From Cuplets to Outlets: Breastfeeding & Body Image


My breasts enjoyed a low-profile life before their eventual employment in the food industry (specializing in the Kids Menu, of course). I like to think of this 23-year long period of inconspicuousness as a special favor to me from genetics that seem to favor physical minimalism.

I hadn’t expected this, though: What served that long as basic decoration had, in the birth of a moment, become the absolute rulers of my body and my days — and the body and days of another tiny human being too, for countless flips of the calendar’s months.

Even more so… I hadn’t expected how reforming my attitude about a single body part could void most of my earliest ideas about self-image, self-appreciation, power, and purpose.

When I Was a Kid…

At the start of puberty, I was a member of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee (proud to say I didn’t come up with that title). Some girls knew they’d catch up on their bosom blossoming one day and waited patiently for the signs. I, however, knew my own genes were set for a slow, steady, and limited amount of development in that regard. I was prepared for the reality of a humble surface area and knew worse traumas could befall me.

In the teen years and gone-girlhood era that holds promise of filling curves, I had to accept that my upper shelf would remain bare, probably forever.

After realizing that my bra size had settled into its fullest adultness (Fun-Sized is sold somewhere, right?), I stopped thinking about much them. My breasts were an anatomical afterthought and had little effect on my life. Unless I opened a magazine or went shopping…

You see, I disconnected myself from this zone of my body and granted it no personal attentions, except when it came time for what I thought was the perfunctory everyday task of dutifully surrounding it in some padded, structured, wired contraption.

A young male in my family once asked me (us both around age ten) if women wore bras to make their boobs look bigger. I got defensive and shot back, “No!” He asked, “Then… why?”

I had no idea what to say, no clue as to why breasts are so normally stuffed like presents inside these unnecessarily complicated apparatuses designed to hide them. I’m sure he and I both wondered, Are women to wear these as constant reminder that their breasts are gifts for someone else to open? Are women to think they cannot for themselves speak of what defines them when a bra or cosmetic surgery intends to do it louder?

These Breasts Belong To: _____

Like many young women, my main concern with my breasts involved how they measured up with what I’d seen around me. For nearly two and half decades, what I noticed were a variety of different shapes and sizes, with one type trending as ‘the ideal appeal,’ which seemed to hold a monopoly on the market value of breasts.

I was fully (or perhaps not-so-‘fully’) aware that my chest fell in with the apparently unmarketable category. Of course this made me feel self-conscious, just as the advertised imagery hoped to achieve by buying my self-assurance.

Despite the flat terrain, I received no complaints from the landscape’s, ah, curious tourists, shall we say. It sort of felt like a relief to know I was probably not attracting any of these romancers based solely on one (pair) of my body parts. Yet, at the time I felt their opinions were ones I could trust, the ones that mattered.

Even being called “a brick wall” felt more like an astute observation rather than what it was — an attempt at emotional control.

And being told “Niiice, small tits, that’s a turn on!” felt more like flattery deserving of my gratitude rather than what it was — crude manipulation.

It hadn’t even occurred to me that I was allowed an opinion about my own breasts. It seemed so normal that others would feel entitled to a say about them as if they were not attached to me, a whole human being, but available for public scrutiny and comparison in any measure of covered dress or exposure.

Whether an insult, seemingly neutral observation, or even a compliment in many cases, it hadn’t dawned on me that these statements of opinion on others’ body parts can act as a form of disempowerment and unreasonable dominion over what holds one’s real value — or real purpose.

Oh, These Are For Kids?

Before pregnancy, not once did I think about my breasts in regard to their actual function.

I suppose that’s normal. You don’t really stop to think about the fact that your brain ‘thinks.’ Or that in a progressed stage of life, you’ll develop enough creases at the corners of your eyes that might render you unrecognizable beside your younger self’s reflection. In regard to our bodies, most of us tend to react, sulk, rejoice, harp, and project about them as they are in the recent past, present, and nearest future.

Though I’m female in sex and gender, I knew there was some possibility that I couldn’t have children. Prior to my first pregnancy I never purposely tested whether my body would ‘work’ when it came to conceiving babies, you know, by ‘the right time,’ whenever that is (why has no one invented a special alarm for this yet?).

I didn’t lend much brain space to daydreams of babies as they might fit into some far-away life of mine. Needless to say, I’d given even less thought to what these potential babies would be eating (default to Cheerios — that’s some kind of unspoken rule, right?) or how they’d be eating it (default to bottles — they’ve used those since pioneer days, right?). If I had, neither breasts nor breast milk would’ve factored in even as passing fragmentary thoughts.

