They are a quintessentially female piece of anatomy, an indicator of gender even underneath clothing. They create aspects of identity and, like skin color, probably elicit immediate first impressions about the human to which they are attached. Males don’t seem to have a similar social identifier, except for perhaps the Adam’s apple, which doesn’t count since it’s not a sex organ. The sex organ they do have is generally invisible in public, unless you live in a nudist colony or in San Francisco. Boobs are special. 

Being raised by my dad, I had relatively low awareness about the boob-development part of adolescence, which arrived a little earlier for me than for my peers. I remember changing in the locker room in 6th grade and not understanding why Lindsay and Margot were staring and giggling. Later, the nun teaching PE in this Catholic school took me aside and told me I needed to start wearing a bra. I don’t remember feeling particularly ashamed about it, but I do remember feeling like a weirdo.

My aunt took me to get a training bra, about which I was initially quite excited for vague reasons around doing what grown up ladies did. I remember being incredibly picky about the color, and then utterly hating the experience of actually wearing it. After all, it was made of pieces of elastic that restrict your breathing and dig into your shoulders, just like they’re made today. 

At 32 years old, I consider how I would manage to put on a bra at night before running out of the house if it were on fire. The band has created a seemingly permanent home for itself in my lats. My back actually aches intensely if I don’t wear one. It’s not that the bra is comfortable, at least in the physical sense of the term, but it’s a requirement to be accepted in public with this size of bosom. I definitely notice when a woman isn’t wearing a bra, and it seems to indicate either that they are young, small-boobed and perky, or that they aren’t a functioning part of society. 

When I was in high school, all the girls (including me) pined for large boobs. At about the same age, I’m guessing that boys probably stare at their crotches, also wishing for an increase in size. It may be lessening recently, but the social influences at the time seemed to indicate that bigger boobs were better. I can’t even pinpoint examples of where I absorbed this. It was simply understood.

Boobs may be part of female power, like intoxicating perfumes, battable eyelashes, or high heels. In a French study, men were more comfortable approaching women with larger breasts. A 2009 field study found that waitresses with larger bra sizes received larger tips. Another study claims that male drivers stopped for a larger-busted confederate female hitchhiker more often than a lesser-busted one. Yet another experiment indicated that men prefer larger busts and smaller waists and tend to rate women with this ideal shape more positively, regardless of their personality.

While large breasts may be useful sometimes, these studies illustrate a bias. Why would we be treated so differently? What exactly does it mean about how we’re perceived? Perhaps that we’re more fertile, as at least one study suggests, but are there other implicit assumptions about our intellect or willingness to partake in sexual antics? Is there something about larger breasts that indicates we deserve less respect? One study looked at men’s preferred sizes, and those who liked larger breasts tended to be sexist, objectifying, and hostile toward women. Another showed a connection to resource security, showing that men who were hungry or made less money preferred larger breasts. Do larger-breasted women attract assholes and losers?

Looking at all of these studies, I sense an implication that we’d be particularly good caretakers. We’d be particularly patient, empathic, understanding, and willing to wipe noses and rear ends. These traits might apply transitively to our man as well as our children. In other words, we’d be more willing to take traditional wife roles and perhaps deal with more neediness from our male partner.

My boobs are “massive,” a descriptor once used by a medical professional as he biopsied a cyst — massive breasts tend to have more little doodads to keep an eye on. When not wearing a bra, they hang like salamis, beans from the Kigelia tree, or, if I’ve lost a little weight, tube socks with softballs in them. The body shape produced by their unaided position is similar to a clog, heel end down. US stores don’t usually carry bras large enough to accommodate such a size, and for years, I muddled along with Victoria’s Secret DD bras that hovered away from my rib cage, their underwires digging pits into the sides of each bosom. Those bras were more like hairless toupees, providing a light coverage, but really just making things worse. I still couldn’t run or jump or even raise my arms without some unsightly sloppage.

In my late twenties, a friend with European family mentioned the existence of bras with sizes past DD and yet small bands. This was probably the most practically helpful advice of my life, thus far. (Thank you, Randi.) There is now some indication of a slight hourglass structure under my clothes, and because they aren’t wobbling around so much, I tend to ignore the saddlebags most of the time. I’d even say they look pretty good.

