Wendy Rawlings

Probably if I asked you to conjure an image of breasts you would picture two basically spherical body parts perched side by side on the chest so as to create an appealing and erotically suggestive crevice between them. From the time I was a young teenager, I anticipated the time during which my breast "buds," as my mother called them, would blossom into twin and abutting body parts. Yet when I left for college at eighteen, my buds had progressed only so far as to be properly described as two conical and independent flesh disturbances.

I’ve never been that interested in my breasts, even though they're the part of a woman's body with the most public clout. But I had a dream recently in which I was lounging in a shallow pool at a resort, the area well populated by sunbathers. I wore a black and white bikini bottom but nothing on top, and yet I was lying on my back, propped up on my elbows, so that anyone could see my bare chest. I was neither ashamed nor particularly aware of any impropriety until people with children arrived and I came to understand that my bare breasts, unimpressive though they might be, were causing the parents consternation, at which point I hurried into a locker room and to recover the black-and-white racer back bikini top I'd left on a bench there.

Buds or a giant bosom, at forty, one must submit to a mammogram. I stand on tiptoe while the white-coated technician takes hold of my breast and urges it flat on a clear plastic platform. It is a singularly humiliating experience – worse, for me, than a pap smear -- to endure a stranger in rubber gloves forcing one's breast flat, after which she flips a switch that lowers an identical sheet of plastic onto the breast, thus mashing it between two sheets of plastic the way Dagwood Bumstead mashes the top slice of bread on his epic sandwich so he can fit it into his mouth. There's a comic book cover that shows Dagwood with his radiantly vacant smile, holding his Herculean sandwich between the parallel jaws of a vise.  My breasts are no Herculean sandwich innards. Thus, the technician finds herself prodding at the meager meal each breast offers.  Once she has positioned the breast in a way that causes me maximum discomfort, she flips the switch on and off several times in quick succession, so that the jaws of the vise jerk a millimeter closer to each other with each switch flip. As the vise jaws are made of clear plastic, I'm afforded an unobstructed view of my breast. A blue vein that runs along the border of the aureole appears to pulse. I notice a dark hair flattened by the top jaw and, though the room is darkened and certainly the technician has seen many a hair growing from a breast in her life, I'm mortified.

My bra size is 36A. As a teenager I found a copy of Playboy magazine in my father's dresser drawer.  There was a long feature on Linda Lovelace in progressively skimpy patriotic lingerie to commemorate the Bicentennial.  This was when I learned that women have measurements. Hips, waist, breasts. From the pages of the magazine I inferred that 36-26-36 was both a desirable and common measurement. When, years later, at Victoria's Secret, a store employee measured my bra size with a pink tape measure, I was at first proud to learn that my measurement was 36 and then reduced to feeling the great inadequacy of my attempt at womanhood when the saleswoman brought me several bras in my size, all of which contained considerable amounts of padding. My inquiries about the possibility of trying on a bra without padding were met with puzzled stares. One of the bras I was convinced to purchase, said to possess miraculous qualities, was a demi-cup style bra with no padding at the top of the cup but with a large padded area at the base of the cup. Curiously, the pad is divided by diagonal stitching into three sections that resemble the downward-rushing streams of a waterfall. The cups are larger than those on any other bra I own. I cannot discern this bra producing even the slightest hint of décolletage, despite the outsized claims on the label. I note that the bra was made in Thailand, where workers must look upon the size of the bras they're making and imagine the garments' future owners to be Amazons.

I googled "bras for small chested women." I googled "bras for small breasts." From the sites that came up in the search I learned that I could purchase a "Delirious Triangle Bralette" for $36 dollars, that a company called "The Little Bra Company" makes bras for women whose cup sizes are A, AA, and AAA, and that even when the very small garment is comprised of elastic and a handful of lace, the purveyor of such an item is likely to ask upwards of forty bucks for it.  Apparently a bralette is a sort of daughter of a bra, made of gauze and lace but without any of the pneumatic properties of the miracle bra or any of the support mechanisms of the bras worn by real, adult women, who require industrial materials to hold up their plenitude.


Because I went to an elementary school for fourth through sixth grade, much was made of sixth grade graduation, after which we would move on to the combined junior/senior high school in the next town over. The tradition for girls was to procure autograph books and to ask each classmate to sign a page. My little book was about the size of an index card, red with a white paisley pattern and the word Autographs in gold cursive on the front. Inside, the pages were alternately pale pink, pale green and yellow. As a child I was a loving keeper of scrapbooks, notebooks, journals and diaries. The idea of collecting notes from my classmates with their variant handwriting -- the heavy press on the page of Richie Sabatino's block letters, the nimble illegible cursive of my teacher, Mr. Smith; Amy Buynak's tender and careful lower-case sentences, each designed to end at precisely the same spot near the right margin. At the end of the day, when my autograph book was nearly full, I sat in my room and read the good wishes from former teachers and the popular "Roses are red" poems from fellow students. For a while I puzzled over one that read:  

Roses are red
and so is wine
I'd like your PJ next to mine.
Now don't get excited, don't turn red
I mean on the clothesline
not in bed.

