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The insidious ways the world tells teenage girls their bodies don’t belong to them

ballet dancers
Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini
Women should not be required to shrug off the small actions that degrade them.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

When I was 16 years old, I was the kind of teenager who had a favorite mathematician. One Sunday I went to see my hero give a talk. Afterward, I lingered near the stage with my dad, prepped with my usual question for adults with careers I admired: Any advice for a kid in high school?

I was wearing a grey sweater I had gotten on sale at Express, with a tank top underneath. The area around my chest was skin-tight; not because I wanted it to be, but because most clothing was.

The mathematician answered my question, suggesting that I not worry about any one particular job move and just do things that interested me—prescient advice for the gig economy that lay in my future. But it was impossible for me to focus on his words, because he spent the whole time staring at my chest.

As powerful men have lost their jobs and public standing in the wake of the #MeToo movement, I’ve thought about this guy a lot. I have no desire to name him or take him down. Staring at my chest was creepy but not a huge deal, and it’s hard to prove anyway.

It is, however, one of a million little actions that added up to convince me during my formative years that my body wasn’t mine. As the #MeToo movement broadens its scope, our culture is finally beginning to talk about how the ways in which women are sexualized—often from an early age—have a lasting impact on their sense of self-worth.

Consider the words of Natalie Portman at the Los Angeles women’s march. After appearing in her first movie role at age 13, she said, a radio station started a countdown until she would be “legal” on her 18th birthday; movie reviewers wrote about her breasts.“I felt the need to cover my body and to inhibit my expression and my work in order to send my own message to the world that I’m someone worth of safety and respect,” she said. “The response to my expression, from small comments about my body to more threatening deliberate statements, served to control my behavior through an environment of sexual terrorism.” Like Portman, I reject the notion that women should shrug off the comments, jokes, and stares that combine to degrade us on a daily basis.

In my case, growing up as a teenager, the world made it impossible for me to simply exist as a human with breasts. There was the girl who tried to put gummy bears down the front of my shirt  during a sex ed class. The time a track coach looked on silently as someone made fun of my chest. The guy who high-fived my prom date, taking note of my rack. The prom date, who told me that story with a smile. The guy in my dorm who suggested I put on a sweater lest his visiting parents think college was too wild.

As my big breasts were eroticized, they were somewhat incompatible with daily life. Everything at stores seemed to be the wrong shape for me. Sports bras didn’t come in big enough sizes to be both comfortable and remotely cute. I worried that even if I covered up at school and my lab internship—where an older man often stopped by my microscope to tell me I was pretty—it wouldn’t be enough to thwart attention. Skinny and top-heavy, the women I identified most with were video game avatars—though only when they were turned from the camera. (I had a normal teen face: acne ridden, surrounded by frizzy hair, which made the whole ordeal seem somewhat crasser.) It was a harsh introduction to the way we don’t take women with big boobs seriously: In a misogynistic world, boobs are a blaring signal of femininity.

So I decided to downsize mine. Two years after that incident at the Q&A, I had surgery to make my chest smaller.

It wasn’t the first thing I tried. I talked to friends, suggested I should be grateful for the unwelcome attention, or that I just ignore it—after all, boys can be immature jerks. I found clothing that was custom-made, but it was pricey, and my main gig was babysitting. I figured that things would get better once I had a boyfriend, but more sexual attention just increased my sense that everyone was always talking about my chest. By college, I was wearing sports bras everyday, the tight lycra smashing me in and leaving dents in my shoulders. But I just felt dumb trying to show up to math class in a regular bra. I did not see a path toward being taken seriously that would also allow me to breath normally. I didn’t see any scientists or mathematicians, and hardly anyone whose career I admired, who had a body like mine.

I started researching breast reduction surgery, at first in frantic, late-night Google searches. By the summer of freshman year, I went to my mom for help. We found a plastic surgeon who photographed me topless and sent paperwork to my insurance.

I scheduled the date for the surgery, telling the family I babysat for that it was a back-related procedure. “I’m worried that society isn’t taking me seriously in the current version of my body and I need to do everything in my power to fix it” seemed like too much information. It was true, anyway, that the surgery would help my back.

I took the train downtown to the hospital. I put on a gown that tied in the front. The plastic surgeon drew on me with a marker. I went under and woke up to the sound of myself talking to the nurses. Those first few weeks, my chest was sewn up with stitches. “Frakentits,” a couple of friends called me lovingly. To my surprise, I didn’t mind. I felt in on the joke.

It is, of course, silly to think a procedure would solve everything—and it did not. Harassment, which is not limited to the chesty among us, is still part of my life. While I get far less attention for them, my breasts remain on the large side, and people (including strangers) still sometimes point that out. I’ve only chipped at a piece of the problem.

Even if we fired all the men who have ever harassed anybody in the workplace—and with due process, we should consider it!—we’d still live in a world full of subtle actions that make women feel disempowered simply because they have bodies. Changing that reality will require listening to a lot more stories—not just the ones with a clear perpetrator. It will mean acknowledging that you don’t have to be a monster to contribute to a culture that makes women feel demeaned and unsafe.

I wonder all the time what it would be like to spend my teenage years in a world where my body wouldn’t have felt like a liability—like public property. I might still have chosen to go under the knife, but it would have been purely for medical reasons; not because the culture I lived in made me question my worth.

I don’t regret the surgery, though. For once, it made me feel like I had control.

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