I wear a 36G bra size. This is thanks to my mother’s strong genes and Mama always explains this by saying imfuza iyegqithisa (an inherited trait is always exaggerated) and because of this my boobs have been central to my discovery of what it means to be a woman.
I realised I had boobs when I was 9 years old. This was very unpleasant as I was constantly drawing attention from my peers who had ironing boards on their chests. They were intrigued at my protruding bumps and constantly asking me “Is it sore?”. Sadly I was the nice girl who would never tell them to fuck off so I would proceed to explain the experience to them and explain that Mama said I don’t have amabele (boobs), I had iziphika (a Xhosa name for developing breasts in young girls), which meant that I was a child and not yet a woman.
Mama’s fear for my fast developing body was masked in various ways. I was not allowed to wear a bra until I was 11 and my first bra was a glorious B cup. A bra meant womanhood in my family and Mama did not want to have that conversation even though it was difficult ignoring men’s glances at my body at a very young age. She took it upon herself to be my bodyguard whenever we went to the beach or town encouraging me to wear short outfits so people could sense my innocence but this had the opposite effect from men and teenage boys.
If it had not been for the netball match in Port Elizabeth, Mama would have never accompanied me to Ackermans to buy the bra. It was the longest shopping experience I had ever had because I made the grave error of starting in the children’s section thinking the bras with elastic would work. An hour later I found a bra in the women’s section and both my body and heart were exhausted.
My heart was the hardest hit because I internalised that my childhood was slipping away from me. And I didn’t know it that day, but this was the beginning of my bra and boob saga. My body grew gradually and my boobs were the thermometer I used to gauge the growth. By the time I was 15 I was a C cup and suddenly my body ballooned at 16.
This was also the time where bread and butter issues were surfacing in my family and getting me a comfortable bra was not a priority for my mother. Even the school uniform (a dress with a zip on the side) could no longer hide my frame and zipping up my uniform was becoming a problem (to the extent that when I was in hostel, the matrons were asked by the school to find me a uniform from lost property). School shirts were a challenge buttoning up and my sister’s hand me downs were no longer suitable.
I hated doing sport because running was a trial and swimming meant walking around with gravity taking over my boobs. Eventually I succumbed to wearing my old bras as well as something like a sports bra that I had to alter myself in order to do some justice to my boobs. Every time I wore this “bra” my sister took it upon herself to ask me if my shoulders weren’t painful (I said yes, but I thought this was because of the stress I was carrying with me in my body) and together with my mother they would tell me it looked like I had continental pillows on my chest. My mother started coaxing me to try on one of her old bras—beige, “cross-your-heart” bras that were not at all flattering with bright colours and polka dots with matching panties that my friends could buy from Mr Price.
One day I decided to give in to my mother’s nudges and we altered the waistline to fit my small back and discovered I was a D cup. I was now comfortable with the power that I could identify my size in clothing stores but only women my mother’s age were in this section. Then I came to varsity and discovered I was not alone in my further ballooning body, but now I didn’t have my mother to help me with finding a bra.
I bought bras by trial and error and the assistants were not helpful. I would start with the size I thought was correct and discovered I had to increase the cup size to DD and eventually 40 E. I told my friends about my strategy and they laughed at me asking if I had never been measured and I hadn’t. Then people started giving me tips about what the perfect bra should look like—the strap around the body should not rise at the back, the cup size is small is there is any flesh protruding over the in the cup and it was possible to have an underwire bra even for large breasts and the straps shouldn’t be too thin once you become a D cup and a good bra allows a cleavage between the boobs. My boobs became everyone’s problem.
At 22 I finally discovered my real bra size and it took a trip to Victoria’s Secrets for the enlightenment—it felt as though it was a de ja vu of shopping for a bra when I was 11 (My sister was now a flight attendant for SAA hence the trip to New York)! The shop was beautiful with friendly efficient assistants who pounced on me the minute I walked in. It was my sister’s idea of spoiling me by finally getting me the perfect bra, so beautiful underwear was our thing for a good hour(some very impractical pieces with bows and frills and beads!). I was kindly informed that I’m a 36 DD and our quest for the perfect fit began! The problem began when I discovered that all they had in the shop were under-wire bras, huge error for me! The bras I saw had absolutely delicious colours, especially for someone who can only find bras in beige, black or cream. After bra fitting number2,my sister and I decided to find an assistant with a full chest like mine, but to no avail, the shop was a market place! We were eventually informed of the “the perfect one”, the bra that would solve all my problems (almost every bra style has an identity, a name to mark it’s purpose in a women’s life). So we found it and I tried it on and I eventually cried. I called the assistant who kindly told me my back is toooo small for the cup I have and (wait for it)…..they didn’t have my size!!!!! I summoned my sister into the fitting room to inform her of my shock and horror! She was silent and I was screaming at her as though my problem was her fault. Her grand plan had failed and she didn’t know what to do with her crying sister in the fitting room with people waiting in a long queue! The assistant was however kind enough to refer me to Lane Bryant, a shop for fuller figured women (a category of shops I thought I had swiftly moved along from, much to my chagrin!). We went to Lane Bryant and met with a vibrant shop assistant Katrina. She did me the huge favour of measuring me up again and the verdict….34DDD! So I had discovered two different sizes in two days. She informed me that this shop (my supposed saving grace) did not have my size! They stocked for women who have my cup but a bigger back, at least a 38-40 measurement! Clearly the American shops have never experienced such an anomaly.
This time I didn’t cry! I just laughed! Ignorance is indeed bliss, my boobs were a problem and I didn’t even know it until New York! I didn’t have a plan c and I decided I wasn’t visiting an underwear shop until kingdom come! Katrina suggested I google the size and who knows, maybe I’ll find something! Or I could stick to my 40DD that rises up my back and look very unsophisticated! I shared my experience with some friends and a bra was sent as a present from a friend of a friend.
This was my last hope as a boob reduction was out of the question because of financial and mostly emotional reasons. I finally fitted the bra on with no high expectations in the comfort of a friends room that didn’t have an offensive mirror like Victoria’s Secret and to my surprise I had found the perfect one, beige, thick straps, surprisingly underwire and 36 G. It was only after this confirmation that I went onto the web to find a shop in Cape Town that had this bra size and frighteningly expensive, but since a boob reduction is not an option (not that I’m not contemplating the thought), I feel I have no choice. My bras and boobs have a life of their own, if I were writing a story about my life I would dedicate an entire section with several chapters to explain the journey of discovering my boobs and learning to live with them which is a daily activity every morning when I put my bra on.
Everyday I choose to be grateful that I have boobs as there are women who have to remove theirs not because of choice but because of survival. I am grateful I have my boobs every time I hug a child and they say I give comfortable hugs and they have a grand smile on their face. But every time I walk into a shop and reminded of my strange body because I cannot buy a bra from “normal shops” I choose to remember ”my body is beautiful and sacred and I’m going to celebrate it!” (From India Arie – Private Party)