We have all had days when adulthood seems like nothing but a nuisance. Treasures like nap time, lazy breakfasts and dreams of conquering the world begin to dissipate at an alarming rate before becoming distant memories. However, if there is one thing we don’t miss about adolescence and I confidently speak for everybody (except perhaps the Kardashians) is puberty. At that period of time, there is nothing more nightmarish than being ‘different’ and especially when for the longest time it’s only visible to you. How do I know? When I got my period in the fourth standard (my peers began their menstrual cycle three or four years later) I heard hushed giggles and not-so-nice whispers every time I took out a sanitary pad to go the bathroom. 12-year-old girls in a same-sex school weren’t particularly kind to the most biological of female processes at the time because between learning to be ‘lady-like’ and getting good grades nobody told us that your vagina voluntarily spewing blood every month wasn’t necessarily ‘dirty’ or ‘gross’. Frustrated with the unwanted attention, I hid pads in all the school bathrooms so I could use them discreetly. However, my real troubles would only begin with puberty strike two. Unlike my period that visited only once a month this time the change in my body was big, round, glaring and even jiggled when unsupervised. Yes, I am talking about my breasts. And so began a tumultuous (and in retrospect, even amusing) relationship.
Hyper-sexual modern India is not particularly amicable towards breasts. When a celebrity’s breasts decide to play peek-a-boo the media covers the incident with the intensity and analytical enthusiasm of a national emergency. Back home a perfectly harmless cleavage at a wedding can send nosey aunties into bouts of fear as they try to wade off the evil with dupattas as their messiahs. Though the first time my breasts came under scrutiny was when at age eight or so my childhood friend pointed them out while we were in the shower together – a post-swimming ritual. To avoid her stares I decided it was time we showered alone though that hardly encouraged my breasts from being low key. When I walked into school wearing a bra for the first time, though it was itchy and uncomfortable I felt slightly superior to the others who were still in their cotton white slips. That feeling didn’t last long when the whispers and giggles began again. The 13-year-old girls surrounding me had noticed how my uniform accentuated my breasts and as word got around awkward and often snarky questions followed:
“Why are they so big?”
“Don’t you feel weird?”
“Why do they hang like that?”
“My mom wears that, why do you?”
Incidentally, I would often ask my breasts the same questions. Having had no education on puberty (I would be formally introduced to it only in senior school) nor words like ‘body positivity’ and ‘diversity’ in my vocabulary, my breasts had no answers for me. So I remained silent while a storm of shame raged in my head. Some of the girls also thought it was particularly amusing to unhook my bra when we stood in line for assembly. Any complaints against this sort of behaviour usually ended with a crass yelling from the teacher-in-charge which did little to address or prevent the insensitive bullying my breasts were going through.
Even back home they didn’t find complete acceptance. My mother looked perpetually flustered with the rapidly increasing heaviness of my bosom. My bi-monthly bra bills were costing her a fortune and similar tragedies followed when we shopped for clothes. We spent hours moving from store to store in search of outfits that would subdue the presence of my bouncy companions. As much as it pained my mother to watch my face fall every time she had to refuse a garment that my breasts and I had grown an affinity to she justified it by saying, “I just don’t want you to get unwanted comments like I did at your age.” I still received them anyway.
“Don’t wear sleeveless tops, they make them look bigger.”
“Make your bra tighter, they will look smaller then.”
“Do these chest exercises, it will reduce the size.”
I even took my grandmother’s advice of wearing my bra through the night, when she reassured me that they wouldn’t grow bigger if I did that. So regardless of cutting blood circulation by keeping them “in-shape” all day they continued to grow at their own free-will. Moreover, it would be months, (after knowing the hazards of wearing a bra all the time ) before I would become comfortable with my own nakedness.
It wasn’t that I entirely hated them, there were many days that they made me feel incredibly sexy. However, the external disapproval surrounding them made such moments rare and short-lived. Usually, after getting ready for a social gathering I looked at myself in the mirror wishing my breasts would just disappear, at times I even had violent visions of chopping them off. By the time I was sixteen and the breast hierarchy in my peer group seemed to have reversed. Padded and push-up bras were the demand of the hour and I even sensed some envy towards my natural volume. Still years of shame over their size and appearance my breasts still had low self-confidence. “The perfect breasts are those that fit in a champagne glass” was the ridiculous statement that I had read in an even more ridiculous American romance novel, is what my breasts’ self-deprecating mantra was for the longest time.
Sexing It Up
Like it is with many people life (and our relationship) changed as I entered college. Familial disapproval was all too tiresome for the rebellious teenage soul to no longer care. I now spent my newly acquired monthly allowance in flea markets on clothes that actually gave my breasts some acknowledgement. The scarf I put around my neck when I left home quickly came off on campus, to reveal a cleavage that hadn’t seen sunshine for years. The estrogen toxicity that had previously surrounded me in school cleared away. All my new girlfriends had, had a co-ed education and they reassured me that big boobs were really not a damned disfiguration – moreover, that’s what ‘older boys’ liked. For the first time, it seemed that something worked in the favour of my breasts and with the increased masculine attention they began to grow in confidence rather than size! Though what may now seem to you, a happy and healthy co-existence with them soon became a narcissistic one. I adopted a uniform of broad linen trousers and short tank tops so my breasts could be the centre of attention-I had bet my complete romantic appeal on my breasts. Sometimes I even tried a self-developed reverse psychology theory, where I wore high-necked dresses on first dates to see if the boy I was out with would be interested to see me again without being motivated by a flash of my cleavage. My breasts became the depository of my aesthetic confidence but at the price of complete disregard for any appeal my personality might hold.
Finding True Love
So where do I stand now having swung from hating to hyper-sexualising my breasts?
Unfortunately I don’t have a dramatic moment where I shot the inhibitions surrounding my brea and hugged them to display my everlasting and unbiased love for them. What happened was, that as I grew older I surrounded myself with both people and literature who were far more intellectually enriching than obsessing over the dimensions of my boobs. Moreover these resources also exposed me to the hypocrisy of body-shaming which allowed me to gradually free myself of being its ready victim. Quite honestly I still draw a large part of my sexual esteem from the shape and size of my breasts but unlike the past I stopped being their self-appointed PR representative. If they want a day out I bring out my my favourite dress with a plunging neck-line (even dare to go braless with nipple seals!) and if they just wanted to be introverts on rainy days under a baggy sweater, my breasts are allowed that too.
So what’s the big deal with the saga of my breasts? Nothing really, except that it has made me lovingly embrace many (if not all) parts of my south asian aesthetics (like my dark skin and curly hair) that I would have otherwise resented or even tried to alter. Of course I would wish that young Indian girls wouldn’t be shamed for not being able to emulate Eurocentric standards of beauty. I wish they could be empowered to respect and celebrate bodily diversity. Just so they they not have to go through the traumatic experience of waking up and sleeping with a tangible part of themselves they really need not detest. It isn’t fair to them just like it wasn’t to me.
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