Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Little Women

It's not what you think. My daughter is reading Louisa May Alcott's classic, but this post has nothing to do with the adventures of the March sisters.

I considered several other titles:

-- Thank Heaven for Little Girls

-- AA...It's Not Just For Alcoholics Anymore

-- Some Girls Get B's, C's and D's; Other Girls Get Straight A's

Ladies, this is a post that very few of you will actually relate to, but I've needed to write it for years. Gentlemen, you are dismissed at this point. Really. You can go. Come back tomorrow and perhaps I'll have something that will interest you more.

Seriously, guys, would you go if I said we were going to discuss "feminine things?" That's what I'm saying. Run along. Shoo.

Ladies, this is going to be very honest and at times painful. This is going to leave me out there, exposed and vulnerable. It's not really something that people talk about a lot, but I think it's important--at least for me and for women like me--the little women. This also promises to get lengthy. I have a lot to say.

I've never been petite. I was adult-sized at eleven years old. Until I went to college and learned that I was just a little bigger than average, I felt like a gigantic Amazon Woman.

But that was in height. Height is not what I'm writing about.

Last week, I decided to do something I haven't done for a decade. I decided to go to the mall and see if I could find a bra that I liked and that fit. That's right, ladies, I haven't been bra shopping for ten years. I have been wearing Fruit of the Loom cotton sports bras, the ones that come in a convenient three-pack at Wal-Mart, exclusively for that entire time.


They are designed to be tight and restricting, so they fit.

I am a little woman. A couple of days a month, when hormonal levels cause me to be especially bloated, I might be an A cup. Maybe.

Before nursing two babies, I was a solid A. Woo-hoo. Most people wouldn't think that is something to get excited about, but at least I could buy a bra at the mall then. There are a few brands that carry the A size. Since babies, I am less than that. I am, what the industry refers to as the little known AA. Did you know that stores don't carry that size for women? That size only exists in the little girls department. Remember training bras?

I am a grown woman. How long do I have to be in training?

Years ago, moving from nursing bras back into standard attire, I realized how much I had shrunk. I tried to get by on my lightly padded but ill-fitting pre-baby bras. They didn't lay smoothly under my clothes. I decided to swallow whatever sense of dignity I might have once had and go back to looking for a bra in the girls' department, an experience I had found strangely humiliating even as an adolescent. I picked out several bras and carried them back across the store to the ladies' dressing room to try them on, feeling imaginary eyes on me all the way. But guess what? Little girls' bras are designed to fit a little girls' body. Grown women, particularly those who have borne and nursed babies, are no longer proportioned like little girls.

I went back to the women's lingerie department again, convinced that there must be something there for me somewhere, if I only looked hard enough. Nothing. I tried another store. And another. And another. I wasn't being picky. There weren't any bras, of any style, in any of the stores, that fit me.

The shopping trip ended in a quiet puddle of tears. I'd always known I was on the small side, but that day confirmed something I hadn't wanted to have to face: I was completely outside the realm of normal. My size didn't exist. I was a freak.

I melted down.

If it weren't for two things, I might have stayed in that puddle of tears indefinitely.

1. My husband loved me.

2. My baby daughter needed me.

My husband accepted me unconditionally, even though I still struggled to accept myself. And he didn't just accept me in that self-sacrificing 'even though' sense, as if he was some sort of heroic martyr. No. He accepted me. He loved me. His unwavering love was a steady foundation of bedrock for me. That was the easiest part of the equation.

The harder part was the fact that I now had a daughter. I had a daughter who looked very much like me. I didn't want my daughter, if she grew up small like me, to have to feel like this--like a freak. I wanted her to know that any size and shape is ok. In a media-barraged world that screams that size matters, I wanted her to be content. But there was a problem. I didn't feel ok. I wasn't content. I never had been content even as a solid A. I had pretended I was content and tried to convince myself and others that I was indeed content with my body just the way it was. But it was a lie. I had always felt like less of a woman. Our culture is tough on girls who don't have much on top. As a confirmed Double A, a misfit in the eyes of the lingerie industry, I was alone, humiliated and broken. I knew that, in that condition, my daughter wouldn't believe my words when I told her she was ok the way she was. I knew that my daughter would see right through my flimsy facade. I wouldn't be able to fake it. Girls know. If I wanted any hope that she perhaps wouldn't feel this same pain, at this same level, I would have to actually learn to be satisfied, content.

For her sake, I would do it.

As my husband continued to speak truth to me, and as God gave me increasing grace and strength to accept myself and face life just as I am, I began to move forward.

