Prior to giving birth six months ago, I was generally discreet when it came to nudity. I mostly kept my private parts private. I never flashed, I never sexted, and I even had a special way to change shirts in ladies locker rooms that I'd developed back in high school gym class and carried with me through life. Until I started breastfeeding. That's when all bets and bras were off, as I morphed into a freewheeling, free-titted free spirit. Instead of weighing me down, my engorged breasts were like two personal hot air balloons that elevated me above the confines of such societal norms that dictate that you ought not have a conversation on the couch with your mother-in-law while completely naked.
But now that I'm weaning, my breasts are deflating and I'm making a rapid descent back down to earth, where I remember that I'm not supposed to have my boobs out all the time. I want to reclaim my modesty. But it's easier said than done.
Being topless was a necessity born of my troubles resulting from my foray into breastfeeding, a process that can be challenging for any number of reasons. For me, it was that my daughter latched on too well. She chewed the shit out of my nipples until they were sore and cracked and bleeding. The left one had become semi-detached from the areola. It moved up and down much like the head of a Pez dispenser. My breasts were so big and round and full of milk that I finally truly understood the whole "melons" euphemism. They were stretched to their limit and they ached at the mere suggestion of a draft of wind. Just the thought of having to corral them into a bra gave me phantom pains. So I aired them out, all day err'day.
I don't think I had a stitch of clothing on the upper portion of my body for the first few weeks that I was home from the hospital. It also happened to be the time when we had a never-ending flow of company. I did not give a shit. My breasts were hurting so bad that I was unable to feel anything else, let alone humility. In-laws? Boobs in their faces. My mom's friends? Boobs in their faces. My husband's buddies? Boobs in their faces. Delivery guys? Boobs in their faces. If you wanted the privilege of seeing me, you'd have to see all of me—scabby tits and all. Oh, that makes you uncomfortable? Try being me!
With my unbrushed hair on the verge of turning into dreadlocks and being surrounded by all the congratulatory bouquets of flowers, it was easy for me to envision that my living room was like a hippie commune in the middle of a meadow in the country instead of a cramped apartment in a fourth-floor walkup in Brooklyn. (The post-op prescription of Percocet certainly helped facilitate such hallucinations.) In that kind of environment, nudity just seemed a matter-of-course. I liked to think of myself as some kind of an earth mother.
In my mind, I saw a beautiful bohemian nursing mother, doing what comes naturally, under the golden glow of a sunny autumn afternoon.
In my mirror, I saw Aileen Wuornos.
Hunched over from my C-section, my eyes were at once wild and fatigued and my air-dried hair was horribly feathered. Plus, all I was wearing were the hospital-issued mesh underpants with a kayak-sized pad. I was such a mess and I was regularly letting people see me that way. It's funny how unimportant the concept of "pride" becomes, in those initial post-partum weeks. I liken it to an animal at the zoo, quietly taking a dump in front of a group of tourists and a class trip of school children. Yes, there's no dignity in it, but the animal is unfazed by that. And it's really only disgusting for the people watching. That's basically what I'd become: An apathetic animal, grossing people out. Whatever. I just made a mental note to not look in the mirror anymore and go ape shit, Sean Penn-style on the next person who tried to take my picture.
I retreated to my alternate reality in which I wasn't a frumpy blob but a Botticelli painting come to life. Eventually, though, I had to face the fact that those weren't fig leaves on my privates, they were cabbage leaves on my boobs. And I needed to change them more frequently because they wilted pretty quickly and started to stink. One night as I was getting into bed I turned to my husband and was like, "Did you fart?" and he goes, "No, that's your tits."
As I adjusted to motherhood and the nerves of my nipples deadened, I began wearing bras and tops again. And by that point, my soul was equally numb. I'd already conditioned myself to think that whipping my breasts out in front of anyone and everyone was OK, so I took my show out on the road. I breastfeed at other people's homes, city parks, strip mall benches, McDonald's, Sears portrait studio. You name it, I've exposed myself there. Fuck a blanket or any other kind of modesty device. Anyone who has a problem with it is obviously an unenlightened moron who doesn't know how the world works.
It's natural! That's become my new motto when it comes to any and all unattractive behavior—farting, burping, overgrown pubes. It enables me to be the pig that I am. If only it worked for picking my nose, underneath my couch would be plastered with boogers.
But the one-two punch of returning to work and my daughter sleeping through the night slowed up my milk production until, ultimately, it stopped. Now that I'm no longer breastfeeding I've been able to get back to being myself. As quickly as the modesty switch was turned off after giving birth, it's turned back on after weaning. And I feel the need to rebuild the walls and reestablish the boundaries that I'd decimated in my post-partum desperation.
For example, my mother-in-law stayed with me and my husband the week I came home from the hospital where she had a front row seat to the full-frontal horror show. Because I was in such agony with regards to my nipples (when my daughter would latch on, I would slam my fist into the arm of the couch and yell out, "Cocksucker motherfucker!") and because they were on display, they were essentially a conversation piece. (If my apartment were Twitter, "nipples," "boobs," and "Lanolin" would constantly be trending. Also, it would be called Titter and not Twitter, obviously.) She regularly asks my husband how my boobs are doing. I know it's out of concern and I know that I'm the one who opened that door, but now it's time to close it.
My own mother, on the other hand, is a totally different story. She's been walking in on me while I was naked, picking locks with her finger nail with no regard for my humanity, since I can remember. Her complete and utter lack of boundaries is the stuff that my therapy sessions are made of.
It's difficult to explain the delicacy involved in revoking someone's security clearance. It sounds stupid, but you feel bad for having led them to believe that you're so close that you could share anything, when honestly, it was just situational insanity.
Source images via Jaimie Duplass and OLJ Studio/Shutterstock.