April 15, 1999
Either the apocalypse is coming, or I've been living in Los Angeles too long. Last night, I woke up from the most vivid dream, the kind that feels like it lasted all night, the kind of dream that feels like a journey through every emotion.
I dreamt that I had gotten a breast enlargement.
In the dream, I agonized over the decision -- the size, where the scars would be. When I awoke from surgery, I felt the breasts, a solid C cup, overly firm, scars across the sides. They were heavy, swollen. I pondered the things I could wear, the bikini tops, the low-cut sweaters. I was going to draw attention. Cars would stop as I passed. I had arrived.
Until the thought hit me: What had I done? I was stuck with these things forever. They sat up high and surreal on my chest. Everywhere I went, they would follow. Special bras would have to be bought. I couldn't run, couldn't sleep on my stomach. I would have to accommodate and explain these for the rest of my life. A terror gripped me, and I awoke in a sweat.
Smacking the snooze button, I ran to the mirror. The familiar 36B breasts were back. I was relieved, but a little disappointed, too.
Oddly enough, the dream followed the pattern of a recurring nightmare I've had for several years, in which I give birth to a child, go through pain, labor and finally elation at this glowing little baby in my arms before the thought paralyzes me: I will be responsible for this thing for the rest of my life, and I can't take it back.
That nightmare seems normal enough for a woman in her 20s, but the breast dream -- what was that all about?
Considering I grew up in California in the era of rampant breast enhancement, I was remarkably free from breast envy, for a girl with an athletic body and a pretty flat chest.
The French say the perfect breast should fit into a a champagne glass, and that saying pleased me well enough. I was never self-conscious, never wanted to buy into another reason for a woman to feel insufficient. I would never have considered risking major surgery to transform my body into some distorted, grotesque male fantasy. It seemed absurd and sad.
But I moved to Los Angeles, and, two years later, the dream.
Jung said a dream is like a letter from the unconscious to the conscious mind, full of symbolism and waiting to be opened. So I thought about it.
It's always been clear to me that beauty opens doors, but never so obvious as it is here. Any pragmatist can see that beauty, perhaps in the form of a pair of surgically enhanced breasts, eases one's way through life.
Beauty is within. Bodies of all shapes are beautiful. Our bodies are just the hand dealt to us in a game of gene poker; they don't represent our spirit or our talents or what we have to give the world. These things I know and have been told about since I was old enough to ask my mother to teach me how to shave my legs. Still, there's no erasing the inexorable experience of watching a roomful of men become stunned, speechless and momentarily still when a gorgeous winner of the genetic lottery glides into a room.
I think in many women my age there are two warring wants: There's the desire to make our mark as individuals and be free of the shackles of facials and waxing and the silly search for the perfect lip shade. Underneath lurks the inexplicable desire to stop traffic with the sheer force of a pretty face and a perfect body.
I'll never forget renting a documentary on Sylvia Plath when I was in college. There were the depressions, the intense inner life, the angry, lyrical poems. But what haunted me were the stills of Plath posing as a model, lithe in Capri pants, for the Smith College yearbook. I was stunned. Plath herself was caught in the same conundrum.
Two women I know, about 10 years older than myself, tell me that there will be stretch marks to come, drooping and the occasional unfortunate hair to be plucked as the breasts age. I will have to steel myself against comparisons with some air-brushed ideal whenever a man sees me naked. It will only get harder to assure myself that breasts are just a feature like any other, designed for a purpose, appealing at any size.
Wouldn't it be easier just to save my pennies and wake up one day in a recovery room to a perfect rack?
Hence, the dream. The unopened letter is just a note from the back of the brain to say, Guess what, read all the feminist books you want, go as far as your courage and intellect can take you. But make no mistake, the struggle that began in puberty remains.
Junior high. The boys rate the girls in the class, ranking them from one to 10. I don't know what I want more, to merit a high score on the pretty list or to beat out Moukie Moore in the spelling bee. High school. I know the answer, but I don't raise my hand in class, because Alan Aranofsky might think I'm a geek or my voice might sound funny when the answer comes out. I scribble it in my notebook. College. I'm working my way through school and getting straight A's in two majors, but I'm also scooping ice cream and I can't stay away from the mint chip. I'm chubby and round-faced, and nothing else seems to matter.
Here I am, years later and still hearing the silent ratings from one to 10. As much as I hate myself for it sometimes, I still feel good when I look good, and life comes more easily to me.
I won't be getting the breast enlargement, but my girlfriends tell me there's a $72 bra made in Italy that is a magical investment. It lifts and separates. The underwires don't dig. It looks natural, and with a deftly placed combination of silk and latches and straps, it gives you a slightly better silhouette than your genes may have had in store for you. Best of all, at the end of the day, it comes off.
Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.