Bare My Breast
“Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.”
-Song of Solomon 4:5
It wasn’t until a few months ago that I learned the anatomy of my breasts. I had mastitis, spoiled milk stuck in me from breastfeeding, which led to a frantic Google search for “at-home remedies” while I waited for my antibiotic prescription to be filled. Finding an illustrated diagram on an image search, I gasped. Did you know that milk ducts look like a flower in the breast? Arranged like the petals on a daisy— each duct a petal, connecting to the center bud. It was beautiful. That was inside of me?
Lobes to lobules that end in dozens of bulbs that grow with milk, each rooted in the fat that fills the gap between each bulb, between each passageway.
It wasn’t until I had been nursing for two months that I finally saw the milky, floral arrangement that has always been inside of me. The roots that feed my daughter. Just below my skin there are layered ducts and mammary glands. Flowers blossom within me.
“Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked.” -Luke 11:27
I have always been told that I look just like my mom. Something about my essence, I guess, because no one can pick out any specific trait. Is it the general structure of my face? My coloring? Perhaps it’s the way my mouth stretches from resting to smiling, or the way my hair can’t decide if it’s curly or straight. I have studied pictures of us together, and all I can see are the differences: my strong jaw, and my broad shoulders; the way I tower over her by five inches. Still, I am honored by the compliment. I love when I am compared to my mom, who is soft and kind and really hates making dinner every night. She doesn’t wear makeup, and listens, and likes to get each of her toenails painted a different color when we get pedicures.
I have always longed to be like her. I want sunspots on my face, and wrinkles on my hands, and to look so beautiful in a ponytail. I love being told I look like her—to have her X chromosome manifest in the geography of my body. I try to map her features onto me— the mountains of her cheekbones, the plains of her cheeks, the canyons of neck wrinkles I discovered on myself when I was only 22.
My mom has given me a lot. A distrust of the mall, an appreciation for chocolate and puzzles and true crime. Her body as a home. She has given hours of help on my math homework. She taught me how to make your hair look like you washed it when you didn’t, and how to warm up pencil eyeliner on your curling iron to make it go on smoother. She gave me her warmth and her touch and her closeness.
My mom has given up a lot for me. Thousands of hours of sleep, her pre-baby body that didn’t pee when she sneezed, and abs that used to be tightly stitched together—the life she led before me.
“The girls.” Tatas.
“Thou shalt even drink it and suck it out, and thou shalt break the shreds thereof, and pluck off thine own breasts: for I have spoken it, saith the Lord God.”
When I was 8 years old, my mom flew across the country to Washington, D.C. For me, that meant spending a week with my Grandy, painting pinecones, staining my shirts with fry grease, and watching Anne of Green Gables. For my mom, this meant extensive genetic testing to figure out if she carried the mutation that had killed dozens of women generations before her. My own grandpa was torn from his mother at eight years old and sent to live on a cousin’s farm after she died from ovarian cancer. My mom left us at home to uncover if she held the same ticking time bomb in her womb, in her breasts.
My mom tested positive for the BRCA1 genetic mutation, which led to the diagnosis of a high risk of both ovarian and breast cancer. She said she cried a lot, alone in her closet, so she wouldn’t scare us. Every woman in her family with this gene had died of cancer. While my brothers and I ran through the sprinklers, she wondered if she would be ripped from us.
Two years later, shortly after having my youngest brother, she had a hysterectomy. To me that meant she and my dad stayed in the hospital for three nights; Grandy came to help again, and my brothers and I could jump on her bed as much as we wanted. For my mom, that meant her uterus and ovaries were cleanly scalpeled out and she was left with a scar across her abdomen; pink and hollow.
Two years after that, she had her preventative mastectomy. Expert hands slicing flesh and tissue. Pulling away her most tender parts in order to not be pulled away from us. For me, that meant more weeks with Grandy. For my mom, I can’t even imagine.
When she finally came back home, she looked different. I was fascinated. Where did they put her breasts once they took them off her? Did she get to see them? Did she feel different? Did they still itch sometimes? How much did she weigh now? Was it cold? Did it hurt? What was she going to do with all her bras? Would she save them for me?
I was too embarrassed to ask those questions out loud. But one year later, I finally thought to ask the meaning of a word I had heard passed between my parents and grandparents.
My mom was the one who explained that I had a 50/50 chance of having the same mutation. It all depended on which of her Xs she gave to me.