It initially surprised me how drastic a change in my life this one suggestion had spurred. It is, after all, merely cosmetic. But its effects are not. I perceive a higher level of respect from the world, and whether this is my imagination, stemming from a change in my confidence, or truly a change in the world’s behavior toward me, I don’t care. Some long-held anxiety has relaxed.

While they are much more manageable and attractive to me encased in their strong new hammocks, I still have some complaints. Alas, if only I could comfortably lay face down, jog long distances without needing to re-cinch my bra straps, or fold forward without having to round my spine over them. I’m constantly reminded of their presence as my arms brush past them when I walk, type, cook, or do almost anything with my hands. They chafe my inner upper arms when I run long distances. When I see another woman, I immediately know if we share the same woes of ill-fitting button-up shirts, or experience an automatic twinge of envy at their apparent fitness. Even if you aren’t “fat,” having large bosoms makes most clothing hang a few inches away from your mid-section, creating some illusion of pregnancy or overweight-ness. In warmer weather, when smaller chested women are wearing tank tops and looking perfectly acceptable, I need to wear more clothing, else I expose cleavage too provocative for occasions other than the beach or bedroom.

I fantasize about what it would be like to have a smaller, cup-cake sized bust. I picture frolicking in fields wearing merely the bras that are built into Lululemon shirts. I’d often be in a crisp button-up, looking tidy and put together. I’d do multiple pull-ups in a row because I’m so much lighter weight and in such better shape because I can be so much more mobile. I picture not having to work so aggressively to have good posture. I also imagine not having to worry about whether a man is treating me differently because of them, or whether a woman dislikes me because of that dynamic. My guess is that I wouldn’t think quite so much about boobs — I’d be busy being unimpeded by them, and instead I’d fixate on my teeth or hair or weirdly long second toe, moving along the hierarchy of neuroses.

I still keep the possibility of a reduction in mind, but I’m hoping first to have kids and use these boobs as biologically-intended. Another saggy-teated friend told me that the extra length allowed for hands-free breastfeeding; She would lie next to the baby and simply flop the breast off to the side where the baby could reach — they kind of melt into the armpit area on their own, anyway. Perhaps during motherhood I’ll start to appreciate them for their usefulness, but I still fear their potential growth during and after pregnancy. Any bigger, and they’ll verge on comical.

Even though small seems better to me now, it seems many women want larger boobs, and those who have implant surgery have twice the risk of suicide than the normal population. While the reasons related in the research about this are bland terms like “anxiety” and “depression,” I’m pretty sure it relates to thinking of themselves as primarily valuable for your sex appeal. These days, this is is exactly what I do not want to be valued for.

As a teenager, I was one of those girls who assumed my value was primarily a factor of sex appeal, though this wasn’t something I overtly understood about my motivations. At 15, I secretly dated men in their twenties who seemed to be wildly attracted to me, though boys my own age still ran away screaming “cooties.” It definitely wasn’t a good thing to be doing, but I loved the attention. It was one of the few things I was good at, at the time, at least in my own mind. I have no doubt that my voluptuous physique contributed to the situation, creating the illusion that I was older than I was.

Now, married and in my thirties, I want people to pay attention to my ideas and creative contributions. I don’t know the last time I attempted to use feminine wiles. What would it be like without them? What exactly would I be giving up or gaining? I see the proud images of women who have had double mastectomies for their health, and I see a strange freedom. They have shed an identity, and are now developing a new one.

But “going flat” is very new social territory. The unknown is usually a source of some fear, and completely removing a signature of femininity I have had since I became a woman would create an identity I don’t yet know. Would I still feel like a woman? Would my hormonal output be different? Would I then be different?

My boobs have worn themselves into my current sense of self. Whatever the social responses are to them, I’m used to them. I know how to dress, to strengthen my upper back, and that immense relief awaits at the end of the day, when I finally unclasp my bra. My boobs are part of the context in which I live my life. And while I am not my boobs, they contribute to who I am, like the tree that bends around a pole to reach the sunlight.