“Can you put the IV in after I go under?” I ask the nurse. I’m seventeen, but I want to be babied. She chuckles and tells me they don’t do that here as she wipes the back of my hand with alcohol. Mom sits in the chair next to my bed. She’s cupping a small pile of my rings in one hand and holding my studded leather bracelet and chunky black glasses in the other. My best friend Christine leans against my bed’s railing. Folded over her arm is the light pink, little boy’s button-down shirt from the 80s with royal blue pinstripes that she bought me from Savers—the best part of my going-home outfit that I hope will button up nicely post-op.
The plastic surgeon, a short, blond-gray mustachioed man comes in to tell me he’s headed to the OR and will see me in there. He taps the rail of my bed twice, a gesture I take as doctorly affection, and turns to leave the room. I call after him, “Just remember—think small—like, real small. Like, just get rid of ‘em!” Dr. Haynes reminds me that this breast reduction is not cosmetic surgery. In fact, it’s so necessary, the state’s paying for it.
The anesthesiologist was making quick work of me when I tried once more, “Just please, small.” I don’t know if I got that last “small” out, or maybe I went on for a while, muttering incoherently before the surgeon sliced into the first breast along the sharpie lines—in the shape of a giant keyhole—that he’d drawn the night before.
When Mom scheduled the initial consultation, the surgeon suggested we petition for state funding given the outrageousness of my proportions.
I’m at my second appointment lying on my back on an exam table when Dr. Haynes lifts the paper gown. I uncross my arms and my breasts fall outward and sideways like long hair unfurling from a bun. Mom and the surgeon both laugh. “Well I’ll say they’re lateral,” the doctor chuckles, and Mom’s laughing so hard she’s wiping tears from her eyes, “This one over here’s pointing to the north 80!” She exaggeratedly points out the window toward the interstate. Anticipating many babies in my future as a Mormon woman, I ask if I’ll be able to breastfeed when I have children, and Mom interrupts, nodding her head and pointing toward me, “She wants to be able to nurse!” Dr. Haynes says there’s a chance that scar tissue can cause problems. When Mom says she’s in law school, he holds up his hands as if under arrest and jokes that he wishes he hadn’t taken on an attorney’s daughter.
Dr. Haynes asks me to get up for some photographs, and I stand against a cold white wall in nothing but a pair of clearance Old Navy jeans and orange chucks, my breasts feeling heavy and low like they might drop through the floor to the lobby.
The PA who comes in with the camera looks exactly like Terry Irwin, and, weirdly, her name is Terry. She asks me to pose topless for a series of photos she submits to a board of I-don’t-know-how-many people as visual proof that if I need anything in my life right now, it’s smaller boobs.
Once the surgery is scheduled, Mom goes around telling people, mostly friends from law school and church, that I’m getting three cans of peas taken out!
Diana, expert archer, goddess of hunting and the moon, is tall and fair and carries a quiver full of shining golden arrows. Known among the Greeks as Artemis, she has a sacred pet deer with golden horns and hooves of bronze. Like many deities, Diana has a predilection for fury. A knack for revenge. When I first read about her, I think of her as slender and small-chested, boyishly angular, like a holy Jennifer-Lawrence-as-Katniss-Everdeen.
Though Diana’s goddaughter, Wonder Woman, is gloriously double-breasted herself, her fans know that ancient Amazonian warrior women would cut off their right breasts to improve their archery. When I read this, I immediately believe a flat chest would benefit an archer and hold my arms out as if aiming a bow and arrow.
Studies show that big-breasted, narrow-waisted women are most likely to conceive when aiming for pregnancy, so these traits give a woman not only an advantage in getting pregnant but in attracting a sexual partner in the first place.
Competition exists between all genders in all places and traditions in the world. I can say that specifically for Mormon women though, we are expected to attain perfection. Maybe not all at once, but eventually. The adage goes like this: perfect discipleship requires perfect obedience. And if a Mormon woman’s greatest calling in life is to get married and become a mother, and she’s not Mary, the Virgin Mother of Jesus, well she’s got a whole perfect-potential-sexual-partner thing to live up to and all the vanity and shame that go with it.