Chi chis. Tetons.
“They committed whoredoms in their youth: there were their breasts pressed, and there they bruised the teats of their virginity.” -Ezekiel 23:3
If you look at the flat-pressed breasts of a mammogram, you will see spider silk. Fiberglass. Thread. Filaments. The fragile roots when repotting a plant—all splayed and searching for water and cover.
Are those veins? Are they the ducts? Is it the marbled fat?
Even though I took high school anatomy and owned and studied a kid’s encyclopedia of the human body book growing up, I had never actually seen an anatomical drawing of a female body that included breasts. I have thought about this a lot, trying to figure out where the drawings went, why I had only seen body diagrams of men or women who had mastectomies, or maybe never had breasts at all.
I can’t help but think of the people who give me pointed glares or whispers when I breastfeed in public and would rather pretend my child never eats and I don’t even have breasts. Some have described it as disgusting; others, arousing—even sexual. It seems like those people are the ones who might consider a drawing of my glands and tissue pornographic. Something to slice off, something to cover.
When did my body become erotic? Arousing? When did my breasts and hips and legs and shoulders become sexual? When I entered puberty? When I started dating? Before that? When I was born? When my parents gave me their X chromosomes? When Eve plucked a budding fruit off a tree and took a bite?
“Give them, O Lord: what wilt thou give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.” -Hosea 9:14
When I was 22, I finally decided to bite the tit and get tested.
After a few weeks, a doctor sat me down in a small office and handed me a map. Now, even if no one can spot on my face exactly what looks like my mom, I have a pin. It is dropped in my genome. On my 17th chromosome, the right side of the branch, I have proof of at least one way that I am exactly like my mom. 3829delT. My latitudinal evidence. My positive test.
“Let her breasts satisfy thee at all times” -Proverbs 5:19
If you were to look at a diagram of a breast from a side view, this is what you would see, reading from left to right: the nipple—a trunk growing out from the ground of the breast. From that spreads a network, branching out like roots, each strand ending in a clump of ducts, surrounded in a soil of fat.
The BRCA1 genetic mutation is what is called a germline mutation—one that is passed on through reproductive cells. I can trace this mutation’s germination back and back and back through my own family tree. Geneticists have found that the BRCA1 mutation located at 3829DelT is most common in Danish families, passing down the same contaminated X from generation to generation, acting as a chain linking our stories together. Del T means we are missing the T in our AGCT molecule. That one missing thymine is what makes everything unwind. This code, 3829, acts as a kind of coordinate marker. We can follow the roots across an ocean, all the way to Denmark.
Numerical proof of where I come from—more than my blonde hair, blue eyes, straight nose, and violent cheekbones. The test results ground me deeper to a line of women before me. Women I have never met. Women whose names I didn’t even know before I got my result, who died long before I was born, long before most of their grandchildren were born.
My mom inherited her mutation from her dad, who got the tainted X from his mom, Doris. Doris had sevensisters. From a quick family search, I found that Helen, Joysa, Dauna, and Grace all died of cancer between the ages of forty-five and sixty. They didn’t have the genetic test then; they didn’t know they needed it. A generation of matriarchs wiped out.
What I find most interesting is that all the women who died only had sons. Except Doris. She had Margo, my grandpa’s older sister. Margo died at fifty-one from ovarian cancer. I guess almost all these women died this way, ovaries still intact, killing them before breast cancer ever could. My grandpa only had one daughter, my mom, who was diagnosed at thirty-five. My mom only had one daughter; she was diagnosed at twenty-two; that daughter only has one daughter. That is my daughter.
I have caused thee to multiply as the bud of the field, and thou hast increased and waxen great, and thou art come to excellent ornaments: thy breasts are fashioned, and thine hair is grown, whereas thou wast naked and bare. -Ezekial 16:7
I started wearing bikinis the summer that we started trying to get pregnant.
My mom was the type of lady that took me to get my one-piece swimsuits altered so that they would be more “modest.” This might be a good time to say that I have never seen my mother naked. Never. I don’t know what her body looked like before all her surgeries. I don’t know what her reconstructed boobs look like now. I have heard so much that we look alike—but I have no reference point for what my body might become.
Maybe that is the reason I found the diagrams of boobs so shocking—there were forces that kept those diagrams out of high school anatomy textbooks, but there were also forces that made my mother scream and dive for cover when we came into her room without knocking.
