Tig Ole Bitties: Reflections On Race, Sex And Life Navigation
“It’s so funny, Fiqah. I always feel fine about my boobs as long as you’re not standing next to me.”
It was the second night of a four-day annual camping trip. Our group, many of us friends for over a decade, stood and sat around a vigorously-burning campfire, getting progressively drunker and watching as the campfire hissed and spat brilliant orange embers into the night sky. The statement was made by an old friend – a C-cup – who was sitting next to where I stood at the fire as she looked up at me. Or, more accurately, as she assessed the undersides of my breasts, tightly bound within the confines of a minimizer bra and hidden from view by a round neck, opaque t-shirt. In the dark, I could feel my ears burning as the group burst into laughter and assenting commentary: “I know, right?” “Hmmm, must be nice…”
I smiled weakly, shaking my head. Terrific, thought I. Rendered mute once more on the auction block of the kyriarchy.
The quiet calm I’d felt a moment before had been replaced by a familiar weariness . In the past, this type of talk would have inspired me to do some self-deprecating conversational tap-dance to appease the insecurities of the women around me. I stopped doing that years ago, because no one should try and build their self-esteem by crushing yours. My pals are a good-looking bunch, so I kept waiting for someone to bring up something “enviable” (sigh) about someone else: the gorgeous skin of this friend, the graceful athleticism of that one, her beautiful cheekbones or gorgeous hair color. Anything to deflect this sudden and unwelcome “follow-spot.” SIGH. Didn’t happen. Once again, the conversation had turned – openly, predictably and without my permission - towards my breasts. I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. Breasts are sexualized in our culture, large breasts are hyper-sexualized, and a Black woman’s large partially-nude breasts can apparently bring the planet to a temporary standstill. My friends are a ribald, randy group, and the whole weekend had been peppered with stolen glances at my chest by every single person on the trip. Male, female, straight, queer – no one was exempt. Even the “new” people, who I’d known for less than a year and as a result shouldn’t have been that comfortable, were titty-struck. To be fair, I don’t think it was completely conscious most of the time. As I mentioned, alcohol and (*ahem*) other psychoactive substances are notorious inhibition-looseners. Ninety-nine percent of “communing with nature” is allowing your ego and superego to take a backseat to your id; it can be tricky to know when to turn it off. That said, I spent several moments of my camping trip quietly enduring passive-aggressive barbs wrapped in jokes and compliments, and answering dumb-assed fucking questions.
“No, I’m not sticking them out, I just have good posture. You know, back straight, shoulders back.”
”No, at this point, my doctor says that I probably wouldn’t need a reduction.”
“Yes, of course I’ll breast-feed if I decide to have children.”
“Actually, next to my sparkling intellect and winning personality, my legs are my most attractive feature.”
“No, no special bra, they’re just round. Really, I’m not sticking them out at all…”
Having been the owner of a substantial bosom for over half my life, I have learned to avoid letting people notice that I notice them noticing my breasts. (I belong to the less than 1 percent of the American cisgender adult female population with breasts bigger than a D-cup. There’s no way around noticing them, but there are very few polite ways to acknowledge them.) It has less to do with any natural inclination I’d have towards modesty, and more to do with my need to lead an uncomplicated life, and a very real concern for my safety. Genetically, I’m predisposed to a good degree of natural curvaceousness. The women in my family are big just about everywhere. My maternal aunts and grandmother were all tall (the shortest was 5’8″), curvy, long-legged, and broad-hipped. My grandma’s curvaceous figure was crowned by her round, generous breasts – which, to my mother’s alarm, I’d inherited. During puberty, my breasts developed quickly and ambitiously. At fourteen, I went from a training bra to a C-cup over the course of a three-day weekend. (I shit you not. Rumors of my “stuffing” were rampant for that whole week, until I got changed for gym in front of the girls in my class to shut them up.) From age 14 to 16, my mother’s principle occupation in life was to make sure that my impudent breasts and hips were rigidly encased in punishing, jiggle-halting old lady underwear. The bras and panties my mother bought me were ghastly: ugly, utilitarian and stiff as starch. Worse, my bras never had less than two hooks, and if they matched my panties it was serendipity. I wouldn’t know the very female joy of admiring oneself in pretty underthings until I started bra shopping for myself at sixteen. (This of course led to other experiences, like being leered at by grown-assed men in the lingerie department, but that’s another post.)