At twelve, the youngest in my class at school and the oldest child in my family, I eventually came around to the possible implications of turning red and ending up in bed, but I had first to ponder well beyond my usual frame of reference. I knew almost nothing about sex; three years later, when, while kissing my first boyfriend on my canopy bed one afternoon when my parents were out food shopping, I would pause in utter confusion when he asked me to take him in my mouth. Take what in my mouth?

 But here, with my sixth grade autograph book in my lap, I turned the page and found, in shaky block letters,  


Mike was in my sixth grade class, but I didn't know him well. I was a serious girl who still wore bangs and long yellow ponytails and gold aviator glasses. I had no sense of irony, worked ardently at my desk without supervision, and hated gym class. He was part of a group of boys -- all with Italian surnames, I realize now -- who wore tee shirts with brand names on them and tight jeans; he kept a plastic comb in his back pocket that several times a day he whipped out and pulled through his thick, dark hair. Mike Carruzzi, Richie Sabatino, Nicky Liantonio.  This was the era of The Fonz on TV. It was the Fonz they were imitating, consciously or not, with their combs and defiance. They had female counterparts in the girls I thought of as "Charlie's Angels": Leslie Greca, Gina Burgie, Carolyn Boisits. In fifth grade, Gina had left a trail of pennies from the cafeteria out the school's front door and around to the side of the building. I'd seen a penny and then another one, intrigued, picking up one and jingling it against the others in my cupped hands. Later I looked up and saw Gina and her friends standing against the brick wall near the fire escape. "She's the Jew," I heard. There were two churches in my Long Island town, Saint Gertrude's Catholic on a hill in the center of town and a much smaller Methodist church on a side street. No temple, no church for Unitarians or Mormons. My mother was Jewish, but I didn't see how Gina Burgie would know that, or how my picking up pennies would lead her to that conclusion.           

Why did not having a bust make me unlikeable? Why did picking up pennies make me Jewish? The arbitrariness of the world’s rules stunned me into inaction. Our school had four cheerleading squads: Army (black), Navy (blue), Air Force (red), Marines (green). More than anything I wanted to be on one of these squads. But -- another lapse in my logic, another thing for me not to understand -- I couldn't be a cheerleader: I had no bust; I was a Jew.

The ironies are thick here (I understand irony now): my mother, at sixteen, had been a large-breasted cheerleader and a known Jew at her high school, in a part of Long Island where more Jews lived. Dark haired, dark eyed, she'd gotten her period in fourth grade and been an early bloomer. Her breasts were a burden to her. When she found out she was pregnant with me, she wished for a blonde, flat-chested daughter.  The goy she would never be.


If you type "Queen's Bra Shop London" into Google, the first hit will be Rigby & Peller, the lingerie retailer that has been fitting the royal breasts with undergarments since 1960. It's said that an employee can determine your bra size just by looking at you, in about thirty seconds, without using a tape measure. I learned about this from my friend Francesca, who wears a GG cup, stands five feet tall, and won't buy her bras anywhere else. As I’m tall and flat chested and she's short and busty, we make a funny pair when we go clothes shopping. Once, at Ann Taylor, I tried on a navy blue sheath with white polka dots. The dress made me look like an Emery board, Frankie said.  It flattered none of my best points. On her, though, the dress took on shape; the Emery board became an hourglass. She bought the dress. I had never met anyone with such large breasts who wasn't burdened by them. But Frankie looked down at hers with a fond, appreciative expression, even after they popped a button on her shirt.

She visited me in Florence when I taught there one summer and we each bought a Pashmina scarf at a street market. In the sunny early May evening, we sat in my apartment with the windows thrown open and drank wine and ate olives, tomatoes, bread and cheese. After a glass of wine or two, we took off our shirts and wrapped the Pashminas around our bare torsos. I didn't know why we did this but I liked the feeling in the room. We'd been freed from our bras with their confining wire and modesty.  There was something comic Frankie and both saw about the ridiculous excess of her breasts and the ridiculous absence of mine. She wore a bra that looked like some sort of naval torpedo contraption; mine resembled nothing so much as a lace handkerchief.

Frankie and I walked to the Brancacci Chapel at the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine to see the famous fresco depicting the agonized Adam and Eve upon their expulsion from Eden. From the restored fresco the fig leaves the Medicis insisted upon having painted to cover Adam's penis have been removed, leaving clearly visible his member for any man who wishes to compare sizes.  But I’m most taken with the image of Eve's left hand, thrown across her chest in a gesture of great suffering.  The First Woman’s arm and hand are sufficient to cover her breasts completely, as is mine.

Wendy Rawlings is the author of two books, The Agnostics, a novel, and Come Back Irish, a collection of short stories.  Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in AGNI, The Cincinnati Review, The Southern Review, Crab Orchard Review, and other magazines. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Alabama and generally prefers cheese to desserts, but has a soft spot for black licorice, especially licorice allsorts.