Bras can be many things—sexy, supportive, confidence-boosting, confidence-crushing, liberating, restricting—but one thing they’re not is unmentionable. This week, ELLE.com is exploring all things bras, from how we wear them (or don’t) and how we take care of them (or don’t) to how we feel about them and how they make us feel. Here, we look at the trials of post-breastfeeding bra-shopping.
Sometimes I think about the amount of time I’ve spent contemplating boobs and I feel that I have a pretty good grasp on what it must be like to be an adolescent boy. For much of my teenage years, I occupied that hopeful state of longing immortalized in Judy Blume and aptly updated by an ELLE.comcontributor: “Dear God, I don’t really care about the period, but where the hell is my rack?”
And then, finally, there they were. Except they weren’t really there. As Gertrude Stein might have said, there was only a little bit of there, there. I went to college wearing the same triangle-shaped cotton bralettes I’d been using since I was 14, more for an extra layer of insulation than enhancement. (Enhance what?) It took until my sophomore year of college to graduate from a scant half-peach A cup to a decent B-cup orange —an accomplishment I attributed to a new birth control prescription more than late-breaking development. The B cup delivered me into underwire territory, and a decade of devotion to Victoria’s Secret push-ups. (You know the kind I’m talking about. You can toss them out already; that underwire has escaped and it’s not going back.) I wore them for years.
If you’d asked me back then—or if you ask me now—I’d say that I was, am, confident in my body. It treats me pretty well and so we generally get along. And yet, I couldn’t shake the sense that there was something I was missing. And then, when I turned 30, I got a pair! Along with a baby, but what’s a lifetime of responsibility when it comes along with a larger cup size. I was standing in the dressing room of a Macy’s, trying on some Jessica Simpson maternity gear when I realized it: those B cups weren’t gonna do. “Never, ever, in my wildest dreams,” I quickly texted a friend, and tentatively took a C cup from the rack.
THAT’S THE ANNOYING THING ABOUT TIME AND EXPERIENCE AND WHAT IT DOES TO YOUR BODY, YOU JUST CAN’T MAKE IT GO THE OTHER DIRECTION.
Six months after giving birth a second time, I’d basically regained my general physique (emphasis on the “basically”) and—bonus!—the boobs had stuck around, a consequence, I assumed of cramming two pregnancies into three years and prolonged breastfeeding following the second. When I wore my old VS standbys, I was positively spilling over. For the first time I was conscious of certain tops not being fully appropriate for the office. There was actually something for my kids (sorry Dad, not interested yet) to nuzzle. And my nipples were bullseye advertisements for my new endowments, protruding past padding and textured tank tops if the AC was set a degree below balmy. Was this the new normal? My smallish half oranges had become decent sized half grapefruits. See, fruit analogies aren’t only useful when you’re anthropomorphizing (vegetablizing?) your fetus.
When I started weaning the second child, there was some sadness (no more cuddling in the middle of the night) and some relief (no more cuddling in the middle of the night), but most of all I felt a desire to regain ownership over my body. I mean, it was never going “back“—that’s the annoying thing about time and experience and what it does to your body, you just can’t make it go the other direction, and screw that pressure anyway—but I was hoping to be able to run and dance and swim and eat without factoring in the nutritional needs of a small human being. (Lol. Never going to happen but a mom can dream.)
The internet has all kinds of tepid, inconsequential advice to offer about the process of weaning. “You may experience mood changes.” No kidding, though it’s not like the nine months of pregnancy and the months of early parenthood are known for their emotional stability. “Consider delaying weaning if your child isn’t feeling well.” Also consider that you’ve undoubtedly entered into an infinity loop of runny noses and midnight coughing fits that you’re unlikely ever to escape. But what the internet won’t tell you much about is the mind fuck that comes along with getting the body you’ve always wanted only to have it taken away again. (OK, ELLE.com will tell you something about this, but I’m here to speak the truth again.) Bye bye grapefruits. Hello sad lemons.
According to my favorite doctor(WebMD), in a normal (non-nursing) breast, breast size is determined by the amount of fatty tissue, but in a breast-feeding breast, size increases due to the development of denser tissue used to make milk. To be more specific, “the breast is like a branched tree made up of hollow ducts,” says Nasreen Akhtar, a researcher at the University of Sheffield. “These are the pipes that transport the milk to the nipple. At the ends of the ducts are ball-shaped structures called alveoli (imagine a bunch of grapes—the breast is similar). In pregnancy the breast has to convert into a milk-producing organ, so it grows new alveoli and the pre-existing ones start to differentiate so they can secrete milk.” Those milk-producing cells then get busy—making as much as 30 ounces of milk a day. Mmmmm.
