I was born with a small frame, which explains my childhood nickname, Small Fry. I stayed small as I grew—or, I should say, didn’t grow. I was a pretty skeletal-looking kid since I wouldn’t eat. Playground dirt and M&Ms, yes; real food, no. Mother referred to me as a string bean, though she could never convince me to eat one. Everyone was surprised, of course, when, in my early teens, a couple of melons started growing on my chest. They grew to be larger than those of my mother and older sister combined. Mother used to say she had pebbles and Debbie had stones, but Karen had boulders. Ever hear of an over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder? That phrase got old—as did being stuck with something that, I was soon to learn, everyone else thinks they want.

PE class in junior high school was difficult, especially when the teacher barked out, “Jumping jacks! And one…and…two…and….” The other side of the gym was not far enough away to keep the boys from ogling my bouncing boobs. A sports bra probably would have mashed my chest enough to get me out of the spotlight, but I had never heard of one in the sixties.

Even with no boys allowed, the locker room was an evil place. I survived the comments (“How do you carry those beach balls around?”) but my best friend learned to dread gym days. “Aren’t you in the wrong locker room, honey?” She was a late bloomer and was humiliated when other girls laughed at her bare, flat chest. Almost daily, someone would sing, “Grow little boobies, bigger, bigger. I’ve got an undeveloped figure….” We also heard a lot of, “We must, we must, we must increase the bust….”

I saved my allowance to buy Alta her first training bra. She had to wash and hang it to dry every night where her mother wouldn’t find it because her mother thought it was nonsense to wear a bra you didn’t need.

What is it with mothers and their teenage daughters?

And why were boobs such a big deal? They were a part of the body, like a hand or a foot. Even as a seventh grader, I knew that a body part didn’t make me who I was. Unfortunately, my boobs stood out because I was, by that time, tall and thin. I tried to hunch my shoulders to draw attention elsewhere, but my piano teacher would have none of that. “Shoulders back, Karen! Sit up straight!” Thankfully, the joy I found in playing the piano helped me to sometimes forget the load I was carrying.

I always had a boyfriend—quite a miracle for a shy, quiet girl. But wait…I had boobs. Enough said.

As if the stares weren’t bad enough, I began to have trouble finding clothes that fit. If a blouse were the right size for my narrow shoulders, it would pull and gap open across my chest. I learned to make my own clothes so that I could adjust them to accommodate my growing problem. Would these things never stop? I was size 36C by my senior year. Amazing, for a five-foot, six-inch girl who only weighed 100 pounds. My size held steady through college and my twenties.

In my mid-twenties I began to run obsessively. When I followed a route along a country road, I found it impossible to be alone with my thoughts.

“Hey, baby! Can I hold those for you?”

“Yeowza, mama! I want some of that!”

So I started running on the high school track. I made friends with the regular runners there and began to understand that even they got a kick out of watching my bouncing ponytail and boobs. It didn’t seem to matter that I wore a pretty good sports bra by then.

At 32, I got married and found that my husband enjoyed the girls tremendously. I didn’t mind that, though. In fact, I enjoyed his caresses so much that I quickly became pregnant and my problem began to grow larger. My husband, of course, didn’t see it as a problem—in fact, he loved it—but my shoulders and back grew tired of holding the things up. And when I started nursing my baby, I produced so much milk, my obstetrician suggested that I bottle and sell it. On the positive side, though, I was thankful my children were well-nourished. I can’t remember what size nursing bras I wore, but I had to stuff them with so many nursing pads to keep my clothes dry, that I probably looked like a 48FF. I almost needed a back brace to help me carry the weight.

My babies apparently took more from me than milk, because after finishing with childbirth, I was smaller, size 36B. My clothes fit well and I didn’t attract undue attention. I was finally getting comfortable with my body. But, sadly, that was not to last. When my 40th birthday arrived, the gynecologist insisted it was time for me to experience that marvelous invention of mankind: the mammogram. I wonder if smaller boobs would have meant less pain. Not as bad as childbirth, but pretty close. My mammogram at age 46 was especially memorable because that’s when they found the cancer. Damn these boobs! And just when I was getting used to them! I had a lumpectomy, followed by six weeks of radiation treatments. My left boob ended up smaller than my right and looked like it had sat in a tanning booth too long.

I focused on nutrition and got rid of the underwire bras. But my mammogram at age 51 found more cancer. Surgery again. Now, my left breast was even smaller. The surgeon suggested mastectomy; I turned down her offer.

I expect I’ll have to deal with cancer again in the future, which begs the question: how much of my body am I willing to lose?   If I have the boob removed, I should probably try my hand at archery, a la The Hunger Games, or the Amazon warrior women who routinely cut off one boob to improve their aim.

Perhaps I will eliminate future cancer scares and have both boobs removed. I’ve always preferred symmetry. But that might require a new wardrobe. And my husband, a true boob-man, would be unhappy, unless, of course, he got to choose my size in the event of reconstructive surgery. Hmmm…that might actually appeal to him….

I guess I’ve come full circle now, from being self-conscious about my boobs, to finding they had a useful purpose, to enjoying my husband enjoy them, to not wanting to lose them. They don’t define me, but these girls are an important part of who I am. They have affected my posture. They have made me a darn good seamstress. They have forced me to find good sports bras. They have fed my babies. And, based on public opinion, they have made me look good.

I won’t easily let them go.

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