The first time I remember noticing my breasts, I was 7 years old. I know I was 7, because my mom mentioned it when she said, out of the blue one hot summer day, "Now that you’re 7 years old, you can’t play outside without your shirt on anymore. You’re not a boy, you’re a girl. Girls have to wear shirts."
"Because girls aren’t supposed to show their chests."
"Because that’s the way it is. Now go put on your top if you want to go outside."
I was angry, and mystified. Angry, because here was yet another advantage boys had over girls. Like being able to pee into a bottle. And wearing baseball shoes. Mystified because, uh" don’t boys have chests, too? Why don’t they have to cover them up? Reluctantly, I slipped my hot, sweaty little body into a T-shirt, and ran outside, the screen door banging in a most satisfactory manner as I ran to the kickball field to join the boys.
Five years later, it was I who noticed my breasts; or lack thereof. Seventh grade gym class. I ask you" is there a more humiliating experience in a girl’s life than 7th grade gym class? The heavy, stiff cotton of those ugly cobalt blue gym suits. Having to take square dancing with the boys. Having to actually TOUCH a boy as we all grudgingly do-si-do’d around the center circle of the basketball court. YUCK.
But even worse than the class itself was the showering afterwards. Like, we’d sweated so much we needed a shower? Come on. We’d spent most of the class hiding under the bleachers or making trips to the bathroom, claiming that female prerogative WAY before it was actually true: "It’s that time of the month, I have to go." But when class was over, it didn’t matter if all we’d done was stand in line with 30 other girls and taken one shot at the basketball hoop, we had to shower. Which meant taking off the gym suit IN FRONT OF EVERYONE, holding a towel up to our chests, and running into the gang shower, trying to wet enough of our bodies to make it look like we’d taken a shower-all without actually dropping the towel. The gym teacher stood in the doorway, not allowing us back to the lockers to change unless we could show her wet shoulders, dripping feet, and rivulets running down our thighs. It was a challenge, but we usually managed to shower without getting too wet.
Back at the lockers, it was time for the moment of truth: who was wearing a bra? Who was still in an undershirt? Many of my pre-teen classmates actually were sprouting breasts: their chests were going from washboard-flat to roundly mounded. They proudly wore training bras. But me, I was definitely undershirt-worthy. Nothing there. That featureless 7-year-old chest, the one that could have happily remained exposed while playing kickball, was exactly the same; just taller, like the rest of me. I cringed inside as I saw the girls around me happily don their bras, fastening the clasps in front before whipping them around and shrugging the straps over their shoulders like old pros. Meanwhile, I held the damp towel to my chest with one hand, furtively reached behind me for my cotton undershirt, and tried to pick a moment when it looked like attention was focused elsewhere to pull the shirt over my head and then my blouse over the shirt, before anyone noticed. I wanted to avoid, at all costs, the popular girls catching one another’s eyes across the room and sliding their glances towards me and the rest of us not cool enough to wear a bra, curling their lips into knowing smirks. Baby. Loser. Nerd.
Now, 40 years later, I proudly show my chest to anyone who needs to see it: oncologist, surgeon, nurse. I even show my breasts to perfect strangers. As part of my volunteer duties at our local cancer center, I often meet with women who’ve just been through a mastectomy and reconstruction, or who might be considering it. And if they want to see what a reconstructed breast looks like, I show them. Happily. Amazing what the passage of four decades and a major dose of breast cancer can do for your perspective, isn’t it?
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.