I bought the little cotton sports bras at Wal-Mart. They have no padding of any kind. They leave no room for guess work. Wearing one of those and a slim-fitting knit top, there is nothing but the truth. The first time I went out of the house in one, I felt as self-conscious as a fifteen year old with a sudden outbreak of horrendous acne. I forced myself to stand tall and not avoid people. I will admit; that first week was grueling, emotionally. But I was determined. After a few months, I began to get used to my own appearance. I began to relax. I began to feel confident and comfortable again.

I whispered truth to my daughter as she grew through the toddler and preschool years.

Ellie, I would say, pulling her into my lap and looking deep into her eyes, do you know what makes you so special? She would smile and let me continue our little tradition. Do your sparkly green eyes with the pretty gold glitter in them make you special? She knew her part and would shake her head. Does your cute little freckle on the end of your nose make you special? No. You are very good at singing--is that what makes you so special? No. You are one smart little cookie--is that what makes you special? How about your cute little laugh that makes everyone else laugh, too--is that what makes you so special? By now, she would be giggling, waiting for the final word she knew was coming. You are special because God designed you. The greatest artist and creator in the whole universe thought and thought about how He should make you. He designed you, every inch of you, every bit of your personality, just exactly the way He wanted you. You were made on purpose by God! THAT makes you pretty special.

I was doing all that I could to find a foundation that could not be shaken, because this world tears girls down at every turn. Physical appearance was unreliable as a determining factor for self-worth. Too many things could go wrong or out of vogue. One day freckles are in; the next they may be out. Curly hair or straight. Beautiful skin marred by acne. A few extra pounds or not enough. Tell a little girl she's pretty, but don't count on it sticking. Being smart was also not strong enough. Kids who aren't brainy make it clear that being brainy is often not socially desirable. Being an athlete, a comic, a musician--I went through the list of all the things you can praise your daughter for--and none of them were enough. Only an understanding of being uniquely designed and created by the Master Craftsman was bomb-proof. That one can't be taken away.

As I whispered these truths to my daughter, I began to believe them myself.

That was many years ago. Time, combined with one three-pack after another of Wal-Mart cotton sports bras had its desired effect. I was no longer self-conscious about my AA cup size. I was ok. Really. I was content. My daughter knew it. As she began to enter adolescence and have questions about her own changing body, I found that I was very open and comfortable talking about it with her.

She knows that I am fine, that she is fine, and that all the people she knows are fine--just the way God made them. Breast size is not an issue for her. Breasts come in all sizes. All of them are fine. It is no big deal. She knows that the media presents a very narrow view of the range of sizes that exist, but she knows that that portrayal is inaccurate. Real girls and women come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and there no reason to value one above another.

Two weeks ago, she came to me with a concern. Her own little Wal-Mart cotton sports bras (which I bought for her when she was first starting to develop because I knew they would feel completely normal to her, having seen me in them her whole life), were getting too small. The other girls had bras with a little more shape and just a little bit of padding to prevent the embarrassment of (gasp) nipples showing through when a cool breeze blew. She knew exactly what bras she wanted and where to find them, as she and her friends had all compared bras and even tried each others' on.

NOTE: This was completely foreign to me, as I had NEVER wanted to talk about or look at or even acknowledge bras with my friends at that age or EVER. I was amazed and amused that she was so comfortable with her body, something I didn't experience until I was in my 30's.

So, we went to town to shop for new bras for the girl. While we were there, I couldn't help but notice that there is more to life than cotton sports bras. I felt an old twinge of envy that other women get to wear pretty undergarments. It occurred to me that I have gained a bit of weight over the last few years. Maybe...

On a whim, I tried on a bra--from the women's department, no less. It was a standard A cup size. To my surprise, it almost fit. It was closer than I remembered from the last time, thanks to that few extra pounds I was carrying. I put the bra back. It didn't fit quite right and that particular store had a fairly poor selection. Many of the major name brands I remembered from my days of working in the lingerie department of a Broadway store in my early 20's (oh, the irony of that assignment!) were absent from this store, but I figured they were at other stores, and they should carry a good selection of A cup sizes. I came home from the shopping trip with a little bit of hope ringing in my ears. I told my husband that I was thinking I might be able to shop for real bras. They are expensive, though. Did he want me to prioritize the expenditure? His eyes lit up. He had so patiently and so genuinely supported me through these years of learning to accept my real size. He was thrilled with the idea of me wearing something pretty. Wal-Mart cotton sports bras from the three-pack are not exactly sexy. He encouraged me to go shopping.

