By Judith Paley, MD
Early one spring morning in 1971, a clearly off-campus type stopped me on my way into the University of Colorado Student Union. "Is it true," he asked, "on 'dis campus, 'dat broads don' wear no bras?". Setting aside mild alarm and annoyance at his forward intrusion, I had to admit to myself that he certainly had accurately assessed the foundation situation. Whether or not we literally burned the offending article, many of us embraced the liberation symbolized by its absence. Ann Landers ventured the following formula to determine whether or not such freedom from support was appropriate: place a pencil beneath your unfettered breast and if it stays put, you are too large to forego the undergarment. Unhappily, I could hold two pencils in such manner but ignored her advice anyway. My gynecologist warned of "Cooper's droop", predicting that the tough connective tissue strands called Cooper's ligaments, responsible for providing a framework for the glandular tissue would irretrievably stretch, never again holding my breasts upright and firm. I'd like to believe these many years later, as my nipples head for my waistline, that my thoughtless, bra-less protest did not cause their current sorry status.
"Like two fried eggs sliding off my chest!" one similarly sagging contemporary pronounced. These inevitable, age-related breast transformations seem divided into two types: the wilted, deflated degeneration and, conversely, the alarming, enlarging kind. Whence goeth your breasts depends on an unfathomable blend of weight, heredity, and hormones.
My hippy days over, I re-embraced the bra as I entered my professional life. Thanks here to my friend Anita who, despite coming of age in the same era on the same campus as myself, somehow became knowledgeable on this subject. On visiting me at the end of medical school, she eyed my bra collection in horror and introduced me, that very day, to the wonderful, ample-chested, bra women who staff the lingerie divisions of large department stores. I learned how to ease my chest into garments with more support than the flying buttresses of Notre Dame, yet remarkably comfortable and natural-looking. Suddenly, my front buttoned blouses no longer gapped dangerously at the cleavage and my shoulders and mid-back were released from their uncomfortable load.
I am convinced, but not regretful, that several years of breast-feeding took their toll on my figure. My daughter was an indifferent feeder, easily distracted from the task at hand. Any small sound in the room caught her attention and she would twist her head to investigate, my nipple still firmly caught in her mouth. As she turned her head nearly upside down to find the source of the diversion, I watched in alarm as my breast stretched and twisted along with her. Before feedings, I wrestled with enormous engorgement. Afterwards, my breasts were temporarily reduced to empty sacks. By the time she and I called it quits when she was nearly two, they had reached new lengths and new lows.
Flat-chested friends report that even very small breasts can actually sag. One colleague from college reports that when she loses a little weight, what little there is immediately disappears and her breasts become more flaps than mounds. Still, our large-busted contemporaries would prefer this predicament to their uncomfortable load - oft compared to fruit with barely a memory of ripeness. "From lemons to oranges to grapefruits" wailed one friend. "Just what I needed as I went from a D to a double D!" cried another.
So now my breasts and I are entering this new adventure called menopause. One of the few benefits of running out of estrogen, I find, is the ability to bounce painlessly downstairs. If you've ever crossed your arms under your breasts to comfortably jog even a short distance, you can appreciate this boon. A young woman friend listened wistfully as I made this observation and repeated softly "Ah, to bounce painlessly downstairs." It seems, however, one must choose between this blissful comfort tempered by hot flashes, or no heat and breasts that feel like sausages in a brassiere casing. I am convinced that this is a major reason that women forego hormone therapy. I have personally pulled off my estrogen patch in the middle of the night when a breast twinge woke me as I rolled from one side to the other. The downside? I got up the following a.m. with the patch stuck to my elbow, the only part of me free enough from sweat to support the adhesive backing.
While every woman seems to have an opinion on the state of her aging breasts, on average we seem to handle these changes with humor and grace. Our worries center more on breast health than shape. If they remain lumpless and pain-free, we are at peace with their new southern location. So I'll pass on the breast lift for now, though sometimes I fantasize that just a little tuck in the skin of the upper chest would hoist them back to normal. I can't help but wonder though what medical miracles could be performed on this expanding waistline!
Here's To Your Health by Caryl Frawley