I’m in the gym locker room drying off with a tiny, scratchy towel when I catch sight of my profile in the mirror. My breasts look even more wilted and vacant than usual in the industrial light. I think of my friend’s grandma, who said, “Honey, once you’ve had a baby, nothing embarrasses you. You have no shame.” True and not true. I’m two years postpartum with my second child, one year post-breastfeeding. I’m startled at my reflection.

I exercise at a university gym, where one finds boobs of all ages: perky college boobs, tired middle-aged boobs, saggy older boobs, and then there are mine—postpartum post-breastfeeding smooshy half-filled water balloons. It’s hard to be naked in this space. I often feel ashamed. At first, I wanted to wear a little sign that read, “I just breastfed two babies with these.” But being naked in the locker room requires that I claim this body as mine, actually mine, in a different way than I do when I’m alone, or wearing clothes. That I move through the air without covering up or apologizing.

When I bend down to gather my shoes, I wrap the tiny towel around my chest.

*

A compelling breast bildungsroman usually involves getting them too early or too late. But mine arrived quietly and didn’t draw much attention. In my teen years, they hovered around a 34B and were enough of an asset to make boys take a second look. They were at their perkiest in my Contempo Casuals v-neck tees, and eventually they grew to a 34C when I gained the customary freshman fifteen in college.

Now, my breasts hardly fill a B cup. I think of Leslie Mann in the dressing room scene in This is 40, stunned by Meghan Fox’s perfect perky breasts. “They’re like a memory mattress! Like Tempur-Pedic, you know? My kids just sucked the meat right out of mine.”

A few months after weaning my daughter, I started asking my friends, Did yours come back? Some said Nope. Gone forever. Some said, Yes, but it took awhile. So there’s hope.

*

My breast skin wrinkles up when I lift my arm. I wish I could shed it like a snake, leave it lying in the grass.

*

Like some jilted lover, I google “Will my breasts return?” I read an article that describes what happens to breasts post-breastfeeding: “In the first few days after weaning, live breast epithelia gobble up their dying neighbors and swallow all of the secretions, clearing the ducts of old milk and dead cells.” Like cannibalistic supervillains, breasts literally eat themselves.

Some articles argue that breast ptosis, or sagging, is simply a consequence of aging, breastfeeding or no. It seems that there are many reasons breasts sag (my favorite is still “gravity”—thank you, Newton). The most compelling evidence suggests that sagging depends on genes more than anything, as well as skin elasticity, tissue density, and breast size.

To me, it’s undeniable that pregnancy and breastfeeding accelerated my breasts’ sagging process as well as simply shrinking them. If I hadn’t had kids, they might be starting to sag, but this much?

*

A friend sent me a meme of a Barbie tanning in the sun, one arm supporting her blonde head, white cat eye sunglasses, and her breasts long saggy sacs lying on her chest, pointing in opposite directions. The caption: “Have kids, they said. It will be great, they said.”

*

It’s busier than usual at the gym this morning. College girls are everywhere, brushing their hair, rubbing lotion onto their legs. Two girls next to me talk about King Lear while airing out, how the ending just ruined them, their breasts standing tall. A few others are bitching about their Mechanical Engineering group project and someone named Michelle, how she’s not pulling her weight. “I’m so tired of her bullshit,” one of them says, flipping her damp brown hair over her shoulder.

They don’t know to be grateful. If I had those boobs, I’d be leading a marching band down the street, my baton arm pumping up and down, a fat grin on my face.

We older women move among them like nuns, hunched, towels hiding our breasts and nether regions. Except for one woman, maybe 70, who does her whole post-shower routine naked. She stands at the mirror wiry and pale, wrinkly breasts hanging close to her skin, muscular but doughy arms and legs. She brushes and dries her silvery bob, puts on her lipstick, mascara—all buck naked.

How does she do it? I think. To stand with my saggy breasts in this space, around these girls twenty years younger and risk being seen by them as used up. Or not seen at all, like a ghost they might walk right through.

*

Most of the ptosis conversation revolves around how to fix one’s saggy breasts, rather than coming to terms with the change in some metaphysical way: “Wear a good supportive bra, Have good breastfeeding posture, Start exercising, Massage with hot and cold water, Keep them moisturized, Eat well.

