I became a woman, so to speak, at age ten, and I felt like an alien species. No one else was going through that particular misery yet. Naturally, I tried to hide the fact that I was an alien. Back then, buying a bra was like a covert operation. I would breeze through the lingerie department, pretending to look for my mother, then quickly nod towards the bra I wanted. My mother, who was actually behind me, would then pick up the bra and head nonchalantly to the register.
In junior high, when other girls were finally going through puberty, I let my mother take me bra shopping out in the open. We had just been hiking, so I was sweaty and adorned in my usual sports bra (I wore them constantly because they tended to tamp things down). She took me to Gap Body, which I think she picked because it seemed like a more neutral/less sexualized store than say Victoria’s Secret. It was also where she shopped. We didn’t know what size I was, so a saleswoman with a measuring tape sequestered me in the dressing room. I remember my mother watching too, as the woman measured my breasts. I was humiliated to say the least, especially since I was sweating and wearing a gray, ratty sports bra.
Twelve years later, I was visiting my parents, and mom and I decided to do the traditional shop. I needed bras. I was worried that I might still be wearing some of the same bras we bought that day, when I was thirteen. We went to Gap Body. I wondered if my breasts still were the same size. Sometimes they can change on you. I have friends who have thought they were A-cups and suddenly learned they are Ds, which is like thinking you’re 5’4″ and finding out you’re really 6′.
I tried a couple bras on by myself as my mom shopped. The As were a little tight and the Bs were too big. I approached a saleswoman named Brandy.
“Finding everything ok?” said Brandy.
“Well, I’m having a hard time with size…..” I let it linger there, so she could soak up the full meaning. I was hoping she would whip out the measuring tape, and we would go into the dressing rooms, and she could tell me exactly what was going on with my adult breasts. Eventually I realized I was going to have to elaborate, so I said, “I might be inbetween a 34A and a 34B.
“Is there air inside the B cup?”
“Yes, there is,” I said.
“You might want to try a 36A.”
“Brilliant!’ I scurried away. This was the longest conversation about my breasts I’d ever had with anyone, let alone a stranger. Brandy, however, wasn’t going to give up on me. She followed me to the rack of bras I was manhandling. Most bras these days have freestanding cups, so it looks like they come with breasts (that’s part of their appeal). Perhaps it was the terror of going through puberty so young, but I’m stuck in junior high. It felt like I was filing through a sea of breasts looking for a tiny label that said 36A. Brandy caught me violating her merchandise. She quickly found the 36A.
I tried it on. I couldn’t tell the difference. All three sizes seemed relatively the same. Although both the 36A and 34B seemed like they were more matronly, probably because they had more fabric. But maybe I didn’t mind that. These were supposed to be everyday bras not sexy time bras. I needed someone’s opinion. I’d been in the dressing room for so long that the friendly, gay attendant was starting to ask “Everything ok in there?” with real concern in his voice.
I needed an expert, an authority. I called my mom on her cell. She answered, from two dressing rooms down.
“There you are.”
“Mom, I can hear you. Where are you?”
“What? The sound quality on this thing!”
“I’m in the dressing room. Hang up”
Eventually she made it to my dressing room, and I tried on the different bras for her. I showed her the arm fat I thought the A bra pushed forward in an uncomfortable way, but she assured me that was normal. She ruled out the B cup because of the air inside the cup.
“You don’t want air in there!” she shrieked.
“Why not? What happens to the air?” I said, worried.
“It ferments and then one day you find things living in there,” she said. Then she pinched my butt and said, “You’ve got junk in the trunk.”
“I just mean you’re curvy.” She thought she was lovingly teasing me, but I was suddenly transported back to being thirteen and hating my body. Apparently she doesn’t know that curvy’s the PC term for fat. I put my clothes back on, feeling slightly violated.
I bought the 34A–the same size we’d decided upon when I was thirteen, and I tried to remind myself of the things that had changed since then. For one, I was able to recognize that my mom hadn’t actually called me fat–it just felt that way.
I’m not sure why moms have such power over our body image–why everything they say can be perceived as an attack. This is a topic I’ll let feminist graduate students and psychologists explore further. But I do know one thing, no one shops for a bra like a mother.