I went to high school in a rich, suburban Long Island town. It was normal for kids to have multiple nannies and housekeepers. Prada pocket books, designer makeup and clothes, expensive vacations—these were the norm. In middle school, there was a kid who was told to clean his locker, and his housekeeper showed up the next day to do the job.
I lived in an apartment near the train station with my single mom. We moved there when I started seventh grade for the “good schools” and safety of the area. A child of hippie parents, I quickly became an outcast.
Middle school was the worst. I was bullied for my tie-dyed leggings, long skirts, and peace-sign necklaces. Once I was sitting under a tree, and a group of kids formed a circle around me. They began to ask questions: “What planet are you from?” “Do you eat anything besides veggie burgers?” When I got up to walk away, one of the girls pushed me against a fence. I ran off crying.
I was hurt and disgusted by those girls and their fancy, brand-name everything—their skinny, always-tanned bodies, nose jobs, straight, glossy hair, phony made-up faces.
In high school, instead of running away from my flower-child reputation, I embraced it: I stopped shaving my legs and armpits, wore no makeup, and went braless most of the time, despite my biggish breasts and abundant curves. It was the 90s, but I was harkening back to my parents’ high school era.
That’s at least part of the reason I stopped wearing bras. The other was purely romantic. I started dating another child-of-hippie-parents (now my husband). He thought the braless thing was cool—plus, it made fooling around easier. It was fun and sexy for him to be able to reach inside my shirt anytime—not to mention the fact that he was awful at undoing bras when I did wear one.
High school was much better than middle school. I didn’t have to worry so much about fitting in: In my own little circle of friends, I fit in just fine. No one seemed to be focused on my “look” anymore, and I could just live my life as I liked it—reading poetry, communing with nature, getting stoned, having endless sex with my boyfriend, and tuning out the rest of the world.
But in my senior year, someone took notice. My boyfriend had gone away to college, as had many of my best friends. I was more lonely, a bit more miserable, aching to get done with school. Did someone pick up on that? Was I suddenly more naked than I’d been before?
It was Picture Day. I was wearing a white peasant shirt. It wasn’t gossamer; it had some thickness to it. I was, of course, not wearing a bra, as I hadn’t been for years.
I was walking to my next class when the principal signaled to me. Ms. N.—in her spiked heels, platinum blond hair pulled back in a tight ponytail—grabbed me by the wrist, and pulled me aside. I knew it had to be serious because she immediately whisked me off to her office. Apparently, this was not the kind of thing that could be discussed out in the open.
She continued holding my wrist the whole time that we spoke. I felt like a captive. I thought either something had happened to someone in my family, or I was in serious trouble.
“Do you know that people can see the outline of your breasts through your shirt when you don’t wear a bra?” she asked.
“Well, they can, dear,” she said, now looking at me piteously in the eyes, as though I was totally sheltered, or embarrassingly dumb.
“It’s making some of the kids uncomfortable,” she said.
“Who?” I asked.
“A few kids told me,” she answered.
“Well, I’m uncomfortable with their skin-tight jeans, and low-cut shirts!” I screeched back, indignant. But inside, I was holding back tears.
Somehow, I got out of there. The rest of day kind of swirled around me. I wondered who had been talking about me. Every kid I saw could be the one. I wondered if perhaps the principal was lying, and she was the one who was uncomfortable.
I wanted to be the cool, strong one, but I felt mortified—exposed. I went over everything a million times in my head. I looked down at my chest. I couldn’t see anything. Had it been cold? Were my nipples erect? I wanted to go home and hide.
In a few days, I got it together, and my shame turned to righteous anger. I wrote a letter to the school newspaper, describing the incident, and my feeling of injustice. I mentioned the fact that other girls in our school wore clothes that were much more revealing. I said I had the right to wear what I wanted.
I explained that the shape of my breasts under clothing was natural, normal—and that our culture had it all wrong. I expressed how it felt to be pulled aside for what I was wearing, when I had done nothing to offend anyone.
They didn’t print my letter. I heard various stories about why the letter didn’t appear: some said that the student editors wanted to print it, and the administration had stepped in to stop it. Rumors swirled; for a few days, the school was buzzing with the news. I got some high-fives in the hallways, from kids I didn’t even know. For a while, my letter was pinned to the bulletin board in the newspaper club’s staff room.
Still, the whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth, and I wanted more than ever to get the hell out of high school. And I did: I took extra classes, got enough credits to graduate a semester early. I never got to be a “second-semester senior.” I missed the prom. I missed getting my yearbook signed by my friends.
In college, I started to wear a bra again, at least sometimes. I took up exercise and yoga, and it was hard to do without support for my breasts. When I took a job working at an office, I started shaving my legs and armpits, started dressing a little more plainly and normally. But I never lost my rebellious spirit, and my drive to question how our culture views women, their bodies, their breasts.
It turned out that standing up for breasts was the best lesson I could have learned in high school. I am now a mother now, and a few years ago, I became a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC).
Every day I help mothers stand up for their rights to use their breasts for their natural, original purpose. I defend them against doctors who give poor breastfeeding advice. I teach them how to feel comfortable about breastfeeding in public; and I dig up the laws that protect them.
I help them heal their nipples, increase their milk supply—even choose the best nursing bras. But mostly, I empower them to trust their bodies, their breasts, and themselves.