On pasties, bullet bras, and a tenderness for things beautiful and fleeting
Straight men love them. Gay men dig the spectacle; lots of them want to touch if not necessarily hug and kiss them. Gay women are also fond of them.
Straight women are probably the only ones who don't love tits, judging from the dangerously stupid things we do to them. Although the government's drug agency tells us not to, we pump salt water, plastic, and other gunk into them so they can look and feel like an inferior version of the real thing.
But there are a few sick women who genuinely like their own unaugmented, non-Barbie titties, and I'm proud to count myself in that group--the bold and beautiful gals who don't have 'Mattel' stamped across our hineys.
I've been into breasts of all shapes and sizes as long as I can remember. As my body grew into its inevitable voluptuous form, Marilyn Monroe and Julie Newmar were my idols. I also admired the way Betty Page, Deborah Harry, and the young Goldie Hawn used their pectoral gifts.
Concerning breasts, I've always felt very lucky: I have two nice ones of my own that I have adorned or left alone according to my will. I'm not opposed to using bras like cosmetics: the Flower Bali for a '50s ever-so-slight bullet-bra effect; the Warner Not So Innocent Nude for an almost-bare, natural '70s look; any Olga make for minimal daytime display; Perla and Christian Dior bras for date night. A nursing bra with the panels cut out re-creates the Rudi Gernreich look of the '60s. For maximum effect, ice your nipples for a half hour before you go out, like Jean Harlow used to do.
I like foam rubber because, like bleached-blond hair, it's so obviously fake that it takes on a new meaning. I have merry widows, bustiers, and push-up bras galore; I have been known to argue--after a few cocktails, pontificate on--the advantages of the Cadillac Bra from Frederick's of Hollywood over the Wonderbra. (the Cadillac is cheaper and infinitely more evocative, and its history is far cooler.)
Even when I'm perfectly sober, I have recommended bras to women I know only slightly, as brazenly as a New York department store lingerie saleswoman: 'Hon, you should try this bra, it'd give you a nice silhouette. I swear it takes two inches off my waist.' At all-gal clothes-swapping parties I have given out push-up bra stripping secrets: For maximum seduction value, strip to your bra and underwear, then lie on your back before stripping all the way, or simply thrust your man's nose into your cleavage. Either way he'll be less shocked to detect that you've shrunk a full cup size.
I like to put Maybelline Body Shimmer on my cleavage for glittering disco boobs. I've worn pasties. My favorite pair came from Lili St. Cyr's Undie World in Hollywood. They're about the most vulgar and amazing things a woman can add to her wardrobe--red-sequined with red string tassels at the ends. The beautiful older blond woman who sold them to me said I could use eyelash glue if I couldn't find spirit gum, the pasties paste of choice. I almost squealed with delight--a new tit accessory! Back home, I tried them out on my beau one afternoon, hiding them under a big sweater. When he saw them his eyes almost popped out of his head.
Tits are fun. I reject the hopelessly square idea that breasts only function as fetishized objects and that women who bother with theirs are playing into the sweaty hands of patriarchy. I don't care if people stare at my chest with lust in their hearts. I mean, I don't mind if they do, but I like my breasts for one reason: because they're mine. They're not perfect, but they go with the rest of my body. I keep them firm by schlepping manuscripts, laundry, and groceries. I enjoy the attention they've garnered.
Lately, though, I haven't been nearly so delighted by my breasts. I am starting to worry about them. I am afraid they are going to kill me.
The top women's fashion magazines made a valiant effort on behalf of the fight against breast cancer last October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We heard the slogan 'one in nine' quite a bit, and lump detection and postmastectomy reconstruction were discussed along with the usual fluff editorials on moisturizer and lipstick. Throughout these pages, however, were the same models with their silicone-enhanced death bumps propping up the latest haute couture.
Most of us have already dealt with the issue of breasts more intimately. I started to worry about mine one night when my mother, whom we'll call Della, phoned. Her mammogram showed the presence of cancer, and a biopsy confirmed it. I was upset, of course, but not surprised. My friend Regan had lost her mother to breast cancer. The mother of another friend, Marina, had had a mastectomy, and my friend Christine had one the same year.
After Della's mastectomy she convalesced in my apartment for a month, and I started thinking a lot about her breasts. They were the first ones I ever saw. As a young girl, I could look at them while she took her bath when we'd talk in the evening, our private time away from my brothers and father.
They were beautiful. I don't recall Della ever being much into showing hers off, even in the evening. It wasn't her style. She was married at 20, and as a young woman in the 1950s, you either highlighted that part of your anatomy and were considered a bimbo or you didn't and were assumed to be more than the sum of your parts. She used her breasts well, though. In 1965, the year I was born, breast-feeding was anathema to the nurses at Beth Israel, no doubt because it was disruptive to the feeding schedules. They discouraged her; but Della insisted, and I got the tit.
How impossible to imagine your mother losing a breast, the beautiful comfort vessel of childhood. I was scared to look. Helping Della in the tub, I saw her new breast: a scar, with just enough skin and tissue that she didn't look much different from any flat-chested woman. It was about the size my breasts were when we used to have our bathroom time. I felt shocked to realize just how physically superfluous breasts are.
Like most women, I have often felt empowered by my body, and also endangered by it. It was during the course of Della's chemotherapy treatments that I began to regard my breasts differently--to think of them as a separate and extremely vulnerable part of my body. I saw the horrid suffering they had caused my mother--the nausea, the pain, and the hair loss.
For months I only wanted to cover my breasts, keep them completely out of sight, especially around Della. I certainly didn't want to flaunt them in front of her, and I didn't want any attention paid to them. If a man's eyes strayed toward my chest I would scowl at him, suppressing the urge to tell him to quit eyeballing me. It took almost a year to get back into the Cadillac Bra and take it out for a test drive.
While I may be slipping back into my old ways, my next new tit accessory will probably be the unglamorous but much more important mammogram. I've finally come to realize that breasts are a huge pleasure and a huge responsibility, regardless of their size. I now look upon my breasts and feel what the Japanese call mono no aware--a tenderness for things beautiful and fleeting. I may be lucky enough to keep them, I may not. I'm not embarrassed to contemplate breasts, to admire them, to talk about them, laugh about them--or cry about them.
From New York Press (Sept. 13, 1995). Subscriptions: $25/yr. (52 issues) from the Puck Building, 295 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012.