I peaked, size wise, at the age of 10, when I bought my first training bra — that, with a bit of a tug across the torso, could certainly fit my bust line today. Vacillating between the funny gray area of a size 32AA and 32A (depending on the time of the month), as an adult woman my breasts hardly heave, but rather perch between the marked grooves of my clavicle.
In fact, bras have generally been inconsequential throughout my life. I've worn them only to fill out tops and dresses. They are mere afterthoughts amongst an abundant wardrobe; underpinnings I throw on out of compulsion — there is very little to push up, pull in, undergird, or strap down. Honestly, sports bras are conundrums to me: the last time I purchased one was at an Alexander Wang sample sale, wherein I later styled it under an unbuttoned denim chambray blouse in some latent homage to Aaliyah. It never saw the inside of a gym.
And really, there would have been no need for it. My girls get in no one's way (least of all mine), hardly impede physical activity, and have only ever flirted with the idea of a slip or spill, not once taking the plunge. Unless, of course, we're talking about actual plunging necklines, in which case I can easily pull of the Lupita N'yongo "Nairobi blue" silhouette look with total aplomb.
Over the years and through many conversations, I've deduced that my bust line fascinates not because of its size, but in spite of it. On set "modeling" (and I use this word loosely) at a photo shoot last fall, I was in between fittings, puttering around in a strapless bra when my friend gasped, "Oh, wow, so you're, like, tiny." Yeah. I'm, like, tiny. This is not about self-deprecation or bravado. I'm tirelessly matter-of-fact when it comes to my breast size because for so long I just wasn't.
I wore that aforementioned training bra while growing up in Texas, a state where very, very little is subtle. I wore that training bra while attending an elite and racially homogenous all-girls school, where the Bush twins were among its boasted alumni. Modeled more after a future Malia Obama, I existed well outside of the student body paradigm. I did, though, stuff that same training bra when hitting up dance parties with my best friends, where bounce music reverberated off the wall, and my little pre-pubescent self would try to drop and "wiggle wit' it" to uneven results. I wiggled. I just didn't quite jiggle.
I fought off outright insults and implicit attacks to my physical make-up — verbal jabs, dismissals, and off-the-cuff remarks that ultimately reminded me that my femininity, physical beauty, and overall appeal had been sized up entirely by my deficiency to hold up a particular idealized notion of womanhood. "Girl, take some of mine!" my endowed friends would cackle after a peek at my modest cleavage. Everyone's eagerness to "fix" or alter me ultimately felt patronizing, as if I ever implied that I was in need of repair. There was a real push for something to happen for me, breast-wise; some need to directly locate a site of potency and fecundity to mark me complete.
Was it crippling to believe I didn't quite "measure up" at such a young age? Damn, it would be cooler if I could say no, but like a lot of teenage girls, I just wasn't equipped at thwarting the societal stronghold on femininity and body politics that decreed what a woman should look like. Not to mention who could even be considered as such, and what vast curves summed up her femininity, desirability and legitimacy. This, compounded with the historical pressures placed upon the black female body, specifically, as both a site of intimidation and arousal, I was often made to feel my body was not my own to determine.
I don't think I am especially unique in this admission, nor in the fact that at that time I had little approximation to history or theory that would help falsify these concepts. Many young women find themselves fumbling toward a personal body politic without guideposts. That only began to change for me when I took Gender Studies classes in college, started having real adult relationships with men, and procured a personal sense of style, which gave me the agency to begin directly seeking alternative ideals for myself.
To be sure, all of these measures required honesty on my part: What kind of hypocrite would I be if I were writing about and championing the cause of "counter-hegemonic black female body politics" (thank you, bell hooks) in my academic work, and I was, in my day to day, unwilling to recognize my own stake in that discourse? Researching the commodification of the black female form through a historical arch that stretched from Saartije Baartman to Josephine Baker to black supermodels, I was as intent, personally, as I was academically, on dismantling beauty myths that had established scores of women negligible.
Now, do I feel inspired to love my body every day? No, but I respect it. No single feminist politic, attentive boyfriend or perfect European-designed ensemble can endlessly quell all neuroses surrounding my body. Do my thoughts ever drift off to plans of augmenting my breasts? Sure—with childbirth and aging as factors to one day consider: "Never say never."
But three weeks shy of my 31st birthday, I have come to realize that my body is not a singular point, a static idea or a sole component. It evolves, and the way I approach it will too. My frame in its entirety is made up of so much — historically, physically — and what's been invigorating about my relation to it, is witnessing its ability (and mine) to grow into many, many things.
This post originally appeared on xoJane. Republished with permission.
Image by Jim Cooke.