This past Saturday, I did.

I tried on half a dozen bras at one store. None of them fit. I moved on to another store. The A cups were still all just a little too big. I could feel the old despair creeping back in. I was not normal. Bras didn't even come in my size. I was a freak. At the end of several hours, after trying one bra after another, I found one brand, Warners, that seemed to still define an A as an A, rather than inflating it to accommodate the growing girth of the American population, as so many brands of women's clothing are doing. Unfortunately, it was still slightly too big. The rounded cups, padded just enough for a smooth shape, but not anything crazy, were not quite filled. It felt fake.

It was close, though, so I stepped outside and called my husband for his opinion. It was the smallest bra in the entire mall, in any style! He felt bad that I was having a difficult time, of course, and was very sweet. I had been just fine for quite a few years, until I tried to hope again for something pretty that also fit. That was too much to ask, apparently. I didn't want to try to make myself something I was not. I didn't want a crazy extreme push-up number that turned me into a supermodel. I wanted to be me. I'd worked so hard to feel comfortable being me and I had actually achieved it. I liked being me, finally. And now the stupid mall was tearing me back down to an insecure girl again. I was being told, once again, that I was not good enough. I was not important enough for any of the companies to waste money on even manufacturing anything in my size. I had forgotten how depressing it was to shop for a bra. I hadn't done it in ten years. I kicked myself for even thinking I could try. Stupid. Stupid.

Over the course of that brief phone call, my frustration turned to anger. My anger turned into sadness and I cried the same old bitter puddle of tears from ten years before.

Andy, of course, was sweet and loving. He asked me if I'd found any that fit at all. I had found one that came very close. He encouraged me to go ahead and buy it--and in several colors (I was so glad I didn't have to settle for athletic heather grey), so I did it. I bought one black, one white and one tan.

The next day, getting ready for church, I nearly fell apart again. I put a new bra under my top and it looked fake. It didn't look like me, at least not the me I'd become accustomed to. I felt self-conscious all over again--and this time for looking like I was just on the small side of NORMAL! I was wearing an A cup bra, for goodness sake, and felt like a liar because I knew that it was bigger than the real me. It looked fine for someone else, but it wasn't me. I quickly opted for an extra layer, something blousy, to go over my top for the day.

Today was my third day wearing my new bras. I do not feel comfortable in them. I look like someone else--someone normal, someone average--not me. I suppose in time I could get used to the new look of me, but I've worked so hard to be happy with who I truly am...

I sat down at the computer in a quiet moment this afternoon and Googled 'bras for small chested women.' This article, from last year's New York Times, came up.

The article, for the most part, sounds like something I could have written myself. It is full of links and helpful information for the smaller set. Turns out, there are enough women like me out there for quite a few companies to exist just for us! They make bras in AA sizes--for women! The companies don't exist to 'enhance' us, which is code for making us look like someone we are not, but rather to provide the comfort, support, coverage and attractiveness that everyone else can get at the mall! Who knew? Where have these companies been all my life? God bless the world wide web.

I hear that exceptionally large-breasted women have very similar struggles, and they have the added pain of back troubles. I do hope that another set of similarly customized companies exist for them. Feeling alone in all of this has been so hard, but it was just that--a feeling--and not reality.

Reading the article from the Times, I nearly cried. This time, however, it would not have been tears of frustration, bordering on despair. This time it would have been relief, camaraderie, acceptance, affirmation. There are others out there who are having the exact same struggles. There are others who want to be content with who they are, but would really like just one nice bra that fits. I am not alone.

I am not alone.

I am not a freak. I am fine. I knew it before, but it sure is nice to have some confirmation from the outside world.

Time to save my pennies for some pretty bras that are just my size. Who knows? Maybe I'll even find a swimsuit!

And gentlemen, for those of you who read this all the way through, despite my admonitions otherwise, please learn these lessons for yourself. Contrary to what the media and the heavily padded push-up bra industry portrays, women come in all shapes and sizes. They have no choice in the matter outside of surgery. Please help them be content. You carry a lot of power.

Feel free to pass this link on.


alison said...

Thanks for writing this, Sherry. It's always interesting to me that when one is moving forward, stepping out it can feel like falling back and losing ground, but that's temporary...at least I know it will be for you.

I'm proud of you.

I've been so concerned about one of my daughter's posture and have been reminded that the only thing I can really do, outside of pestering her, is to stand tall myself. So I am.

Jeannie said...

Sherry, thanks ("from the bottom of my heart") for writing this!!!
I'm so glad to hear this, soooo truly glad. You have expressed everything I felt from 12 years old, on into my my 40's.