WHAT THE INTERNET WON’T TELL YOU MUCH ABOUT IS THE MIND FUCK THAT COMES ALONG WITH GETTING THE BODY YOU’VE ALWAYS WANTED ONLY TO HAVE IT TAKEN AWAY AGAIN.
But what happens to all that extra tissue once breastfeeding is over? For a long time it was thought that immune cells flushed away the no-longer-needed milk-producing cells in an ordinary process called “phagocytosis.” (If you remember your high school biology, the “phagocytes” are the Pac Men, chomping up molecular detritus that needs clearing out.) But new research by Akhtar and her colleagues has demonstrated that a protein triggers those breast cells into temporary phagocytes—that is, the milk-makers turn into little cannibals to clean up after themselves. “In the first few days after weaning, live breast epithelia gobble up their dying neighbors and swallow all of the secretions,” says Akhtar, “clearing the ducts of old milk and dead cells.”
Whatever science or the sisterhood offers as explanation, the most relevant factor, of course, is attitude. You know that scene in Judd Apatow’s This is 40 in which Leslie Mann lugubriously compares Megan Fox’s pert melons (fruit again, sorry) to her own saggy, post-breastfeeding boobs? (“My boobs are just gone. They didn’t even say goodbye.”) It was like that for me, except, #thisis30.But that cleaning up, as many women know, can leave you with some pretty lumpy after effects when it comes to overall anatomy. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of uniformity in how this plays out (more on that on ELLE.com later this week). As Tiffany (Tipper) Gallagher, a lactation consultant who blogs at The Boob Geek, put it to me, “breastfeeding itself doesn’t lead to dramatic changes in breast shape, but pregnancy does.” She goes on to list some of the physiological changes that occur regardless of breastfeeding: “Skin appears thinner, and veins and Montgomery glands (the small bumps on the areola) become more prominent; the size of the areola changes during pregnancy as well as postpartum, and areolar pigmentation changes as well; there’s an increase of milk volume whether or not you breastfeed after the placenta is delivered.” Oh, and stretch marks are a bonus consequence of all this change, of course. Basically: Just about anything might happen, so steel yourself. (Gallager has some perspective on that, too: “As a mother of four, I have absolutely no idea what my life was like before I had kids, let alone my breasts.”)
The downsizing from moderately curvaceous to bumpy washboard was all the more painful because it was tacked onto the push-pull of acceptance and desire that had been thrumming through my brain with irritating persistence my entire adult life. You cansometimes get what you want, it seems, but those unexpected gifts might not stick around.
I HAD BEEN WALKING AROUND WITH A REMINDER THAT I WASN’T QUITE THE WOMAN I THOUGHT I WAS.
I’m usually the type who shoos away the sales women at clothing stores, let alone underwear stores. But I knew, when I entered the Journelle on 17th Street, that I needed help. “I just had a baby,” I blurted out at soon as I was settled in the plush changing room at the rear of the store, miniature bottle of Poland Spring sweating in my hand. “I mean, I had it a year ago, but I just stopped breastfeeding and it’s my second child and I couldn’t nurse the first and …” The saleslady—salesgirl—blinked at me slowly; she must have been 25. “It’s a good time to get refitted,” she said stoically. Shirt off, tape measure out, I put my chest in her hands. Surprise! I was back to my teenage size. C’est la vie.
But if my fitting induced a wave of violet-tinted tristesse, it also brought with it a profound relief. I had been walking around with a pocket of air separating my flesh from my undergarments where the underwire held up the essentially empty cup—a persistent reminder that I wasn’t quite the woman I thought I was. My Journelle friend tsked tsked at this gaping abyss and found me models that lay flat against my skin. I remembered that it was pretty nice to have silk, satin, and lace actually fitted to my body. And I walked out looking less like the woman I thought I had become and more like the woman I thought I’d always been. Not a bad exchange.
I’m not saying undergarments are the key to self-acceptance, or that dropping a couple hundred dollars to overhaul your bra drawer is the means to postpartum body zen. One of my oldest childhood friends told me when we were teenagers that she did not want to be buried in a bra. And that’s a sentiment I respect. For some women true comfort only arrives at that moment every evening when they remove the trappings of their chests. Or they’ve just decided that in life (and death), they’ll do without. But for me, the bra is not ultimately about punishment or insulation or enhancement. It’s the first layer of the armor we put on when we’re getting ready to face the battle of the day. As a working mother with two tiny ones at home, I’ll take all the protection I can get.