Heterosexuality is required, and lopsided gender ratios in the Church (five women to every four men) mean that competition is high. There just aren’t enough men to marry the women, so women face the unbelievable pressure of conforming to trends and standards of appearance in order just to play the game. The stakes couldn’t be higher—salvation and exaltation depend on it.
In our quest for perfection—or even just a shot at catching (or keeping) a husband—Mormon women seek breast augmentation and other types of plastic surgery at a rate much higher than non-Mormon women. The number of plastic surgeons in Salt Lake City, where 49% of the population is Mormon, is 2.5 times higher per capita than the national average. According to Forbes, Salt Lake City residents spent $2.2 million on hair coloring and $6.9 million on cosmetics and skin care products in 2006. In comparison with a slightly larger city, residents of Oklahoma City, where the Mormon population clocks in at just over 1%, spent $172,000 on hair dye and $594,000 on cosmetics and skin care products in that same year.
At my little sister’s bridal shower recently, a woman from Mom’s congregation stood up and made her pitch for everyone in the room to “get their eyes done.” She showed off her taut new face and said, “It’s something so small—easy! Really no one has a good excuse not to.” The tone of her announcement was meant to make you feel kind of disgusting if not willing to get your face sliced open for the pleasure of your husband and others subject to your physical appearance.
Recently, a group of women from my old congregation took a “girls trip” down to Mexico to get tummy tucks and stapled stomachs. One of the women died there. It’s not fair or even humane to assume her only worth is in her biological or social relationships to others, but she was a mother to three and a grandmother to seven—a lot of heartache added to a life lost frivolously. I’ve heard several similar accounts since then. Apparently, these trips are a rising trend among women I know and friends of friends—they go down to Mexico for plastic surgery because it’s so much cheaper, and really “no one has a good excuse not to”—just a regular part of self-maintenance.
The Venus of Willendorf is said to be a fertility statue because of the emphasis on body parts associated with sexual reproduction—a faceless statue with exaggeratedly large breasts, a rotund abdomen, curvy hips, and a prominent vulva. She’s little and pudgy—almost cute, in a mascottish kind of way. It’s interesting to think about how a woman shaped like this would fare in Mormon competition for a sexual partner as she’s by no means slim-waisted. She’d have a hard time getting a date—that is, she’s what Mormons might call a “sweet spirit.”
It seems that the entire purpose of having an attractive body is a catch-22—work very hard (and possibly go under the knife) to be hot so you can attract a mate who will impregnate you and destroy the traits that attracted them in the first place.
When my older sister went through puberty, Mom would tell us about a pair of twins back in high school whose breasts were so large, “I tell you those puppies lived lives of their own!” Mom was appalled that their mother’d let them walk around like that—“Someone should have…done…something, you know?”
As Mom watched my sister grow and grow, she’d lament that this was all her own fault. My sister’s giant breasts were Mom’s curse for having been so judgmental about those twins. Once mine arrived and proved to be nearly as large as my sister’s, Mom’s story about the twins’ retribution grew to incorporate some kind of genetic hex willed on us by my dad’s mother, who’d ruined Mom’s life nothing short of 42 million times. Once our younger sister’s boobs grew beyond mine, well, 42 million and one.
I got full-blown D cups in 5th grade. One day they were just there—double Ds by summer. There was no time for a cute little trainer or something soft and sporty. Mom drove me several hours away to the nearest Dillard’s for an old lady minimizer with four hooks—one black and one cream. She was always so embarrassed of my sisters and me in this way—moving about in the world, big-breasted for all to see. When I whined for a cute swimsuit like the other girls at the city pool wore, Mom said, “You don’t get to have cute—we need something to strap those babies down!”
When my older sister was in high school, Mom tried to conceal her all in black. Mom would say, “Listen girls, our motto is to wear black and walk fast in a dim light.” And she’d recite this not only to us, but to friends and strangers on our behalf—a sort of social acknowledgement of our grotesqueness, an apology for our existence. My sister pushed back and wore lots of tight, orange and neon-green tops—sweaters, velour, “anything,” Mom said, “to get attention.” I, on the other hand, doubled up my sports bras over my four-hook, underwired grandma bras and wore dark, baggy tees and sweatshirts, to which Mom often said things like, “You look like you’re wearing your big brother’s clothes—only makes you look bigger.”
