Friday, January 2, 2015

Examining the breasty badge of goodness

With the new 'do I can shower and be ready for the day in less than half an hour, but I was up by 8 a.m. We'll call it force of habit that I must still give myself an hour. I stood in the dark under the hot stream of the shower and lathered alone. There is decidedly more of me to wash since my wedding, although my husband insists that shape trumps volume. My terrible eating habits and lack of physical activity now overflow my "fat" jeans and my largest bra cups. The latter is not a bad thing; my post-breastfeeding chest, which might be described as long and slender, has haunted me for the past eight years, and the added fullness from plumped cells smooths out stretch marks and gives shape where previously I had relied on roll-and-tuck methods in push-up bras to maintain the semblance of glamour mag boobs. The muffin top I'm sporting over my size 10 jeans, however, is not a favorite feature of my forty-year-old self. I've resorted to frequently wearing sweats, and accentuating the upper half of my body with plunging necklines on blouse tops. I'm not so terribly overweight that most women my age don't still admire my figure. Average size for a middle aged woman is 12; I'm just under that and what my husband refers to as "hourglass." But the body I inhabit feels like a fluffy foreigner, and I'm only slightly less comfortable in my skin than I was in my late teens. It's hard to feel that one's body is good.

Teenaged girls don't think of the breakdown of the perfectly smooth self, the decay of their peachy flesh. I'm looking into the funnel of the latter half of life, realizing that at 17, when I hated my body and my flushed, healthy skin, women of the age I am now were writhing with jealousy in their less than well-textured dermis. I lacked age to know what I had while I had it. The insight I've gained tells me I shouldn't complain about what I have now. There are the infant aches and creaking joints, my hair's tawny flecks have faded to gray and lightning streaks of white (I remember my father's full shock of white hair at 49, just before his death, and I know where I'm headed), but after a full range of medical tests for various reasons in the past month the results pour in, laughing at my assumption that God had hinted via a patriarchal blessing that my life would be a short. Oh, it may be still. But so far cancer won't likely be the culprit.

The last of these tests—this morning's mammogram—is my first.

I made the appointment three weeks ago, feeling then as though 2015 were still a long way off and that the experience of arriving at forty, standing topless with my breasts in an imagining contraption belonged to a matriarchy to which I felt stranger. This morning's dawn brought me, a willing initiate, to the rite of mammary priestesshood. I'd been instructed not to lotion or powder my breasts, not to apply deodorant. Of course, I forgot both. The first came to mind at home, and I spent an extra five minutes after my shower lathering again with apple-scented handwash and rinsing over the sink before I toweled off again and dressed. I didn't remember about the deodorant before I was at the hospital with kimono in hand. I'd already phoned in a few #myfirstmammy statuses to Facebook. The technician, Kay, smiled at my admission and handed me two washcloths. I was directed to a bathroom to scrub out my pits, and given directions to meet Kay in the imagining studio down the hall and around the corner to the right once I had cleansed myself of the Secret. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror after washing, the kimono hanging loose and open, my armpits a little raw and red, and examined my forty-year-old knockers. 

I remember taking M— to my breast for the first time after her birth and feeling these extensions of myself finally had a wanted purpose. In seventh grade, I'd donned an oversized jean jacket (kind of like the one E— bought second-hand from a vintage shop on Center Street) and wore it, shoulders slumped forward, for an entire year as a shield from the eyes of 13-year-old boys once I realized that my boobs were a "thing." As a student of dance, that thing was more often than not an annoyance; I was well aware that Balanchine made anathema the busty ballet dancer. The higher my body fat, the closer I came to spilling out of my B cup. The lower, I could sometimes skip the bra entirely. By the time I'd reached 20, my eating patterns and dogged bicycling earned me an A. At my lowest BMI I weighed 115 lbs, wore a size 3, and didn't own a single underwire. I met M—'s father during a period of time that my head was shaved, my nose and my earlobes adorned with piercings, and spaghetti strapped sheath dresses were my staple article of clothing. Without makeup, he told me I could easily pass for a boy. Among his brothers, he referred to me as "porn-star." (Yes, these boys objectified as a matter of compliment.) Only I've seen enough porn to wonder what they were looking at. I'd had little shape, so that, yes, by the time I gave birth to his daughter a year and a half later, I had indeed changed a great deal. (My changing being my first husband's main complaint in the dissolve of our marriage.) 

I adored nursing my babies, airing out the breasts every three hours, the let down reflex. E— stayed attached to my breast for almost two years; "nurch" being one of his first words. He very well may have continued into toddlerhood had I not begun taking an antidepressant when he was 20 months old. Weaning B— at 13 months in order to begin Lithium therapy broke my heart. I accepted then that he was my last. He may still be. In the years since I covered my breast for the last time and put my baby boy on the floor to play I've payed little attention to my chest. My boobs exist as a memorial to those years I fed my four infants. They hardly fit into the category of "porn-star" any longer. In fact, one of my favorite memories of breastfeeding is tied to the birth of L—, my third. M— was just four. I've never been much for modesty while nursing at home, and breastfed in front of my older children without covering. A cousin of diminutive chest came often to help during the first months after L— was born at the start of my single motherhood. One day, as I nursed bare-chested, M— leaned over my shoulder an asked, "Mom, when will Kim have long breasts like yours?"

My breasts are not what they were at 20. They are long, veined and lined by stretch marks, full like footballs when I hover over my husband during sex. But at forty, these pendulous, fatty breasts with their well worn nipples bring me greater pleasure than any other point in my life. They are my matron's badge of honor. 

Kay moved assuredly, gently taking my flesh in her hands and distributing it in the needed areas on the imaging machine. I relaxed and gave in to the squeeze, which I might even describe as pleasantly arousing. She told me when to take an arm out of the kimono, when to put it back in. I told her about the job I'd had at 18 as a figure model for the university in the valley where I grew up. People then asked me if it weren't uncomfortable to stand naked in front of strangers. Frankly, I told Kay, once the robe was off, what was I going to do? Cover back up? I disdained my body then, even though the professor assured me that I was exactly what art instructors hoped for in models. There isn't an inch of my skin that hasn't been reproduced in oil, pastel, and graphite. There isn't an inch of me externally that hasn't been seen, evaluated, applied in medium as aesthetic to a canvas. In comparison to the silicone sex industry beauties I've seen, I'd never in my life dub myself "porn-star." But, I told my technician, for an 18-year-old in the 90s, getting paid $10 an hour to stand around in my skin was enough to make me think I was something to look at, even if I couldn't find the students' reference in my own mirror. Kay laughed. I wouldn't believe the women who won't relax their arms away from their ribcage, she told me. Then, she said, there are women who come in and drop the kimono top, completely comfortable standing exposed. When Kay, who is older than I am, began her job as mammographer in her 20s she said she had no idea what women looked like. Now, she said, she knows there is no end to the variation. And unlike the art students I posed for, Kay has seen beneath my skin. She told me that in the four poses she adjusted my breasts and limbs that she was able to get good images, and she smiled the way someone smiles when they've seen you at the core and they know you are good.

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