My First Pregnancy

So. Then pregnancy happened.

The first sign I was pregnant — other than suddenly retaining 1/8th of my body weight in water and feeling like Michelin Man seemingly overnight — was evidenced in my breasts. It was as if my perky, sporty cuplets had experienced a full cycle of puberty within a single sunset to sunrise.

My areolas had turned darker and expanded to saucers. A network of blue veins crossed my white skin like an invisible ink Treasure Island map fully exposed. There was a vital, oversensitive weight to my chest that my petite frame had never before known.

It felt strange to have such sudden awareness of the transformation. Like visiting your old hometown, but everything has been dozed over and now two imposing-looking factories are under construction where the quaint, sleepy town library used to be.

It was a bit exciting, though, you know. I’ll admit, the girl in me loved the novel chance to adorn these perfect excuses for a seasonal wardrobe refurbishing. Of course, the expectant mom-to-be inside was annoyed by an increasing top-heaviness doubling up on an increasing pelvic-heaviness, thanks to a simultaneously growing baby.

So. Then birth happened, and naturally, breastfeeding.

The Food Service Industry

Yikes! She who truly knows true engorgement is she who had a limited expanse of skin to begin with.

Well, I guess I had sorta wondered in my younger days what I’d look like with plastic enhancements. And yep, this big, shiny, tautness certainly gave me a clue. Little time passed before I found myself longing for those days of harmless wondering because now I felt, well, entirely ridiculous.

Shortly after my son was born, transitional milk flowed into my breasts like it had been waiting to bull-rush the floodgates since prehistoric times. What the heck was I going to do with these unwieldy things?!? Truly, it was confusing to have to consider for the first time in 23 years what I’m supposed to ‘do’ with one of my body parts.

These previously dormant things that were but wisps of far-off clouds in the sky of my femaledom were now very torrential, very reactive, and very, very precipitous storm clouds. Baby cries; breasts cry. It was raining somewhere in our postpartum environment at any given moment.

My breasts drove my body. They gave directions to my brain to spur my hormones into action. They informed my heart about yearning. They were mammary martyrs, sacrificing all effects of a nursling’s pinching, improper suckling, scratching, over-attention and inattention in the name of their job.

And they sacrificed ME, too. I lived many years in ignorance about why women complained of unmanageable breasts interfering with their aerobic aspirations. By the regulation of my milk supply I became aware for the first time of how an upgrade of several cup sizes can turn a simple exercise into a boxing match against one’s own ribcage.

These breasts also reprimanded me often to “suck it up” when I couldn’t stand the excruciating knifing pain of thrush anymore. And they would’ve swung up and slapped me if they hadn’t been so busy with more important matters, like keeping my son alive and happy.

I almost feared their strength and power over myself, me an awestruck bystander watching this life-giving thing happen between my body’s instinctual reflexes and my baby’s instinctual needs.


Child-Led Weaning

I hardly noticed the long, slow progression from uncomfortable fullness to the relief of weightlessness on my chest. But even before my left breast began quietly producing thin, salty weaning milk, there was no pretending that both sides were beginning to look drained and limp.

Still I could feel there was plenty of life in them yet, kind of like that withered, bent-back 90 year old lady you see riding her bicycle ten miles into town every morning so effortlessly, as if it’s the weight of her tenacious spirit — not those impossibly worn-out feet — that drive it onward.

By this time my breasts looked similar to what I’d been trained to dread; they were just like what many other women described, with such horror and sadness, a postpartum mother should expect.

Indeed, at some point when I wasn’t looking they’d turned into two floppy little pockets that appeared to belong on the sides of recycled cargo pants. Not perky, not plump, not even, not smooth, ‘not’ so many things.

…and what of it?

My reaction to the new physical state of my breasts was not as I expected. I felt nothing but love and appreciation for those ‘floppy pockets.’ I admired their ability to withstand all the changes they’d been through. They were still full — of purpose, that is. They weren’t done giving.

And they were then even more beautiful to me. Where before neutrality existed, I felt a connection with this integral feminine system, not merely acknowledging it as comprised of ‘parts.’ I finally understood — breasts are not mere accessories, and never have been.

Though it is true, they are gifts — my gifts.




What kind of effect has breastfeeding had on your understanding of body image? Did it change the relationship you have with your body?

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