Breasts by
(353 Stories)

Prompted By Gender Roles

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Every female mammal has some form of them. They are functional. Yet for centuries, (mostly) men have dictated style and ferver about female breasts, both how much was decent to expose in fashion and how large was fashionable at any given moment. From the annals of art history and “Rubenesque” women in the 1600s to the Flappers of the 1920s, to the Vargas pin-up girls in Playboy, styles shift dramatically with time. Yet somehow, many girls, myself included, defined ourselves by our proportions. As the Julia Roberts character said in the movie Notting Hill, “They’re just breasts!”

My mother came of age in the 1920s, grew quite large and bound her breasts to achieve the flat look that was fashionable in that era. She broke down her muscles and had to wear custom-made bras for the rest of her life. She was self-consious about the size of her breasts, though men loved them. I developed late and she always told me I was flat-chested. She said that with envy, but I believed her and was ashamed.

Everyone in my 6th grade class seemed to need to wear a bra except me. Finally, late in the school year, I pestered my mother enough and she bought me one, announcing loudly to the sales clerk that I didn’t need one, as I only had two “mosquito bites”. I remember what I wore that first day: a light blue skirt and white blouse, through which one could see the outline of the bra. I had choir practice at temple that night. On break, one of the social queen bees came up to me, put her arm around me and asked if I was, indeed, wearing a bra. I exulted that she had noticed. “Well congratulations!”, she offered. It did not cheer me up. She was mocking me.

The years passed. I grew in self-confidence and chest size, got away from Mother and home. I took off my bra at my all-night party on high school graduation night and only put it on again when absolutely necessary: for a role in a play, for a special dress, four years later when I married and went to work. Twice in my life I’ve been on birth control pills, which caused me to gain weight and go up one whole cup size. I didn’t like being on the pill and got off it as quickly as I could and go back to my normal proportions.

I took great delight in nursing both my children. When researching it, I found great benefits for the baby, so kept it up for a year and had healthy babies. My father had never seen anyone nurse an infant, as that was not in vogue with his generation. He was in awe. He thought I was the Madonna.

But our fascination with breasts has taken on all sorts of twists for gender, be it female or male. My younger child has several diagnoses, including Asperger’s syndrome and mood disorder. His doctors tried many sorts of medications at various points in his life, including Risperidal while he was undergoing puberty. One of the side-effects was gynecomastia; swelling of his breast tissue. His doctor told us to wait to see if it would recede, but it did not. He left for college, and wouldn’t wear a towel to the bathroom, opting for a bathrobe instead and was teased about it. He had surgery to remove the extra breast tissue over Christmas break during freshman year. It was the equivalent of a double mastectomy.

This was further complicated when he wrote a blog called “Vi.improved” and told us he had gender dysphoria; in other words, unbeknownst to us, he had struggled for years with his gender identity. Some time after sharing the blog with us (which told us she wasn’t happy with the breast removal, which was also news to us), she came out as a woman, first called Vi, now Vicki. She taught us many things about gender. It is not binary; purely a he/she sort of thing, but a spectrum and she falls somewhere along that range, but more female than male. And sexual feelings and gender are not the same. Who you are attracted to has nothing to do with being male or female. We are still learning, supporting, loving. She is on testosterone-suppressing hormones and estrogen hormones and now has, again, grown breasts, which makes her feel womanly. She has come full-circle, but having breasts is certainly part of her ability to feel feminine.

There is an epidemic of breast cancer around the world. Too many of my friends and family have been touched by this hideous disease. Many have opted for double mastectomies and reconstructive surgery. But not all. Do they feel less feminine? I think not. They are thankful to be alive, once they get over the terrible treatment options and whatever disfigurement may result. We move past the definition of “breast as beauty” and appreciate life more fully. Perhaps we have gained wisdom and are no longer defined by the male-oriented definition of that dewey ideal. It depends on your point of view. Being alive has its own rewards.


Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: body image, breast size, style changes, cancer
Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    I almost feel as if a male should not comment on this story (or this topic), but I found it to be amazingly open and honest — and undoubtedly difficult to write and share. Brava!

  2. Suzy says:

    Betsy, you deal with so many different traumas in this story, it’s breathtaking! Your mother’s bound breasts, her mosquito bite comment, liberation from bras in the ’70s, issues with Jeffrey/Vicki. . . . I’m sure every woman has a story to tell about breasts. Thank you for telling yours.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Suzy, this topic resonated for me. As you saw in the comments to it on Facebook, it stirred a lot of memories for my peers as well. I hope it will cause others to think about, and perhaps come to terms with, their traumas as well.

  3. John Zussman says:

    Your story capture both our cultural fixation, even obsession, with this universal, functional body part; but also its importance in the personal experience of femininity. Its susceptibility to cancer, as you observe, only increases its importance. I regard breast cancer surgery scars as badges of courage. Being alive indeed has its own rewards.

  4. Kit says:

    I think everyone has already said what I was thinking about your very moving, very personal story. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I learned a great deal from this post, Betsy. You brought us in through your personal, coming-of-age struggles and introduced us first-hand to the much-needed breakdown of binary gender identity. We’ve got a lot to learn there.

    And yes… Breast cancer. I can’t help but notice how much cancer attacks the reproductive organs of women’s bodies but then, that’s what pesticides attack as well. Thanks for sharing such personal and intimate experiences.

    And to add a line from Peter Falk as the crazy CIA dad. “Yes, Shel [to Alan Arkin, a terrified dentist] , staying alive. THAT’s the key to the benefits program.

  6. Betsy, I just caught up with this on Past Stories.

    I’m almost teary-eyed as you speak about “learning, supporting and loving” Vicki as she’s been going through her transition,.
    Bless you all!

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