I had bigger boobs than most of the girls my age, which meant adding more and more and more fabric to the top of my swimsuit to make sure no shadow of cleavage showed. I am still not sure what my mom was so afraid of. But I was ashamed of my boobs and ashamed of how much it took to cover them.
When I tried on my first bikini, my husband was in the dressing room with me. I only wore it swimming with him. Reveling at how supported I felt. How the two triangles of olive-green fabric kept everything tucked in so tightly. How the valley between my breasts was exposed to the sun for the first time in my life. It felt good.
So much of my life was spent being disgusted by my own knockers. Buying sports bras a size too small, doubling them up to try and compress my Tetons into me as tightly as possible. And now, the previously revealing bikini made me feel more comfortable than I would have thought a swimming suit could.
With only ten or so childbearing years left, we decided to try. Perhaps earlier than most, but I couldn’t be the woman who was having her kids in her forties. At least not if I wanted to stick around to see my fifties.
Two years later, I was finally pregnant.
My stomach grew hard, my hips soft, and all my joints slippery. I bore my belly into the sunlight. I had never felt more beautiful. Any shame I harbored from childhood and the way my parents, movies, boys, singers, magazines, Tumblr talked about my body melted off me, thick and sweet, just like my thighs were growing. For the first time in my life, my body was not an ornament or an object. It was functional. It was a tool. No classification of my body as fit or thin or beautiful would stick. I was free. And so I dove and splashed and basked in the sun the entire summer. Grateful to finally be pregnant, I was proud of my body, and I wanted to relish in every inch of myself. Let the sun kiss every cell.
Every breath I took, every pump of blood, every bite I ate was purposeful and almost holy. I was eating for her.
I was ecstatic when I found out it was “her” I was carrying inside of my body. I could not wait to give her a love of chocolate, and leaves, and hiking as often as possible. I wanted to give her the gift of hearing me talk sweet about my body and her body. I let her see me naked. I wanted to give her the precious gift of never hearing me talk badly about my body. About her first home that is stretched out and wrinkled and nothing like in the magazines, because she was once housed there. A marker of her beautiful body that lived inside my body that I am trying to see as beautiful.
But I could not help but think that she was only safe while inside of me. I wondered when she would be forced to give up so much, like her appreciation of her body for its functional purpose. The value of her legs, hands, and breasts, simply because of how they let her experience the world. No matter how many books I read her, or how well I modeled self-love and female freedom, I could never keep away every image and voice and catcall down the street that might make her feel outside her beautiful, beautiful body. I couldn’t unpack and dispose the meanings of breasts or all the things that are asked of women. One day her perfect body would cross an invisible boundary of being a cute baby body to something sexual, even dangerous.
As her DNA formed in me, I also wondered which X I was passing down to her. Which part of me was replicating, which marker was carving its way across her?
I wondered if she would look like me, and worried that if she did, that might be a sign of this burden she could carry. When would she have to learn what hereditary meant? Would she watch my breasts cut off and uterus removed, knowing that one day she would have to do the same? Would she be asked to give up those parts of her, not just to the world, but completely severed from herself?
“That you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that ye may milk out, and be delighted in the abundance of her glory.” -Isaiah 66:11
My daughter, Gwen, was born a year ago. Minutes after she was ripped out of me, she latched onto my breast. For her, it was instinctual; the moment she felt skin on her cheeks, her mouth gaped open and her neck started to swivel. She was searching. They call that rooting. She roots to me.
That very first time and even now, a year later, I watch her perfect profile while she drinks. Her pointed nose—my mom tells me it looks just like mine. Her perfect eyebrows—my mom tells me they look just like mine. Her coloring, the way she never stays still, the way she pulls back from nursing every few sucks to look in my eyes and grin. My mom says that is all just like me.
I trace her patterns, and my patterns, and my mother’s patterns across Gwen’s face. I wonder what I will pass down?
Maybe one day, most likely, my breasts will be plucked off just like the way my daughter rips up dandelions in the summer. But for now, we sit chest to chest—mouth to breast—and I swear our heartbeats kiss.
Utah, United States
"I am a daughter, a mother, and a carrier of the BRCA1 gene. Currently, I am an MFA graduate student at Brigham Young University studying Creative Nonfiction. I am most often found running, baking cookies, or reading the same book for the eighth time to my one-year-old daughter."
Megan McOmber Wight reads from "Bare My Breast"