My mother’s rigorous and unrelenting “flattening” of my body had begun years before, with weekly hair pressing, vocalized disapproval of any weight gain that increased my waistline, and regular chiding for me to “pull in” my (now fashionable) full lips. Once only problematic in parts, my whole entire body was now a source of danger, because in spite of the flattening, it attracted cross-spectrum masculine attention. My clothing and outward appearance became an exercise in avoiding the sometimes-admiring, oftimes-predatory male gaze. I’d emerged from an extended pre-pubescent awkward stage pretty, only to discover I wasn’t allowed to be “pretty” anymore. “Pretty” had become irrevocably tied to “sexy” by my changing body, and “sexy” could lead to sex or rape. And sex or rape could lead to pregnancy, disease or other life-altering happenings from which I might never recover. In retrospect, I realize that my wincingly old-fashioned mother was being protective. She knew better than I possibly could have that in this world a Black woman’s options are to be desirable OR dignified - never both. She had decided for me that “pretty” was something I was going to have to be after I got my education. “Beauty fades,” she’d say, lovingly stroking my hair before coaxing a sizzling hot comb through a rebelliously curly section. “A degree is forever. Wait and see. There’ll be plenty of time for all that later.” I miserably concurred.
The traumatic disconnect I felt from the body I lived in was often underscored by others. I spent a lot of my adolescence worrying: that you could really see them in this top; that Mr. ____ spent so much time hovering over me in computer class because he was looking down my shirt (he was – bastard); that some boy that my less-endowed friend was crushing on was only talking to her to get to me – or, more accurately, to get to them. (It happened.) The pressure to conform to a thin-yet-busty body type, which I felt more acutely with regard to size and weight than anything, often left me feeling isolated from my friends, who were learning that anything under a C-cup was just downright inadequate. Breast size woes abounded in my circle, and as the only girl to wear bigger than a B-cup, I would fall silent when someone confessed to wanting bigger ones. There was no one who’d be able to relate. Any complaints I might have had about my larger breasts would have been met with scoffs, eye rolls and (worse worse worse) envy-driven cattiness. Consciously, my friends were aware that my large breasts were neither the result of any effort I’d made nor my “fault”; however, the unearned privilege I had because of them generated understandable resentment. Analysis of systems of oppression isn’t something teenagers are typically good at. So, I clammed up. The flattening that marked so much of my raced and gendered socialization into the wider world dove-tailed with the silencing of my lived experience. I was learning not to talk about my breasts - and re-learning not to talk about my pain - at all.
By the time I graduated from high school, my breasts had grown to a D-cup. The distance I’d felt from my form had been replaced by a kind of defiance. My writer’s need to Speak My Truth, combined with a strong feminist perspective and growing confidence, had helped to heal some of the unintentional damage caused by my mother’s shame-bound parenting. Having become more adept at navigating the minefields of sexual desirability, femininity and power, by senior year I’d traded in my too-big shirts and floppy jerseys for nice, fitted tops or low-necked blouses. One day, a particularly blunt White friend – a willowy dancer and an A-cup – told me to be careful that I didn’t wear low-necked blouses too often because “people might think you’re kinda slutty.” She also happened to be wearing about a pound of make-up, a spaghetti-strapped tank and a short skirt at the time. I had more fabric on just my top than she had on her whole body, but I was in danger of being perceived as vulgar and easy. The sad part is she was right. The pathology of sexual Puritanism (which allows the male gaze to be simultaneously lustful and contemptuous) dictates that a woman who inspires lust in a man, whether this is her aim or not, is a slut.What my similarly-proportioned White classmates could wear in South Florida’s steamy weather without censure was off-limits to me – at least if I wanted to be perceived as “respectable”. I’d figured out that my breast size was only part of what would make anyone perceive me, a young woman whose very first boyfriend was months away at the time, as “easy.” The irony and unfairness of it all made my head hurt. I knew that a big part of why my virtue was perceived as non-existent, not just because I was becoming a buxom woman, but because I was becoming a buxom Black woman.
African American women have been objectified, not just as “other,” but as objects to be tamed and possessed. As women, they were expected to be servile and obedient. As African American women, they were expected to be servile, lusty and obedient. As powerless African American women, they were to be servile, lusty, obedient and available.
I was learning something that in time I would come to know too well: that racism, sizeism, misogyny and sexism regularly collide along the curves of my body, and that my complex, three-dimensional humanity rarely survives the crash. A sexy thing, after all, is still just a thing, and a sexy Black thing is an objectified nullity.
