I cried in just about every dressing room I stepped foot in from the ages of 14 to 20. I would try on a pair of jeans and cry my eyes out with my mother sitting there, waiting for me to finish and pull myself together again. It was the shirts, though, that really got me down. I would see advertisements, Instagram posts, and even my own friends sporting cute and tiny tops that looked absolutely whimsical on them. They looked lightweight and carefree, unencumbered by any limitations their body may have.
I, on the other hand, would never be able to wear a breezy and small peasant top because I had the biggest breasts on planet Earth.
Ironically, I do have a peasant body — an Eastern European peasant body. I have broad shoulders, arms that are perfect for pulling things out of wells, and poor joints that are definitely the result of Ashkenazi intermarrying somewhere along the way. This can also be known as a “1950s body” What I mean by this exactly is that I have hips, slightly softer edges, and a body type often referred to as “buxom.”
This body type is excellent for working as a secretary in Midtown Manhattan during a period in which people drank scotch hourly and smoked cigarettes in a corner office. But I was born in 1997, and by then the desired body type was more akin to a toothpick with very full lips.
While I spent most of junior high waiting for my chance to finally trade a training bra for a real one, by the time I hit ninth grade, I immediately began looking like one of my own Ashkenazi matriarchs. My mom was always small but my dad’s side tended towards curvier women, so I ended up with a heaving chest, wide hips, and a stomach that poked out no matter how I tried to hide it, along with skinny legs and the most elegant hands, wrist, and sprain-prone ankles you’ve ever seen. My mom did not know what to do with my body. No commercial clothing store knew what to do with my body. I didn’t know what to do with my body, either, but everything I tried had me ending up in a fit of tears, frustration, and anger that my body didn’t seem to belong anywhere but the Older Business Woman On The Go section at any store.
The women at the Town Shop, though, knew exactly what to do.
The Town Shop is the busty woman’s Shangri-La located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My mom finally took me there my sophomore year of high school after I succumbed to the fact that there was no true chance I could fit into anything Victoria’s Secret had to offer. When you walk in you are greeted by a warm, maternal woman who is either Jewish or Hispanic and you feel like you’ve known her your entire life. Congratulations, the store seems to say: You are now the sweet and innocent child of den mothers who will take care of you like you’ve never been taken care of before.
Once inside, I was quickly whisked away into the loving embrace of a spunky, petite woman named Alba. She was firm yet warm and loving and reminded me of a teacher, which is why I loved her. Alba took me into the changing room while my mom waited outside and instructed me to take off everything “on the top.” I realized that taking off everything on the top meant standing in front of a full-length mirror in my jeans with boobs akimbo. When I hesitated, she reassured me that she had seen it all before. There is a great comfort in hearing someone say they have seen it all before.
After Alba looked me over for what felt like a tenth of a second, she left to get me a sampler of bras to try on. I stood in the dressing room, arms awkwardly covering my chest while staring at myself in the mirror. My stomach spilled out over the top of my jeans and I tried not to cry at the sight. An unidentifiable pop song quietly played over the store’s loudspeakers, filtering its way into my dressing room. It seems to be an unfortunately common part of the female experience to cry in a dressing room to Top 40 hits, wishing you were different.
Alba soon came back, presenting me with an array of lingerie that I never thought I could wear — colors? Lacy bits? My previous bras had all just been beige or black, simple and dull with cups sturdy enough to house a family of five. I tried each bra on and, after Alba did some laps running back and forth to get new styles, I was diagnosed with my new, correct cup size.
“So,” Alba said as if she was trying to coax a skittish horse. “You’re a G.”
Naturally, I was shocked. Alba, bless her, was unfazed and even looked a little amused. A 36G? Are you out of your mind, universe? I didn’t know that a G cup size even existed, really. Or that it could belong to my awkward, uncomfortable body. What was a 15-year-old girl who wore a baggy sweatshirt every day and hated attention to do with a chest that screamed “Look at me! Over here! Do you see this?? This shirt is my boob prison. Help me get my heaving, voluptuous barmaid breasts out, sir!” The truth of my body was overwhelming.
But there is something about putting on a properly fitted bra that feels very powerful. I immediately stood a little taller, my profile became more proportioned, and I felt like a hot-blooded woman. For the first time, I felt desirable. Alba, the all-knowing oracle, and the Town Shop worked its magic again, this time sprinkling some confidence dust on an anxious high schooler.
Even if it was only for that hour in that refuge of a store, I felt pride instead of shame in my appearance. I continued to struggle with body image issues for years, and still continue to. That’s just my lot in life at the moment. As much as I wish, bad body feelings don’t just go away with the snap of a purple patterned bra — it takes time, patience, and actually wanting to do that insane thing where you accept yourself for who you are, flaws and marks and lines and the inability to remember important dates and all.
However, exterior reinforcements from time to time can help as well. A little over a year ago, I got a breast reduction, which has changed my life for the ~extremely~ better. I walk a little taller, I no longer have the torso of a medieval mother of five, and now I can wear blousy peasant tops and whimsical outfits! (Although, I’ve found they still don’t look quite right on me. Damn it.)
At the end of the day, our bodies are just flesh prisons that love sex, crime, and aioli. But sometimes, even if it is just for an hour, a sparkly pink bra can help.
Photo credit: Utro_na_more/Getty Images