My daughter is twelve, at the age where kids seem to sprout overnight. We were having dinner recently when I glanced up from my pizza and did a double-take when I noticed her breasts, suddenly round and putting her new bra to good use. We are at a funny intersection, she and I. She’ll be getting her first period any day — and I’ll be getting my last.
I found myself wondering what her breasts will look like when they grow in. She’s built like her dad, broad shoulders and legs for days, so she could take after his side of the family, where the women are small-breasted. Or she could take after the busty women in mine. I spent my tween and early teen years desperately curious about the kind of breasts I would inherit. As it happened, I ended up with a mainstream desirable pair: firm, round, traffic-stopping 34 Cs.
There is no way to write this without sounding obnoxious, but the attention awarded to me because of my breasts was heady to the point of overwhelming. It was a powerful feeling, knowing the impact they had on men — but disempowering in an odd way since the locus of power resided outside me. I had morphed from a shy bookworm into an objectified nubile young woman, a journey from which it took a few decades to unpack, and to put in perspective.
I derived my worth in large part from the male gaze. Any woman who has done this has a tremulous self-image at best. Good looks can be a buffer between you and a lover, a way to avoid genuine intimacy. And if your sexual currency is based mainly on your appearance — something you did nothing to earn — then you will find yourself hemorraging self-worth when you cross the threshhold of forty, that arbitrary expiration date stamped on women by our culture.
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I did my first boudoir shoot at 50, in part to disrupt the cultural narrative about women’s desirability. When I saw the bra-less photos from my most recent shoot, I was momentarily taken aback by the appearance of my breasts. They looked smaller than they do in my mind’s eye, slackened a bit. Clearly not the breasts of a young woman.
When I look at porn, I am confronted with young breasts: large, full, often surgically enhanced. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I don’t feel a wistful twinge when I see the way I used to be. I’ve dated my fair share of younger men — I am frequently the oldest woman any of them have been with. And I find myself wondering if they’re comparing my breasts with those of their female contemporaries, if they prefer the latter.
Gravity, breast-feeding, and surgery to remove two benign tumors, have altered the shape of my breasts — for decades the most potent symbol of myself as a desirable woman. And yet, as my breasts have lost their youthful lustre, my self-concept has deepened. I look back at myself ten, even five years ago, and I don’t know who that woman was. She had no real agency. She had done what she thought she was supposed to do her entire life, and wondered why she was unhappy.
It was important for me to see these photos of how I am now, at 52, without the magic of Victoria’s Secret. My middle-aged breasts have the attributes that women are told aren’t good enough. They’re not pert. They’re slightly asymmetrical, the right smaller than the left, post-surgery. And they’re no longer perfectly round and full.
But they’re attached to a more compelling woman than the one I was in my twenties. A woman with substance, grit, self-assurance — qualities that conjure up an allure that endures far longer than the shape of a young, perfect breast.
Photography by Nick Holmes