I know all the latest research says there are only four basic human emotions: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted. But I would argue that the sight of my tiny, sagging breasts elicits a funny/sad/cute/ooooh-my-fucking-god-what-what-happened-there?! emotional category all its own. Part of the comic effect of my tits is that they used to be bigger: I was a C-cup for my entire life before I shrank to teeny tiny post-breastfeeding. My oversized, protruding nipples—which look like the erasers on the jumbo pencils we all used in kindergarten—always felt obscenely large, but used to be at least kind of proportional to the whole package. But now, my nipples probably outweigh the rest of my breast tissue by a ratio of 2:1. My once buxom chest currently looks like a pair of surf-wrecked sandcastles, their soft and washed out forms punctuated by two stubby driftwood-stick flags, stubbornly poking upright from the ruins.
My miniature workhorses have put in their time: they’ve resisted the earth’s gravity for decades, expanded and contracted with four pregnancies, survived two debilitating cases of mastitis, healed countless rounds of bleeding and scabbed nipples from three sets of gnawing human mouths, and produced what I estimate to be 420 gallons of breastmilk in their lifetime. I know I should put them out to pasture in their sunset years and just let them sag in peace. But lately I’ve become obsessed with fake boobs, a thing I have judged and despised and harangued our media culture for promoting for as long as I can remember. While I daily walk into the world and act the part of a caring, compassionate, politically-liberal Bay Area parent, with a Master’s Degree in Public Health, my doppelganger is shallow and lusting for cosmetic-surgery. Lately, every time I drive past a smiling-bald-kid-with-cancer billboard, I fantasize about replacing it with a picture of my breasts and the tag-line, “Give So She Can Live (Without These Sad, Sad Boobs). My evil twin is sure that my breasts would raise more sympathy donation dollars than those cute dying kids ever will.
The best thing anyone has ever said about my breasts came from my ex-boyfriend Sean, who wandered into the bathroom one night during the summer I turned 40, and found me soaking in the tub. He sat down on the closed toilet lid, cracked a beer, sighed, and stroked the crown of my head a few times, while looking down at me from his perch on the john. And then he said, “Oh, your poor boobs.”
When I heard him say verbatim the phrase that runs through my mind every time I catch a glimpse of my naked body in the bathroom mirror I laughed so hard I thought I might pee. We’d been dating for about a month at that point, but it was really the first time he was actually taking in the entire full-frontal nudity situation. Though I had opted for a few candles around the bathroom instead of the harsh fluorescent lights that no woman with body image issues would ever turn on while she’s naked in the bathtub, the visibility from where he sat was still much better than the dark sexy bedroom time we’d spent together thus far.
When I finally stopped laughing, I looked up to see Sean just staring at my deflated, AA-size breasts with the same kind, compassionate expression one might give an abandoned puppy in a cardboard box. He smiled at me, reached into the warm bathwater, lovingly cradled both breasts in his hands and said, “I mean, when you’re lying down like that, your boobs are almost…concave.” I melted. “Right?! It’s so true! My boobs have totally fucking disappeared!” I said. He laughed and nodded, “Now I know why you like to wear your bra during sex. I didn’t really get it before, but now I do.”
I should have been offended or angry, but I was just…relieved. I had somehow found a guy who could both commiserate with me about the straight-story of my devastated breasts, and still make me feel desired enough to let him pull me out of the tub, towel-dry my dripping body as an excuse to feel me up, and fuck me on the bathroom floor.
Unlike the sight of my exposed mammaries, there are other things about my body that I can fake all the time. Thanks to the deadly efficient and deft skills of the ladies at my local waxing bar, I’ve been able to pretend that my genital hirsuteness is understated—like a tiny, artistic dessert in a fancy restaurant. Through hundreds of dollars a year, hot wax, popsicle sticks, and agony, my bush can be shaped into a mere suggestion—a cute little wedge or a line. Instead of what it really is: the size and shape of a slice of pie served up by my Mormon folk at a church potluck. My real situation down there looks like the dessert portion of people whose only vice is sugar so “Gosh darn it!” they going to have all they can possibly eat, who tell themselves, “If you’re going to have three slices eventually, why not just save yourself the trip and serve yourself a quarter of the pie right off the bat?”
But my lady Dao, and the momentary pain she inflicts as terrible as teeth drilled without Novocain, lets me strip down to my low-cut string bikini and unselfconsciously run into the waves, or casually stand around chatting on the beach pretending my pubic hair effortlessly fits into a tiny piece of spandex. And yet, I still feel like I have to check for errant pubes every time I put on my bathing suit, and re-check about every 5 minutes. I cringe considering the amount of mental energy I’ve put into weighing the pain-to-psychological pleasure factor, and the feminist implications of finally telling Dao, “Ok! Like you said, ‘Brazilian better deal!’ Just give me one of those popsicles sticks to bite.” I would squeeze my eyes shut, pretend I’m as brave as one of my pioneer ancestors getting an amputation without anesthetic, and stoically bite instead of scream while she dips a popsicle stick in hot dripping wax, slathers it on a piece of muslin, and just rips the entire thing off. Perhaps if I put the time and energy I use contemplating this scenario into figuring how the hell to improve the SEO terms of my professional website, or where the fuck my 401K from two jobs ago went, I might actually be able to afford a boob job one day.
Thanks to my hairdresser, chemicals, and thousands of dollars a year, I can also claim that my California blondeness is produced by frequent trips to the beach and my very own DNA. The embarrassing truth is that if Armageddon happened tomorrow and I somehow survived, my greatest fear is that I would have to walk around with my bright white roots exposed to the world. I’d rather succumb to death from nuclear fallout or cannibalism than have to face a future with no professional coloring products.