After breastfeeding, breasts lose elasticity. How ironic that this happens just as we’re forced to learn how to be elastic ourselves, to accept constant interruptions, to dial down our ambitions because our kids’ needs are so pressing.

What is especially odd is the infographic showing what you should eat to increase your breast size: fenugreek, shellfish, wild yams. This is pseudoscience, but a small part of me still wonders if there was something I could have done: eaten more oysters or watched fewer episodes of Call the Midwife.

*

What’s the big deal about breasts anyway? Marilyn Yalom writes in A History of the Breast, “the mandate to nurse and the mandate to titillate are competing claims that continue to shape women’s fate.”  Isn’t the way we treat women’s bodies a litmus test for the way we treat women? Are we ok with breastfeeding in public? With women being capable, smart, and sexual?

No matter how I feel about my body, I cannot control how others caption it.

*

A few nicknames for breasts: tits, ta tas, boobies, titties, jugs, melons, coconuts, bangers, cream pies, milkers, the twins, the girls, maracas, bazoombas, bazookas, jubblies, bosoms, knockers, honkers, babylons, hooters, mounds, dirty pillows, bongos, twin peaks, milk duds, baby buffets.

How many reference nourishment? How many reference musical instruments? How many images and expectations can we fit into these mounds of flesh? Most of us can’t see our own breasts without comparing them to the images of the ideal breasts we’ve been handed down through eons from the unforgiving male gaze:

Marilyn Monroe in a baby blue dress
with white spaghetti straps, mouth tilted up,
breasts round, firm, inviting.

Pamela Anderson running down the beach
in her red bathing suit on Baywatch, breasts bouncing in slow mo.

I know it’s ridiculous to compare: but how can I resist when every advertisement throws another pair of perfect breasts in my face?

*

Of the unmistakable signs of aging for women, two draw the strongest cultural shame: wrinkles and sagging breasts. Wrinkles are inevitable for men and women, a shared marker of aging across sex and gender. Of course, men’s wrinkles signal authority while women’s wrinkles signal failure. Women could have tried harder, worn more sunblock, bought better makeup, or Botox.

Breasts, however, live at the nexus of sex and function. They are feeding devices, they are pleasure centers. They make you a good mother, they make you a whore.

*

From Sharon Olds’ “Poem for the Breasts”:

They were born when I was thirteen,
they rose up, half out of my chest,
now they’re forty, wise, generous.
I am inside them — in a way, under them,
or I carry them, I’d been alive so many years without them.
I can’t say I am them, though their feelings are almost
my feelings, as with someone one loves. They seem,
to me, like a gift that I have to give.

I want my breasts to be “forty, wise, generous.” They’ve been through a lot and have been loved well by a few people. They are part of me, but not metaphors for me or my selfhood. But I’m not sure how to read that line: “They seem, / to me, like a gift that I have to give.” Are they a gift she has to give, as in she owns them and can choose to offer them? Or, are they a gift that she must give?

*

A listicle titled, Celebrity Boobs We’re Crushing On:

Even from the side, Sofia Vergara looks boobieful.

Zoe Saldana’s teeny boobs fit her teeny frame…and they’re awesome.

Heidi Klum has four children,
and her girls aren’t dragging on the floor. Amazing!

*

In the first months of my babies’ lives, my breasts were the weathervanes of my days, telling me the next batch of milk was ready. They ruled me: I bought the best pump parts, breast pads, and lanolin to keep them happy and humming. I didn’t spend much money on clothes I felt good in, but my breasts were lounging around like princesses, being fanned, and fed grapes and wine.

*

I’ve been having anxiety dreams, waking up in a sweat. I am convinced that I’m dying. In one, I think through how to explain it to my kids, how to tell my family, my friends. I’ll be 40 next year, and apparently I’m starting to freak out about it, despite the fact that I’ve always maintained that I will get better with age. How I admire Meryl Streep’s eye wrinkles, my 94-year-old neighbor’s spitfire sense of humor. I say I’m not afraid to age, but maybe I am afraid of what aging means—being closer to death.

*

When exactly did I become this person in this body?