Part of trying to hide my breasts away was about the visual absurdity of my proportions. It wasn’t just Mom. Even the people she didn’t apologize to were constantly commenting on the size of my boobs—it was (and often still is) unrelenting. Mom worried about what large breasts would mean for my sisters and me socio-sexually. But we never talked directly about puberty or sex—all of our time was spent talking about the vulgarity of our boobs and appearance.
When I went to my first prom as a freshman, I wore a dress with a halter-style top—two very thin straps that tied around my neck. Uncharacteristically un-Mormon of me. Anticipating the problem of highlighting what we were always trying to camouflage, Mom made me call my boyfriend and tell him that I wasn’t allowed to wear a pin-on corsage—it had to be one that I could wear on my wrist. That didn’t keep the straps on my prom dress from snapping under the weight of those puppies while we danced though. So ok, maybe Mom had a point.
But I also know Mom didn’t want to watch my boyfriend (who obsessively touched my boobs every single time we were alone or in the dark) fiddle with pinning a corsage on my dress with no chance of avoiding a boob graze—or even a nervous, full-on fondling, trying to affix the corsage while keeping the pin from stabbing either of us.
As Mormons, virginity and “sexual purity” to the extreme were of utmost importance to Mom and the Church. If there is a woman to admire in Mormonism—worthy of respect in any amount of specificity—it is the Virgin Mary, Jesus’s mother, for her purity and virtue. If only we too could be magic—each of our 12 expected births, as obedient Mormon women, the result of immaculate conception.
A young woman with none-to-smallish breasts that easily fit under the buttons of a modest dress or sweater will always read more “pure and virtuous” than one whose dresses gape between buttons—or a young woman who looks sloppy because she had to buy a much-too-large top to accommodate her cup size. At least this is what Mormon leadership would have me believe based on personal experience and their many pamphlets instructing me on how to be a blindly obedient teenager full of shame.
Anyway, post-puberty, I was a walking lure in Mom’s eyes. For me, movement from little girl to young woman, or “easily read as pure and virtuous” to “asking for it,” was a magnificent loss to be ashamed of and mourned. A thin teenager with oversized boobs and long strawberry-blonde hair—Mom wasn’t wrong, at least where it concerned strange boys and girls grabbing my boobs without permission, in the halls, at basketball games, at the movie theater, by the pool, and, and, and.
Goddess Diana, in all her badassery, had a devoted army of nymphs. The more I read about her, the more I want to be like her. On one sultry trip to her favorite pool, Diana handed her quiver, javelin, and slackened bow to a chosen nymph. Another held her dress. Two more removed her boots, and Crocale expertly knotted Diana’s hair to keep it from the water while her own hung loose, floating on the surface. Another set of nymphs stood with vases at the ready to anoint and soak Diana’s unblemished skin.
As Diana and her coterie of sparkly nymphs bathed and splashed in the clear, glassy pool, a hunter named Actaeon discovered them. He’d been out with his hunting friends and an army of violent dogs. When the women saw that Actaeon was gawking at them, they covered their breasts in horror, their shrieks echoing through the glade. Diana’s nymphs immediately formed a wall around her to shield her nakedness—but she was too tall, and the profile of her bare chest glowed rosy in the sunset. Diana’s bow and arrows were not within reach, so she struck Actaeon with a handful of water and turned him into a stag. Newly four-legged and antlered, he ran, provoking his dogs. As the dogs caught and tore him limb from limb, Actaeon’s hunter friends reached the scene to watch the kill, enthusiastically summoning the now defunct human version of their friend to come witness the joy of their catch—“Actaeon! Over here, buddy! Check it out; the dogs are really murdering this stag!”
Not so pure and virtuous: angry women.
