Ms. Opinionated: Can a Small-Breasted Gal Get Any Respect?
Welcome to Ms. Opinionated, our weekly advice column dealing with questions of life, love, feminism, and pop culture. Submit your anonymous questions here. This week, Andi Zeisler weighs a question about boobs.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I'm powerful. I'm fabulous. I'm unashamed. I'm a boss-ass bitch....most of the time.
No matter how much I have been empowered, I seem to come back to my cup size, or lack of it. I love myself, but I can't escape the feeling that I need to be larger for acceptance. The hard part is that women cause me to feel this way as much as men do, the eyes that go up and down, sizing competition and establishing beauty.
I know I'm smart. I know my worth is beyond my looks. Yet, I come back to the fact that I need to be beautiful in the eyes of others to be fully happy, and my complete lack of cleavage is an anchor on my heart. I'd like to blame this on my mother, because the first words her out her mouth every time I got to see her were always addressed to my aesthetic shortcomings. But even though I will never forget when she first told me to stuff my bra, I know I am responsible for my mind and my body. What's up with me?
Will society ever stop begrudging my less-than-A cup? At the very least, how will I learn to totally and wholeheartedly love myself when I live in such an environment? It's interesting. I've seen more women demean other women for being smaller (calling fuller women "real") than I've ever seen us help each other. And it's not that they always mean to be hurtful! But the soothing words are always "they'll grow when you're older", "you can always get them done", or "but you have a pretty face!" We should love on each other in the face of men who call people like me half a female. I just don't get it.
I may be little but I'm worth just as much
I feel lucky to get to answer this question. Not because I'm coming from the same place, but because… well, you know that saying about how the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence? Hello from Boob Pasture.
As someone who got stacked practically overnight with a cumbersome set of cans, I've felt everything you're feeling from the opposite place. I, too, blame my mother, who failed to pass on to me her glamorous B-cups, and whose subscription to Vogue taught me that the only truly fashionable breasts fit the French standard of being no bigger than a champagne glass. Small breasts allowed you to wear low-cut blouses and cute bikinis without looking "trampy" (my mom's descriptor for the inconveniently big-breasted wearer of such items); big ones, as I soon learned, had to be dressed around in time-consuming ways. And let's not even talk about how they get in the way of sports and exercise (unless you want to know what wearing two cantilevered sports bras just to do Zumba feels like).
The point is not that one of us has it harder in the breast game, but that many variables—class, race, pop culture, peer pressure, and more—play into the perception of what breast size is worthy and sexually valuable, and these variables shift depending on where you are and who you're dealing with. And my telling you that big boobs can be a pain is just as ineffectual as you telling me that small ones feel inadequate. For every woman who hits the cosmetic surgeon's office to construct the D-cup rack of her dreams, there's one who goes under the knife thrilled at the thought of finally being rid of a top-heavy burden. And too many women go through life imagining that things would be different, easier, better if we only had what she has.
The fact that your letter is not about changing yourself, but about getting others to accept you, is the key here. You know you're fabulous: that "anchor" on your chest is the opinions of others. So first things first: Get your mother—and whatever other women are disparaging your bosom—to knock it the hell off. The next time someone comments on your size, cut them off with a question: "I'm happy with my breasts, thanks. Why do you assume I'm not?" Then look expectantly at them until they either answer or turn away and rethink their approach to casual conversation.
Wait, actually, no. The first thing to do is to truly get happy with your breasts.
I know, like it's just that easy. But you're never going to sound convincing saying you're happy with your size unless you are, on some level, happy with your size—or, if not actively happy, then at least at peace.
To that end: Read "A Few Words About Breasts," Nora Ephron's famous essay about the specific neuroses of small-breastedness, in which she, like you, takes notes on the way women compete over breast size in public. Watch Meema Spadola's 1996 documentary, Breasts, to see women from ages 6 to 84 discuss what they love and hate about their boobs. And find community at blogs and Facebook groups like Small Bust, Big Heart.
Pamper and appreciate your breasts. Buy them some new bras from a place that caters specifically to your cup size. Show them off in clothing that only small-breasted folks can wear without constantly being on guard for wardrobe malfunctions. And revel in the fact that small breasts will keep you looking younger longer—you'll still be rocking those halter tops when some of us are hauling our cans somewhere around waist level.
And, though I hope this goes without saying, kindly tell any guy who thinks that you're "half a woman" to fuck right off. There are just as many who will proclaim that "the small ones are sweeter," just as there are men who prefer a variety of butts and lips and feet and whatever. Lots of men tend to have compartmentalizing the female body down—which is a whole other issue—but their ideas regarding what's attractive are just as informed by society as anyone else's. And that's why, again, this all comes back to your own confidence that what you've got is enough for you, and should be plenty for others.
Women's physical being and characteristics have been publicly assessed and commodified for so long that it almost feels normal, which is why both small- and big-breasted women may never feel truly equipped to love their lady lumps, whatever size they are. Admitting that you aren't buying the insecurity that everything from advertising to pornography to Hollywood wants to sell you, breast-wise, is already a radical stance. Educating others, however, is a longer road. But the good news is that the only big thing that requires is a mouth. Good luck!
Read previous installments of our feminist advice column.
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