1. Breast (1): Either of the two, soft protruding organs on the upper front of a woman’s body
I stayed over at Beth’s for her birthday, curled on the couch in the dark. Beth’s parents had gone to bed, leaving us to watch Big, the 1988 classic featuring Tom Hanks as Josh and Elizabeth Perkins as Susan. After wishing to Zoltar, the magical genie, “to be big,” Josh is transformed into the adult version of his kid self. The movie entranced us, particularly the love scene where Susan slowly unbuttons her shirt, staring at Josh with hungry doe eyes. His mouth hangs open, looking down at her breasts, cupped in the beige bra. She turns off the lights, and he turns them back on. They both grin as he slowly reaches a hand to touch her boob, the first boob, for the first time. Susan’s eyes remain closed, mouth agape as if this sheer touch is the most orgasmic sensation until he kisses her.
“Play it again!” Beth squealed, “Rewind!”
I rewound the VHS tape in the player and hit play. We watched the scene over and over.Rewinding, replaying, again and again. It was the first love scene we had watched, our first encounter with second base, the coveted breast, and we couldn’t seem to get enough.
2. Training bra: A lightweight brassiere designed for girls who have begun to develop breasts
I was nine when the neighborhood boys joked that there must be something in the water. That was the year my mother took me to the department store for a training bra. The year I had a crush on Joey Dalessio who wanted nothing to do with me after I saw his soccer ball boxers peaking through his pants and told him I liked them.
Since I was small, I idealized sultry, female characters with big curves. After watching The Little Mermaid, there was nothing I wanted more than sea-shelled breasts and a sailor prince to transform me. I was in love with Jessica Rabbit’s slinky legs and heart shaped bust, draped in sparkling red. With Lola Bunny from Space Jam who shot the ball and scored, her chest bouncing beneath her white t-shirt. And now I was getting them too, but staring at the wall of cotton training bras wasn’t the same, and it disgusted me.
I felt the same stomach turn when my mother gave me The Caring and Keeping of YOU: The Body Book for Girls, the three cartoon-drawn girls wrapped in towels grinning back at me. I flipped through the book and quickly shoved it beneath my bed, repulsed by the how-to tips on breasts, pubic hair, and menstruation. At school, strapped into the silky blue training bra, I was instantly noticed by other girls: Hey, what’s that? one said, plucking the strap of it against my skin, Are you wearing a bra? At home, I quickly threw the clothing off, opting for a roomier t-shirt, the peaks of me shrouded beneath the extra space, the room I still needed.
3. La Petite: The small one, the little one
The summer before fourth grade, my parents dropped my sister and me off at La Petite, a kids care program. Boy-crazy from the beginning, I crushed on Billy, a fifth grade bully in a backwards cap. He could eat two yellow War Heads at the same time, setting a local record for enduring the most sour of candies.
Everyday we ran into the mulch, bug-hunting, swinging through monkey bars, or opting for Four Square, the game most of us waited in line to play. Billy was the playground king in square number one, shoving Cherry Bombs into the concrete, solidifying his position. He could tell that I liked him because I followed him around, trailing behind to add some comment of encouragement. He told me one day that I was cute, but too young.
Natasha was a fifth grader too, and the only Russian person I knew. Her long blonde hair hung down to the butt of her jean overalls, her boobs already big under her pink stretchy shirt.
One day at La Petite when the whistle blew for us to come inside, Billy held me back.
“Come here,” he said, “behind the wall.”
I followed him behind the red brick, heart racing. I saw Natasha, waiting, her hands clasped behind her back.
“You keep lookout,” he said, “and yell if someone is coming.”
He lifted Natasha up against the red brick wall, their tongues slipping all over each other’s faces. I felt the same sick discomfort from the bras and the books. I stared at the milk-blue sky, wanting, for once, not to play a part.
4. Chicken breast: A portion of poultry, or a congenital malformation of the chest in which there is abnormal projection of the sternum, often associated with rickets
In seventh grade, Casey and I only ate chicken, sitting at the beachy, Florida restaurant with my family, ordering chicken fingers and fries from the server, adhering to our previous pact. Casey’s older sister, Chelsea, told us of the myth: If you eat a ton of chicken, your boobs will grow. We were believers, or naive enough to give it a try. When our food came, Casey grinned, her braces shining, and we wolfed the food down, dipping it in cups of honey mustard, swallowing our secret, our pretend love for poultry.
5. Breast (2): To face or move forward against
At my father’s lake house, my older sister and I swam with two neighborhood boys who became our friends, one of them, Luke, becoming her first boyfriend. He was tall and lanky like a basketball player, plagued with orange hair and sunburnt skin. We swam nearly everyday in the summers, Luke laughing at us.
“Your little sister’s boobs are bigger than yours,” he shouted across the water.
My sister and I glanced nervously at each other, the sick encroaching in my stomach again. Our heads bobbed above water, concealing our bodies in the yellow tannins for a little longer. I didn’t want to get out.
As my chest grew and became more prominent in middle school, so did the stares from boys and grown men alike. I dealt with questions on the bus rides about cup size and jokes from guys who said they wanted to “titty-fuck” me. I covered myself in hoodies and still, men noticed me walking through the mall with my family, unable or uncaring to censor their stares.
