pounds, and my boobs expanded in tandem. In spite of this, I auditioned well, and when I was 22, I got a contract with the junior troupe of a major ballet company.
My body type was acceptable; I had boobs, but a negligible posterior. My shape, I’d been told, mostly by white dancers intending to compliment me, was “not classically black.” Best of all, I was dark enough to appear “really black” in a theater program (Oh! They’ve hired a black girl!), but light enough to wash out in the stage lights (Hmm — can you find the black girl?). But my success in landing a contract only worsened my self-image. I was now surrounded by pale, waiflike, flat-chested, mini-Makarovas. I saw myself as the opposite of all that, a burlesque distortion of a ballerina. Shame lived in my bones.
The exception was when I was on stage, where I knew people had paid to see me fit in with the other sylphs and swans and flowers, so I’d better damn well do it. When the curtain was up, the violins singing, my hang-ups melted away. I could be a happy peasant, a regal court lady, a sparkling snow-maiden. In the corps de ballet, disguised by costumes and makeup and rhinestone glitter, I could lose myself along with my flaws. But between performances, between enchainments, my confidence was nil.
Reflecting back now, all these years later, I will not whitewash my past. I am aware that race was a quiet backdrop to my otherness in the ballet world. If you go back to the beginning of this story and search and replace the word boobs with brownness, it might be every bit as true. All the same, I know from which of those two wells my self-loathing sprang. If anyone needed to point me out, I was referred to not as “the black girl” — even when I was the only one around — but “the girl with the big boobs.”
Costumes made a difference. I loved old-fashioned tutus whose bodices swallowed, compressed and spread my breasts flat. These transformed me mentally. In a tutu I felt free, proud, and kind of bad-ass.
On the other hand, I dreaded the choice of most contemporary choreographers: filmy, fitted tops, with stringy straps under which it was impossible to hide a normal bra. Strapless bras dented me in strange spots, would not stay put, and left me vulnerable to overflow. I made friends with the wardrobe personnel. Just for me, they’d create sturdy panels with secret loops for custom-made bras that fit under most costumes to minimize and stabilize. The seamstresses and designers were my heroes. The rare moments I was given to soar onstage, I owed to them.
I had a roommate, Johanna, whose streamlined, A-cupped, narrow hipped, broad-shouldered body type was the opposite of my estrogen-dominated form. I was Johanna’s understudy in a contemporary ballet with a cast of four boys and four girls. The costumes were satiny, aquamarine get-ups that hooked up the back and sported chiffon capes, which floated as the dancers ran and spun.
As the darling of the company, Johanna had the lead role. When the music began, she was to shoot out of the wing in a string of split leaps, face in profile. She’d finish the phrase with a double pirouette and exit, making way for the rest of the cast. In her second entrance, Johanna was to be tossed from one waiting male partner to another, flipped like a dainty fish and sent flying into the wing, all at breakneck speed. The choreographer had hand-picked Johanna for this role, cast her for her sharp angles and aerodynamic build. The other three girls who’d been cast were similar in type.
“I want you ladies to fly like arrows,” the choreographer told the girls. “Straight, clean, flawless lines. There’s nothing soft in this piece.” She didn’t glance at me, but I was abundantly aware of what she meant. I represented softness, a scourge against her aesthetic. For some reason, the director had made me Johanna’s understudy against the choreographer’s wishes.
By the time a dormant stress fracture in Johanna’s metatarsal had become active, requiring a boot for several months, the choreographer had gone on to stage another ballet elsewhere. She was spared the anguish of seeing Johanna surrender her role.
As the understudy, Johanna’s part was rightfully mine. But even the director was hesitant. What, she wondered aloud, could we possibly do about wardrobe? Clearly there was no chance of me squeezing my voluptuous self into slight Johanna’s tiny costume. Why had no one thought of this before?
As the director pondered, another girl, Veronica — pale, mousy, and very flat-chested — saw an opening. In the back of the studio, as I rehearsed, I could see Veronica’s image in the mirror behind me — everyone could — blatantly, furiously practicing Johanna’s steps, now rightfully mine. Veronica’s ambitions were clear: to present herself to the director as the logical alternative, who would fit into Johanna’s costume. Her shameless, unwavering glare gave me chills. “Check your pointe shoes for glass tomorrow,” said one of the boys partnering with me, amused by the tension in the air.
At the end of rehearsal, I was sent down to wardrobe, accompanied by Leanne, who was understood to be the “second largest” girl in the troupe. I was to take Leanne’s costume, which would be less of a stretch, while Leanne would take Johanna’s.
“Why are you both here?” said Martha, the costume mistress. She was a normal sized lady who dwarfed both Leanne and me. “I thought only one dancer was being replaced.”
I explained. “I’m here to try Leanne’s costume and she’s here to try Johanna’s.”
Martha looked from one of us to the other. “Why doesn’t Leanne wear her own costume and you wear Johanna’s, since you’re the one who inherited her part?”
“Johanna’s won’t fit me,” I said, stating what I knew was obvious to everyone back upstairs in the dance studio.