On remarkable breast physiology:
Phagocytosis is when phagocytes or amoeba protozoans eat up bacteria or other cells that are out of place. Sometimes this process is triggered by an immune response to get rid of redundant or harmful cells. Breasts go through enormous remodeling during pregnancy and can produce up to a liter of breastmilk a day when breastfeeding. After weaning, milk-producing cells go full-on cannibal and eat fellow milk-secreting cells rather than triggering a phagocytic immune response, which would cause significant inflammation and tissue damage.
The woman who does my pre-op mammogram flicks the side of my breast repeatedly as she smashes it. “It has to get tight like a balloon,” she says, and I just stare at her. “If you’ve got a lump the size of an English pea, we’ll find it!”
I am a sophomore in college when I have the breast reduction surgery. I dance ballet in the performing arts department of my university. I have dancer’s feet that rise excellently high in relevé—but without the ideal body type (boobs too big, legs too short), no one takes me seriously. I love dancing though, and I sweat with no amount of effort, so I always get the award for “hardest worker” or “most improved.”
When I return to ballet after my breast reduction, the mirrors are gridded with the wide eyes of my fellow dancers. I get too many comments about how much I needed the surgery and questions about why I hadn’t done it sooner—“You’re so tiny and thin!” I feel light and small, more feminine, if mortified. After class, I’m feeling so light that I forget about the operation, climb a cinder block wall on my way to church, and split open the incisions on the underside of both breasts.
At home while I’m nursing my wounds with saline and gauze, staring at the bloody mess in the mirror, I wonder if there’s anything I can do to lengthen my legs.
Archaeologists have only recently discovered remains of Wonder Woman’s people, the ancient Amazonians. These fierce Scythian nomads were indeed badass archers on horseback dedicated to warcraft. They were the first people to domesticate horses and raised their children from a tender age to be capable of defending the tribe. But they didn’t actually remove their breasts to excel at their fierceness, and those who write about it say that an archer with any amount of experience would know that breasts are no hindrance.
Women have long been known to breastfeed babies of other species: deer, pigs, dogs, monkeys, bears, peccaries, raccoons, and beavers, and for lots of reasons. Sometimes for social-emotional reasons—the lactating woman might feel tenderly or compassionately toward the animal—a pet for example. Women have been known to breastfeed animals for utilitarian purposes, like a puppy being raised as a hunting dog. Some women have breastfed animals as an answer to breast pain. Women have even been known to breastfeed animals for contraception—but don’t try this at home because Mom, who was undereducated about conventional birth control, says she got pregnant twice while nursing!
Historically, the Ainu women in Japan would adopt a bear cub from a denning mother, breastfeed it, and raise it as their own. In this case, breastfeeding is considered ceremonial. Once the bear is big enough to require twenty or more men to exercise it, the women head to the kitchen to prepare a feast while the men shoot the bear with arrows, suffocate and decapitate it, then decorate its head and place it on an altar. A sacrificial slaughter meant to send the bear’s spirit home.
I’m sitting in my apartment wincing as I smear triple nipple cream on my cracked and bleeding nipples in a last-ditch effort to breastfeed my first baby. And though my milk came in like a concrete truck, it doesn’t want to come out, a common side effect of breast reduction surgery.
I try the football hold, the cradle hold, the cross-cradle hold, the side-lying hold. Only a few minutes in, Finnaeus’s face is as red as the sleeves on his flour-soft onesie—the one with the monkey on the front. His frustrated screams slash through my insides. But the lactation specialists assure me he’s getting plenty. Mom had six babies and doesn’t miss an opportunity to tell me that she breastfed while: driving, sewing, cooking, using a circular saw.
I lean back, sweating in my postpartum hormonal fat suit. I close my eyes and take a breath, my breast hanging out, aching and full of milk that won’t come out. No baby mouth attached. Finnaeus screams, eyes pinched tight. His fresh-born tongue an angry strawberry ruffling with each gasp and cry. Mom looks at me, brows knit, and says, “With you guys I just tied you to me with a cloth diaper and kept on. I even did the dishes while I nursed.”