One day when I was sixteen, I attended a church potluck with Angela who had invited me. I wore a hoodie zipped up halfway, and a tank top underneath, scooping mashed potatoes and green beans onto a plate. The older women in the church glanced at me, a newcomer, while Angela and I sat down at one of the neighboring tables. I started to eat not long before an older woman came up to Angela, bending down to whisper something into her ear. Angela looked surprised and leaned in close to me.
“She said that the pastor, the man over there,” Angela pointed to a balding man shaking hands with church-goers, “thinks you shouldn’t be showing so much cleavage.”
I dropped my fork, sick to my stomach, looking around the room at the many women making side eyes at me.
“We can leave,” Angela said. “I’m so sorry.”
We left the potluck but I couldn’t shake the feeling of a whole room of people whispering about me. I ranted to Angela, I’m sixteen. These are my boobs, I can’t do anything about it!
It became an accumulation: every dress or bra that didn’t quite fit, that wouldn’t zip up, the Victoria’s Secret saleswoman who said “I’m sorry, we don’t have that size.” My body wouldn’t fit. Not into the clothes that were being made, not into the small space assigned to me.
I was at the crux of hating myself for the very body I had wished for as a child, wanting to retreat, to disappear beneath the crashing waves, the perpetuity of adolescence.
Everything had to be altered.
6. Reduce: To make smaller or less in amount, degree or size
At sixteen, my mother drove me to a few different surgeons in the area, most of them older men who opened the cotton blouses, measuring the widths of my breasts. We settled on one surgeon named Dr. Ward, who looked like a slightly tamer Dolly Parton. Her face was made up and tight at the skin, but besides her own work, her portfolio looked good. The women in the below the neck photos with their heaving “before pictures” next to their lighter and perkier “after” sets. I imagined they looked happier, beaming with smiles I couldn’t see, anonymized.
Dr. Ward said that I would need a reduction, the only question was when. She told us about the possible complications, what not to do after the surgery. She detailed one client who went swimsuit shopping a day or two after her surgery and had to come back in to be stitched back up. I fainted in the patient room upon hearing this story, coming to, woozy, but wanting to continue. Later, she told me that I also might not be able to breastfeed in the future. And I thought about this, weighing the pros and cons, and concluded that I was willing to potentially sacrifice a part of the motherhood experience, the natural nutrients that would reach my future baby, for my current physical lightness.
7. Breast (3): Of a bird
My senior year of college, I dated a recluse, a tall, lean man with a chest tattoo: an owl with its wings spread wide, with large round eyes. Above its head, the inked script read, Say Something. We both worked at a pizza joint and showered together after shifts, rinsing off the flour and pizza grime that inevitably settled on our skin. The first time we showered together, I stepped into the tub with my bra still on, scared of how he might react to the thin white scars, the anchor-like lines from my surgery.
“Why’d you leave your bra on?” he asked, as I let the water soak it through.
“I dunno,” I said. “I felt like it.” We didn’t date long.
Months later, walking through campus, I stopped at the sight of a dead bird on its back, its feet folded in. I knelt beside it, staring at its brown feather down, its full chest, its closed eyes. I wanted to pick it up, cradle the body in my hands. It looked so light.
8. On the rack: Under great stress; the expression, an allusion to a medieval instrument of torture to which the victim was fastened or stretched
Sometimes I feel like Jessica Rabbit, walking into a bar in heels, catching the eyes of a few other patrons. Finally, I am free of the weight. The heaving and the holding. I am lighter, but still something prods at me.
Recently at a swimming pool, my friend made a scene, covering the eyes of her boyfriend while trying to mouth the words: your top! your top! I looked down and readjusted myself, not quite sure what she was meaning. I brushed it off until the next day when she wrote me, telling me how sad and upset she was that her boyfriend caught a sight of the nip-slip. I was just trying to read by the pool, I told her. I was just trying to exist.
9. Relief: The state of being clearly visible or obvious due to being accentuated in some way
I have been carved to be what I am. A proportionate woman who is not too big and not too small. A woman who fits perfectly in man-made sizes, in shopping malls, in corporate stores and trends.
I am more visible now than ever and I deal with this, still. But after the wearing at my edges, I am smooth and calm like stone. I’ve grown a confidence, or maybe it’s been here all along, brimming quietly beneath my skin. It’s a look in my eyes, a sharpness, that tells people I’ve been through it, and I won’t go through it much longer. It is a shift in energy, an alleviation from bearing the weight, and an upheaval of constraints.
Annalise Mabe is a writer from Tampa, Florida. She is completing her MFA at the University of South Florida where she writes nonfiction, poetry, and comics. Her work has appeared in Brevity, The Offing, The Rumpus, Booth, Word Riot, Hobart, and was nominated by The Boiler for a 2016 Pushcart Prize. She was a finalist for the December Curt Johnson Prose Award judged by Eula Biss and currently serves as a nonfiction editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection.
“On the Rack” was nominated by NDR for the 2017 Pushcart Prize.