I fake a lot of other things: I pretend to be a leftwing, bleeding-heart liberal: I still wear I’M WITH HER t-shirts, protest Trump, and send my hard-earned money to Planned Parenthood. But I sincerely wish Governor Jerry Brown would put plenty of water, organic food, mental health care, and the entire Bay Area homeless population on a luxury spaceship and just…send them to Mars. Forever. I eat almost no sugar or carbs to fake being naturally and effortlessly thin. In order to spare my mom the explaining and embarrassment in front of her church community, I feigned that I was still married at my sister’s wedding—even though I’d been divorced for 5 years.
But I am drawn to people, like my ex-boyfriend, Sean, who don’t have this ability to pretend, or to accept it in anyone else. It’s one of the things that attracted me to him. And ultimately made our breakup so heart-wrenching.
A few weeks after that night in the tub, I had planned a canoe camping trip with my kids across Tomales Bay—a small but rough, unpredictable stretch of water separating two protected coastlines in Marin County, California, a few hours’ drive from where we live in Oakland. It’s a trip my three young sons and I love because it lets us imagine, just for a few days, that we’re not stuck living, working, and eking-out a substandard education in a broke-ass, polluted, crime-ridden city. We paddle across the azure waters followed by dark-eyed, whiskery seals, jumping sand sharks, and thousands of tiny blue Velella jellyfish blowing across the waves. At night, the dark purple sea glows with bioluminescence algae. We sleep on the beach; eat nothing but chocolate, marshmallows and ramen; wash our dishes with sand; and stare at the fire, sea, and stars forgetting everything that’s wrong with our other, real, everyday world.
Sean, who hadn’t yet spent much time with my boys, was game to join and see if camping adventures with kids was something he could see in his future. When I pulled up in my tiny, un-air-conditioned car, topped by an enormous, aluminum canoe tied down with granny-knots, and the back seat full of three shirtless brothers putting each other in chokeholds, he took one look at us and sat down on his stoop. He knew he wouldn’t be able to fake it through the next four hours of driving, sweating, threats, yelling, and unloading equipment. He admitted he was afraid he would be miserable and unable to pretend that he wasn’t. That he would lose his shit, yell at the kids, or need to start drinking at 9am. “I don’t want us to break up, and I’m worried this just might do it,” he said. Seeing my crestfallen face, and unable to bring himself to back out entirely, he told me he’d come separately, and meet up with us. An avid kayaker, he planned to scare up a spare boat from a friend, drive himself, and paddle across Tomales Bay before nightfall. He claimed he’d somehow find me along the 20 miles of unmarked, low visibility, undeveloped coastline, with no cell reception, where we planned to camp for night.
As I drove away, and waved at him through the rearview mirror, I was sure he had just done a fake-out. That this was probably the last I was going to see of this 41-year old guy who had narrowly escaped the worst vacation of his life, and probably just realized he’d really rather date a younger woman with better boobs, instead of the mother of a pack of wolf pups. That evening, as the horizon swallowed the sun, and wind whipped the water into whitecaps, I looked across the ocean and saw no sign of Sean. Who was I kidding? What guy would drive for hours to kayak alone across shark-infested waters to find me because he said he would?
About two hours after sunset, I heard a yell and looked towards the dark sea: it was Sean, who had been scanning the coastline all evening, looking for our crew. I ran to the shoreline and jumped into his wet, shivering arms. I wrapped my legs around him because I couldn’t help it, I was too surprised and elated to care how ridiculous we looked. The kids pointed and giggled. This was the most romantic, real thing a guy had done for me in a long time. Folded up in each other by the campfire that night, watching the seals swirl loops of glowing algae in the water while they played and fished, I was sure I had found my man. I was in heaven.
But just like heaven, the idea that a romantic gesture and a few moments of unabashed honesty can form the bedrock of an adult relationship is make-believe. It only took a few more months, and several nights of Sean drinking five beers instead of one, for him to tell me what he really thought of dating a single mom with three kids: he felt like he was getting some other guys used goods. When I heard him laughing too late and loud one night with my much younger, melon-breasted, live-in babysitter, I knew his claim, “Nothing happened! There’s nothing going on!” was a lie. I wanted so badly to pretend what I felt deep in my marrow to be true: it was over.
The night we broke up I took a bath, and listlessly watched my boobs slosh around in the grey soapy water. Instead of seeing what Sean saw and was able to convince me, for a time, that he wanted, I saw two hollow, deflated sacks. They reminded me of the discarded plastic bags I drive past on the street all the time, floating on the surface of street puddles. I felt like I’d never find another guy who could see this—and the rest of my real, messy, used-up life—and want any part of it.
I’m dating a new guy now, who says he loves my body, including my still-real boobs. When I tell him I want fake ones, he spoons me, squeezes them in his hands and says, “Don’t do it! What if you lose sensation? What if it wrecks your nipples? What if they come out feeling all weird and different?” This is when I turn to him and ask, “Do you mean if holding my boobs feels different than holding two snack-sized zip lock bags filled with applesauce? Then yes, I am ready for them to feel different.”
I don’t know if I really believe him. His affection and appreciation for my itty-bitty udders, for my kids, for my 43-years-worth of heartbreaks and mistakes might be a sham. I’m not sure if or when I’ll ever let him see my unadulterated hair color. Or my real bikini line. But my poor boobs are getting some love while I wait to see if this boyfriend is for real. Only time—which no amount of surgery, chemicals, waxing, romance, or denial can fake—will tell.
Allison Stockman is an Oakland-based writer whose stories have appeared in the Awl, NY Magazine online, and Electric Literature. She’s probably at the beach right now, wearing her bikini, and yelling at her kids not to drown while they swim.
FAKES is The Awl’s year-end holiday series for 2017. You can read the whole collection here.