Of course my breast anxiety is also connected to my sexuality. Breasts are the most visible reminder of sex on our bodies, and I’ve always had a fraught relationship with my sexuality. I like being desired, I like feeling sexy—when I want to and by whom I want. But I want to move through the world in my body and not feel like an object, good only for looking at or for sex. To be appreciated for more than how well I play the part of woman.

Maybe why I fear losing my breasts is that they’re mine, and only shared with those I trust and adore (and a few weirdos I completely regret). They’re a vital part of my sexuality, my sensuality, my body image, the body that I claim as mine. Although I don’t wear shirts that show my cleavage, I still want them to be powerful and ripe, full of possibility.

I often feel bad for my husband because he’s stuck with these sad water balloons, while my ex got the glory days. When I ask my husband, he tells me he still thinks they’re sexy, but am I imagining that little drop in his voice when he says it?

*

Botticelli’s Venus’ perfectly perky round breasts,
right breast partially obscured with her graceful hand.

Sophia Loren leaning forward in a halter dress,
lips open slightly, breasts plump.

Beyonce in her sequin camo leotard at Coachella,
the curve of her breasts spry, commanding.

*

I’m talking with my male neighbor and my daughter keeps reaching into my shirt to touch my breasts. She says, There’s a baby in there! There’s not a baby in there. My sister just had a baby, and I guess she’s making sense of why one woman’s body would have a baby in it and another one wouldn’t. I don’t know why she thinks a baby would be in my breasts. My neighbor blushes, looks away.

*           

Instagram post from Chidera Eggerue, founder of #saggyboobsmatter:

a tutorial
step 1 – wear the damn outfit.
step 2 – remember not to care. we are all dying.

*

I want to love my body, but I keep failing. I keep pushing at my breasts when I look in the mirror, thinking how mine are more leaky air mattress than Tempur-Pedic. People don’t love their skin tags, do they? Wiry hairs growing out of their moles?

*

Today, I was the only one in the locker room after my workout. Before I rushed to put on my clothes and dry my hair, I stood naked in front of the mirror. I forced myself to really look at my body. To look and try to love. My right breast is still smaller than the left one. I have some new freckles on my chest and shoulders. The wrinkles under my eyes have deepened and branched into my temples.

I imagined being in an oil painting by Aleah Chapin, whose work often features older women’s naked bodies. My favorite painting of hers, “Jumanji and Gwen,” is of two women, one in her 30s, the other in her 60s or 70s, standing side by side, one arm draped around each other. They are naked, standing tall but relaxed, staring directly at the viewer. You can see their wrinkles, their fur, their sagging breasts and bellies. One has a dragon tattoo snaking over her belly button, both have tan lines. Once you get over their nakedness, you look more closely and you see two particular people, maybe mother and daughter.

I imagined standing next to my twenty-year-old self and pulling her vital, unknowing frame against my side. Telling her what I imagine the silver-haired woman in the painting tells the younger one, “You’ll still be you.” She tells her this not with words, but with her posture, her ability to carry the clean weight of her skin without curling in or covering anything with her towel.

In the locker room mirror, I tried to see myself the way Chapin sees the women she paints, to see myself the way I see Jumanji and Gwen: my body’s strength and resilience, the work it has done. I considered that my breasts, hips, legs, belly, arms—all have their own tangible magic, their own complicated stories. I could see the grit that has carried me through the failures and disappointments of my life, through a crushing divorce, through the repeated rejection of my first poetry book, through the thousands of moments of fear, worry, and regret of the last 39 years. I could see the ways I’ve softened, how my hard edges are smudging out, how this body has endured, and will continue to endure, until it and me are done. I could see the steely hope, still there in my breathing body, the hope that enabled me to fall in love again, to have two children who have changed my body and heart in ways I’m just beginning to understand.

Emily Mohn-Slate is the author of FEED, winner of the Keystone Chapbook Prize (Seven Kitchens Press, 2019). Her poems and essays can be found in New Ohio Review, At Length, The Adroit Journal, Indiana Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her full-length manuscript, THE FALLS, has been named a finalist for the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize offered by University of Pittsburgh Press, and the Brittingham and Pollak Prizes offered by University of Wisconsin Press. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and is a member of the Madwomen in the Attic Writing Workshops at Carlow University.