Estrogen is a known carcinogen, and the more breast tissue one has, the more estrogen circulating through the body. Findings differ, but some studies suggest that bigger breast sizes are associated with higher risk of breast cancer—a seemingly logical assumption for those of us without the burden of conducting sound medical research. Mom used this argument to convince me to get a breast reduction, or maybe it was to advocate for and support seventeen-year-old me—as I remember clearly wanting to disappear altogether. But better-supported findings show that for every twelve months a woman breastfeeds, her risk of breast cancer decreases by 4.3%.
Despite Diana’s history of slut-shaming mothers-to-be (see Callisto) and her slaughter-fest in which she and her twin, Apollo, in loyalty to their mother, Latona, violently murder each and every one of Niobe’s children, and despite her unyielding commitment to virginity, Diana is also the goddess and protector of childbirth.
Contrary to my first impressions of Diana, because her divine umbrella is vast and covers all things generative and nutritive, she is often portrayed with many plump breasts, even bouquets of breasts, cascading down her torso (as seen in the impressive, dare I say enviable, display of lactation in the Artemis Fountain, Villa d’Este Tivoli, Italy and in Diana of Ephesus, detail from The Discovery of the Child Erichtonius by Rubens).
I like thinking about this badass keeper of golden-horned animals, slayer of gawkers, commander of troops as feminine in the extreme.
Diana’s the only pagan deity mentioned in the New Testament, and her following is momentous. Ample-bosomed, freely-lactating, vengeful huntress, she’s somewhat of a departure from the modest, small-breasted, demure Virgin Mary.
In Mormonism, what’s less virtuous than being big breasted or exploring one’s sexuality before compulsory heterosexual marriage? Any amount of admiration for paganism or its figures—especially those with bare breasts.
“Did you have some kind of breast surgery?” the lactation specialist asks as she holds my left breast in one hand and pinches my nipple into a nipple shield with the other. “Breast reduction—they said I might have trouble nursing,” I answer. She shakes her head like nothing could be further from the truth, and I understand this to be a part of her ethos as a member of the militant breastfeeding cult.
Glandular tissue, milk ducts, nerves, and other structures crucial to breastfeeding are removed, severed, and damaged during breast reduction surgery. Complications with making and expressing milk are well-known side effects, but the lacti-fascists insist that my newborn might just have an angry disposition rather than a legitimate issue getting enough milk. They were wrong and demanded that I commit and recommit to starving my poor child.
Perfect discipleship requires perfect obedience. In Mormonism, men strive to be like God the Father, and they have hundreds of scriptures directly referring to God’s perfect character, powers, moods, methods, and abilities as signposts. There is a Heavenly Mother in Mormon doctrine, but we’re not allowed to speak of her—it will, uh, soil her perfect femininity and virtue, or something. Heavenly Mother is never spoken about in concrete terms—only that she’s birthed all the souls that exist. I wonder if she breastfed. Whether she’s narrow-waisted with large breasts or more like the Venus of Willendorf. Whether she plucks stray hairs on her chin or leaves them to grow long as the beard of God the Father. Women don’t have the same concrete example to strive for, so we settle for chaste, self-abnegating Mary—our example of near perfection.
The pagan goddess Diana had a massive and loyal following in Ephesus. As seen in Acts in the New Testament, the Ephesians wouldn’t give her up, their beloved Artemis, Queen of Heaven, Mother, Healer, and Savior. Her temples were well-visited before they were destroyed and built over by the Catholic Church.
There’s strong evidence that the Christian Mary, Mother of Jesus, is a composite character made up of the Ephesians’ beloved Artemis and the Virgin Mary. After the Christian Church moved in on top of Diana’s ruins, their exclusion of female images starved believers for their connection to Artemis’s life-sustaining power. The Ephesians were just unwilling to give her up and usurped Virgin Mary, forcing the Church into reinterpreting Mary’s role. What emerged then from the Church was a dogmatic fusion of Mary, Mother of Jesus and Diana. A woman with a hint of mysticism but stripped of arrows and armies and anger: Mary, Virgin Mother of Jesus.
“Here women, here’s your model!”—one who embodies most fully our ideal. Our target to waste our golden arrows on. Our perfection: slim-waisted, small-chested, young woman enrobed in blue, quietly breastfeeding the Son of God.