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AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Early on, I tried to hide my breasts during business situations. Not any more.

How I learned to take my breasts to work

Elizabeth MacBride
By Elizabeth MacBride

Contributor

The first time I noticed a man staring at my breasts was in fifth grade. It was my teacher. Oblivious, I had picked out a tight shirt that day, hoping to keep them from bouncing at recess. When I noticed him looking, I felt awful, like I’d done something wrong.

“Oh, my God, Mom, Betsy needs a bra, like, right now,” said my older sister one day. My mother, working full-time and overwhelmed with four kids, hadn’t really noticed. Fully developed by 14 into D cups, I was floating in the pool one summer’s day with my head mostly under the water when my cousin splashed over. “You might want to get out,” she said. “Those guys over there are having a really nasty conversation about the mountains on your chest.” I stopped floating and wondered if there was something wrong with my bathing suit.

I love my breasts. I don’t love that having big breasts has shaped my life. 

As an adult, they have made me the target of probably a dozen sexual-harassers, gotten me a handful of marriage proposals from breast-obsessed strangers, and caused any number of high-profile CEOs to underestimate my talent and skill as a business journalist. John Updike once wrote an essay about how his bad skin turned him into a writer. I think my outsized breasts are largely responsible for the shape of my career.

In my 20s, as I was rising through management, I tried to hide my breasts at work, probably because the few role models of successful women around me were decidedly mannish. I was lucky to enter the workforce in the 1990s, when Battlestar Galactica style shoulder pads took the emphasis off the size of my front side, and I met a clothing consigner who had a closet full of designer suits from a woman who had fought the same battle earlier. I relied on those for a while. Let me just say this: If you belt a jacket without buttons, you could have two watermelons under there, and no one would know.

But hiding my breasts had disadvantages as well. You can’t be your best, physically or emotionally, when you are pouring energy into hiding essential parts of yourself. And disguising my breasts didn’t stop men from turning me into an object.

One of the first terrible harassers I encountered was a news editor. “You’re a good sport, aren’t you?” he asked me. “You know why a woman is unlike a bank? A man makes a deposit and loses interest.” My stories weren’t submitted for prizes; my big ideas were passed over. He targeted women who were feminine. One day I came in the newsroom to find the eight-months pregnant office assistant crawling on the floor, after he’d yelled at her to look in the trash for a lost photo. I tried HR after that. It didn’t work.

When I realized I was going to continue confronting this, I had a choice: I could continue wearing baggy black suits, which probably wouldn’t erase the problem, or I could dress the way I liked and amp up my feminine side. I like silk, chiffon and soft wool. I like V-neck shirts and cardigans. I like leopard print.

I knew what I liked, and I didn’t feel like changing it. Clothes are fun.

A Silicon Valley executive once described an aggressive business move to me as “putting our dicks on the table.” Well, in my 30s, I decided to put my breasts on the table.

I had my first daughter when I was 32, and my breasts grew to enormous proportions. There is no realistic way to disguise F-cup breasts, so I bought a tiger-striped F-cup nursing bra and stopped worrying about it. When men stared, I just … decided not to care. I was good at my job, and if they missed out on my work or my insights, or made me uncomfortable enough to leave the room, that was their loss.

Once I decided to stop pre-emptively minimizing my breasts, then it became a simple question of how to handle the comments, stares and occasional gropes hands and rubs that were bound to come—all of which were typically accompanied by a conscious or unconscious attempt to minimize my contributions.

This minimization of my contributions, of course, is what I am really fighting against. Putting my breasts on the table merely brings the fight into the open.

I always assumed that when I hit my 40s, I wouldn’t have to worry about men’s stares or sexual harassment anymore. But, of course, that isn’t true. Older men still look, some younger men do, and sexual harassment is as much or more about power as it is about attraction. Age is some insulation, but not that much.

Now I realize a certain kind of man sees me as a walking invitation no matter what I say or do. At the risk of stereotyping, I am going to share one bit of wisdom, which is that wealthy, powerful men, especially men with Ivy League degrees, almost always look. If I see “Harvard” on a man’s bio, my stomach clenches up. The male entitlement is as reliable as a grandfather clock ticking.

In the past few years, my career has taken me to other parts of the world, and some places where women with less power, freedom and legal protections feel forced or obliged to cover up, especially in the workplace. The ways they cover are different, but I see a pattern of women being minimized and minimizing themselves. Why? Because too many men are predators and many others can’t be trusted to separate their sexual needs from their work lives? Because women’s bodies, with all their curves and planes, are an expression of a latent power men cannot have–and most of us women are always aware of the danger posed by a powerful man when he feels threatened?

At work, I have told men not to touch me, by saying: “Hey, you can’t touch me in the office. People notice.” Sometimes if I hear a male (or female) executive give credit for my work to a younger man, I take the executive aside and call him out on it, in a way that allows him to save face. I say, “I’m really glad you recognized how valuable my work was on that project, and that you are moving me up in the ranks, so I can contribute even more.” Once, when a CEO slipped up and called me “human capital,” I asked for a raise on the spot, and got it.

If a situation is toxic, I leave (oh, the beauty of being a freelancer).

And I am now having a lot of fun navigating the worlds of media, tech and finance, with my breasts at the vanguard.

Much to the chagrin of many of the women I know, who feel I am selling out my intelligence, I might every once in a while, when interviewing an older man who has a lot of information that might be useful to a story I am working on, deliberately wear a push up bra and a low-cut shirt. It works.

I find it all, at this point, pretty funny, because that’s my best option.

And I have a confession to make: I enjoy it when men who feel entitled to stare at my breasts feel a sudden flash of fear or realization. Men who see me in one curvy dimension see me in another when I tell them I write about high finance. Sometimes, when I am heading into a tough interview with a world-famous CEO, I wear a necklace made of a bear claw. If I see a man staring, I say: “See this? It’s a bear claw. I killed that bear with my own two hands.” He never laughs, but I do.

Last year, I was buying a dress for a private equity conference. I took off my shirt, and the saleswoman said, “Oh, wow,” as in, what are we going to do about this?

“I know,” I said.

“I had breasts like that,” she said. “I got them reduced, because my ex-husband said it made other men stare. But I wish I hadn’t done it.”

“Why do you regret it?” I asked. Every once in a while, I still think about what it would be like to sleep without a bra, or wear a button-down shirt, or be able to jump around a lot in exercise class.

“Well, they were me,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks for saying that.”

In my 40s, I have finally grown into my breasts.