I first started to notice breasts when I was ten years old. Not my own, because I didn’t have any yet, but my mother’s. I had seen my mother dressing often enough; she was small-framed, and her pear-shaped breasts were average in size and proportionate to the rest of her.
But even if they were not big, they seemed to me very real and salient: there’s a breast. It was hard to imagine my flat front being sculpted into such fullness.
For the first part of that year, Mom’s breasts were what a breast was, the very form of breasts. That changed when our family traveled to Virginia to visit Mom’s sister Nancy and her three teenage daughters. Aunt Nancy was divorced; the house was occupied entirely by women, women who were either full-blown or budding feminists. Everybody was eager to be rid of feminine self-consciousness when it came to the body, so nobody was shy about nudity. I saw all the girls naked at one time or another.
The girls, none of them younger than 16, had real women’s bodies: average to tall in height, with curving hips and full, pendulous breasts. The breasts were similar to my mother’s in shape, but they had a youth and bouncy vigor that my mother’s lacked. Still, they all shared a certain heft and hang.
Breasts seem to have changed over the 20 years since my girlhood. I know that my childhood idea of breasts was hardly comprehensive; it was limited in even the most basic variable, size. I wouldn’t have known what to make of the memorable titles given to cup sizes by 1940s brassiere designer Ruth Kapinas: nubbins, snubbins, droopers, and super-droopers. But it seems that gravity has lessened over those two decades, freeing breasts, even large ones, to float undisturbed as a woman walks along.
The defeat of gravity may be due to locale — I live in San Diego now, which, unlike the Midwest of my childhood, attracts a great number of the “beautiful people.” Surgery, for the sake of both enhancement and lift, has surged in popularity. But I suspect the biggest boost has come from the brassiere industry’s perfection of its latest, most wondrous technological achievement, the push-up bra. By the middle of the ’90s, a proper war of push-up specials was escalating. Besides the Wonderbra by Sara Lee, there was the Miracle Bra by Intimate Brands (which owns the Victoria’s Secret lingerie label), the Ultra Super-Boost by Gossard, and the X-Bra by Vanity Fair, all of which raised the bosom to new heights.
A prototype push-up “breast supporter” was patented in 1863 by one Marie Tuck, but her idea was judged too innovative for commercial success in the years leading up to the 20th Century. Now, nearly 150 years later, nothing seems too innovative for commercial success. Not long ago, I stopped into Victoria’s Secret at the Fashion Valley mall and had my eyes opened. Cleavage enhancement seemed the primary reason for wearing a brassiere, and a wide range of elements had been enlisted in the cause. I found “padding” made from air, water, gel, and fabric woven into silicone.
Candy, an employee, explained some of the different styles. “Some bras push you in, and some push you up. Our new line, the Very Sexy, comes with the interwoven silicone pad. On the Very Sexy Lace Miracle Bra, the pad is in the bottom, so it pushes up and gives an upward-cleavage look.” So it makes you look like you have more than you really do? “Yes, because the pad is in there. It takes you and pushes you up and fills in the lower area.” Another employee chimed in, “You wear that if you want to show more of your breasts, like with the sort of dresses they wore in medieval days.” Candy continued. “The Very Sexy Seamless Bra has a deep-V plunge. The pad is on the side; it pushes up and in and creates inner cleavage.”
Well and good, but this was just high-tech stuffing. What had me really curious was the water bra. I had heard it mentioned in faux-shocked whispers by women I knew, but no one owned one — or at least, no one admitted to it. Water wasn’t quite breast tissue, but surely it had more quiver and bounce than silicone. Did it move like the real thing? “Kind of. If you were to squish it, it would feel like you. There’s a pouch inside the bra filled with mineral oil. It’s a regular demi-style bra, so it pushes up more than in.”
The other employee, a slender young Asian named Jenna, weighed in. “Some women have complained that they’re too heavy to wear and that there are leakage problems. The bras aren’t supposed to break, but when they do, you can’t really wear them anymore. The silicone-weave bra is a lot lighter.
“Our number-one selling bra is from the Body by Victoria line; we carry nine different styles. It’s lightly lined with a molded cup, and it’s very comfortable.” In its smallest sizes, “It’s good for a training bra — it has the little molded-cup look, but it’s natural feeling. My mom bought me Jockey for Her and Fruit of the Loom for Girls. I didn’t even know what Victoria’s Secret was until I was, like, a sophomore in college. You have little girls in here who are 11 or 12, and their moms are buying them bras, and I’m, like, ‘Hello? You’re so lucky!’ ”
I bumped into some of those lucky girls outside the store and asked them to reveal their bra preferences. Fourteen-year-old Debra didn’t know her size, but she did own “probably 20 bras. I just ask the sales lady for help, and she picks a bunch for me. I don’t want flashy colors or lacy texture. If it’s kind of lacy and you want to wear a white shirt, that won’t work because it would show through. I don’t like front closures because they kind of pinch or ride up a little. The most I’ve paid for a bra was $50 at Nordstrom.”