And then there was the matter of sex. Sporadic make-out sessions with the occasional college crush taught me that most of the men I fooled around with were fixated on my breasts. Fixated. Like, to the point of comical distraction. Since my first boyfriend (a self-proclaimed “Leg Man” ) had never devoted any excessive focus to them, I was totally unprepared the first time a man I was with went immediately for my breasts. Seriously, no segue, just a few seconds of impassioned kissing, and then his cold hands up my shirt and under my bra. After three separate instances of this kind of situation, the shock wore off, and gave way to irritation at male predictability. Once a man had managed to work me out of my bra, I was in for a show. I’d watch with weary amusement as a man’s expression went from human to lower-functioning simian: the glazed over eyes, the gaping mouth, the monosyllables and the drooling. Yes. Actual drooling. When they could manage to string a sentence together, it was usually some fawning compliment about how bee-YOO-tee-full my breasts were. (To which I’d reply, “No, they’re just really, really big.” And this was how I discovered that given the choice between beautiful but small breasts and less-than-spectacular but very large ones, men overwhelmingly go for size.) I learned early on that my sexual satisfaction often depended upon getting guys to remember that I was attached to my tits. Men who were otherwise technically good at lovemaking would lose their focus entirely when (literally) faced with my breasts; I’d often have to gently redirect them to other places I liked to be touched and repeat myself – loudly. It was embarrassing. But it was also kind of thrilling. My large breasts had the power to render intelligent men to babbling piles of testosterone-y mush. My encounters, casual and intimate, with men had taught me that strategic cleavage deployment could get me things I needed and wanted. A paid weekend off from one of my work study jobs. Free rides to Ithaca and Rochester. From one lovestruck suitor, money for groceries and smokes. And of course, free drinks. I stayed away from my small town college’s bar scene, but when I did go out, if I wore a low-cut top and balconnette bra, I could pretty much leave my wallet at home.
College also offered a welcome change from the competitive anxiety of my mostly White teenaged peer group. My newest circle of friends, confident and progressive, sex-positive queer/queer-friendly PoCs , celebrated my body without a trace of euw. If the topic of discussion turned to my breasts, it was because Iwas doing the steering. Any partial appearance boobs made at social gatherings was cheered by all. Tummies and cellulite be damned, flashing, skinny-dipping and any other types of public nudity were always group-approved. My big strong body, equal parts fat and muscle and once the site of so much internalized shame, was (to quote a former lover, another leg man) “soft and firm and wonderful.” Not if I just slimmed down a bit, worked out more often, ate less, blah blah BLAH. Just as it was. Owning my sex – both my sexuality and my sensuality – was a crucial component of my understanding of my womanhood. Latoya Peterson, the editor of Racialicious and one of my favorite blog writers, captured my feelings perfectly in this piece:
Over time, I learned different strategies to cope with the attention I received. A large part of coping was reclaiming my body and learning to embrace my curves as a part of my own sexuality. In order to do that, I had to learn to separate the ideas projected on to me by others and understand how I felt about my own body.
Fast forward to now. My day-to-day navigation of my life is, like anyone’s, complicated. And my breast size sometimes makes my life harder. Occasionally, my breasts have indirectly led to public confrontations with other women. Once while temping in midtown Manhattan, a middle-aged, average-proportioned White woman cut me in line at a Starbucks. As I was placing my order, she positioned herself in front of me and proceeded to talk over me as though I weren’t there. The barista, a young Black man, was visibly taken aback by her rudeness. After politely explaining to her that I was there first, he continued taking my order. The woman, outraged, finally turned to take a look at me, and did a double-take as she stared pointedly at my chest. “Oh, well, of course,” she sneered. Translation:”You are No One, but your big boobs have given you the upper hand in this situation, because he is a man, and breast size always trumps right.” Never mind the fact that this bitch’s privilege cloud was so thick that she quite literally couldn’t see me through it until the barista pointed me out. My breasts, cantaloupe-sized globes of injustice, had just ruined her morning. Because she felt slighted and inadequate, she responded by attempting to make me feel vulgar and ashamed. When my iced coffee arrived, it took every ounce of restraint in my body to keep me from dumping it all out on her rotten entitled head. I have a million stories just like that, all tucked away in the vast catalogued library of hurt I call my soul. Yep. Complicated.
Here’s the bottom line. Whether I want them to or not, my breasts make me stand out. They attract attention. They attract mockery. They attract desire. They attract hostility. Sometimes I feel resigned to them. Sometimes I celebrate them. Most days I don’t really think about them. But however I feel about them, they are mine. They are not separate entities. They do not exist solely for your pleasure. They are not wholly sexual. They are not wholly maternal. They are not kitsch. They are not obscene. They are not my enemy, or yours. They are part of my body. My body is where I live. My body is my home.
And there is no room for shame here.
(Salma Hayek pictures courtesy of Foto International. She’s smart, business-savvy, a WoC, gorgeous, and the proud owner of naturally large breastseses. And I know that I will get no complaints for including those pics. )Explore posts in the same categories: Racism, non-malicious, SAH Stuff, Sex, that's that BULLLLSHIT! comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.