“Hmph.” Martha handed me Johanna’s costume, which looked tiny and delicate. “One way to try.”
With Leanne waiting, I slipped off my leotard and slipped on Johanna’s costume. It fit. Without my even sucking anything in. Martha told Leanne she could keep her costume.
“Don’t be so shocked,” she told me. “Your shapes are different; you have big boobs and Johanna’s got none. But she’s got a broad back. Your measurements are about the same. None of you ladies are bigger than my pinky in any case.”
I wasn’t the only one shocked. When we returned to the studio, people were taking a break: stretching, sewing pointe shoes, marking steps with their hands. Only Veronica was in the center of the room, dancing full out, working on Johanna’s steps. The director wasn’t watching her though; she was going over notes on a clipboard. She looked up when Leanne and I slipped back into the room.
“Well?” she said, eyebrows high, expectations low.
“The costume fit,” I responded. Calmly, without triumph, as though I were reporting the time of day. I wasn’t going to play Veronica’s game and gloat.
“Leanne’s fit?” the director said.
“Fit you?” The director’s emphasis reflected the incredulous glances bouncing from dancer to dancer, all around the room.
Veronica’s heels came down to earth with a delicate thud, her pale pink face deepening to coral.
“Break’s over,” said the director, rising, setting down her clipboard. “Take it from the top, dancers. Lisa … you’re on.”
And that was that. Johanna’s part was mine, along with her costume. Veronica was disappointed, but I am not ashamed to say that I kicked-ass. I scored one for busty, brown girls everywhere. For a brief hour each night, my boobs didn’t define me.
But when the run was over and the contract ended, I moved on. In the next two ballet companies danced with, I was the only brown woman, the only one with boobs. I continued to befriend the costume designers, but their even their kindness shamed me. I was a liability, a perpetual blight against ballet’s visual paradigm.
With my daughter’s body teetering on the edge of adolescence, I did not want her grappling with the notion that I was taking a knife to mine.
I was not, however, entirely without fans. After performances, little girls would line up at the stage door, waiting for the adult dancers to bestow our worn-out pointe shoes, signed and hopefully personalized to be treasured and boasted about. The masses of white children looked past me, but the handful of little brown girls waited hungrily for the only dancer who looked like them. I learned their names so I could sign my pointe shoes with a message for each, making sure none of them left the stage door empty-handed. When I packed it in, left ballet for a new career that didn’t hate my body type, my only regret was abandoning those little brown girls.
It took years, nearly a decade, for my boobs to find their true calling: feeding my infant children. At no point was there any question about whether I would breastfeed; I’d read enough to know that, at least for me, “breast was best.” I had to believe that the jugs I was blessed with might find redemption in their intended function.
And they did. Somewhat. My first baby latched on immediately and nursed with ease. We were a fantastic team, earning kudos in the hospital from the nurses as well as the La Leche League representative who was making the rounds. Once we were home, we hit a rough spot as, not surprisingly, I proved to be an “over-producer.” This meant that my daughter would latch on and instantly gag on a geyser of milk that would rush out to meet her tiny lips. But over time, she grew, my supply adjusted to her needs, and all was easy again.
It was the same with my second child, a boy. What I will remember always is the sense of industry, of competence. For the first year-and-a-half of each child’s life, my body was all they needed to be nurtured, soothed, rebooted. The appendages I’d loathed all my life were sustaining the things I loved most. My breasts were taking their place in a glowing spotlight at last, declaring, “It’s our turn. We’ve got this.”
But then that was over too. My son weaned himself at 17 months. The last time he nursed, he latched on briefly, then latched off to make a broad gesture with one arm, as if waving goodbye. He placed his thumb in his mouth for closure.
In the years that followed, though I lost the baby weight and resumed my vigorous exercise routine, my breasts remained large. Actually, they grew. They would swell up monthly, like those of many other women, but when my period arrived, they wouldn’t return to normal. Being small elsewhere, I struggled to find clothes that worked. My back ached as well — all the time. The gnawing pain between my shoulder blades simulated the pain I’d feel when each child had outgrown the Baby Bjorn. Mammograms, sonograms, and even one biopsy demanded by my gynecologist, revealed that my breasts were fibrocystic, but the many lumps we found were benign. This was good news, but it did not help my back. It did not help my posture; I was slouching more each year.
I was 47 and my kids were 10 and 12 when I had the surgery. I waited until the summertime and had it done when they were both away at camp. With my daughter’s body teetering on the edge of adolescence, I did not want her grappling with the notion that I was taking a knife to mine. Other than this, I had no ambivalence prior to the operation. I’ve had no regrets since.
My breasts were like relatives you try to love all your life until, one day, you realize it’s okay not to. You move on. Sometimes you remember them, the good with the bad. But mostly, you forget about them and go about your life, blissfully unencumbered.
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Lisa W. Rosenberg is a former dancer, current writer and psychotherapist, specializing in multiracial families. She is also the author of the monthly “Ask Lisa Advice” column on Multiracialmedia.com. She lives in Montclair, NJ with her husband, two children and Goldendoodle.
Editor: Sari Botton
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