At that point I made a big mistake--the surgery option. How I wish I could go back and make the choice you made. How I wish I had had the wisdom and good sense that you had, to make the right choice for the sake of your daughter's emotional well-being. However, I was bent so low emotionally, because of everything you have described here, that I simply couldn't endure it any longer. I cried my way through Jr. High and High School, and through all of my young adult years, while comparing myself to my own sisters, and wondering WHY!!?! I enjoyed the benefit of being a "nursing" mother. Then I went back to crying and frustration and anger, which eventually turned to hope as I began to explore the solution.

Now, I have the sadness of regret for that solution, and the sadness of knowing that my daughter has experienced the same emotional trauma as I went through. On top of that sadness I have the sorrow and regret of not helping my daughter, hoping to prevent her from experiencing the same trauma I went through.

I actually thought I was the only one who was such of freak of nature. I actually thought someting was physically wrong with me because my mother and sisters didn't have that problem! I thought I must have done something to myself as a child, to cause the problem. When I realized that it had happened to my daughter also, I felt terrible for you, knowing that you would also suffer the same trauma as I had experienced. It just never occurred to me that I could somehow prevent that trauma from happening to you also. It never occurred to me that I could somehow choose to feel "okay" about my "problem". I just knew it would always be a problem for me, and I desperately longed to fix it!

I'm sorry, Sherry. Please forgive me.

Sherry C said...

Mom, I love you. I will admit that I was angry when you opted out. I felt abandoned. But I forgive you. Of course I forgive you. You made a choice out of the depths of despair. I can't hold that against you. I love you. Do you hear me? I love you.

Jeannie said...

Thanks, Sherry. Yes, as I sit here in tears, I do believe you love me, and that you have forgiven me. You and I have needed to have this talk, in this depth of detail, for a very long time. Who knew that we could finally have it through your blog post. Such total honesty, with each other, and with any who read it! Who knows how much good this will do for others as well! "Good things come to those who wait."

Thanks again, Honey, for your vulnerability and transparency--just a couple of the traits I so admire in you. I love you--with all my heart, and take such "pride" in you.

Sheila said...

Sherry, you brave girl. Bravo! No matter what our bra size is - or our jeans size - to appreciate our bodies the way that God made them. to teach our daughters to do the same, is so very important in this world of "perfection". I hope you find some sexy brightly colored bras that fit you and that you love :)

Shar said...

Sherry...you are an amazing woman, for so many reasons. Your an inspiration, fun, hard working and a great mother. Life is tricky and the messages we receive from others, mostly unintentional can really mess up our heads. I think most of us women feel rather freakish, feeling we don't measure up due to our body image, family we grew up with, how smart we think we should or shouldn't be, material possessions, and the list can go on. I was just reminded yesterday of Psalm 139, and how God loves and see's us. You are a brave and beautiful woman, thanks for sharing your heart, it caused me to reflect on my own freakish feelings and recall how much I'm loved by Him, what a wonderful husband I have...and grateful I get to know you, even from the distance between us. It's wonderful to know that God can use us, grow us, refine us in the midst of the struggles we face, both known and unknown. Thanks again for sharing!!

Amber said...

Thanks for a great post. No matter my size, my biggest struggle is accepting my body so that I can model such behavior for my kids -- yes, my son, too! I want him to know a confidant woman so that he marries such when the time is right.
As a busty woman, I can attest to having the same frustrations, but in the opposite direction. I have a hard time finding bras that fit "just right" without being too tight or too loose. I also have a problem buying shirts because of course the Girls are not shy. Fruit of the Loom t-shirts are my friends. They are long enough and high enough in just the right areas. I am envious of small-chested girls, but after reading this I understand how painful that can be, too. Thank you for your honesty. I appreciate knowing the other side, too.

Anonymous said...

oh my gosh, this is me!! minus the husband and daughter. i am 20 and halfway between a AAA and AA. yes AAA. i've lost count of the nights i've spent crying and begging God to increase my bust size! it sounds crazy and not something i often admit but everything you say is so true, it feels like i'm the only one. and im 6ft, even my petite friends are bigger than me! im trying to learn to accept myself the way i am.
i found a site littlewomen.co.uk which has helped towards that, although it still hasn't been easy, when you have to guess without trying it on! but you have really inspired me, to be happy with who i am, because thats the way God made me, and for the sake of my children if i ever have them.
thank you!! it's so nice to find someone who has been through exactly the same thing as me.
God bless x