The bathing suit was not so racy. It was a black tank suit, but I liked it because it had rainbow stripes around the neckline, and at 13 years old, I loved rainbows. I was exiting the low end of our town’s swimming pool, pulling myself up the ladder while the weight of the water pulled the top of my suit down, just low enough to expose what should have been a woman’s cleavage. At 13, I was already a very full B cup. As I exited the water, an older boy I didn’t know – maybe 16 years old – stood at the pool’s edge and watched my chest. When I had both feet on the cement he breathed at my chest, “Holy Fuck.”
Years later, “Yes, you were Shelley Collins, the girl with the big tits.” – a revelation that had come from a guy from my high school with whom I became very close friends after graduation. In high school, I believed I was known as a “brain” – someone who always got too high grades to be cool. I was also a really great public speaker, bad at sports, a bookworm, good with English and languages, and hopeless at Math. I was overwhelmingly optimistic, a hardcore Duran Duran fan, a “goodie goodie” , a bit of a weirdo and a loner, except for a small group of girls who straddled the line between the really cool girls and the losers, and who counted me as one of them. I was all that and more, and yet, none of the guys knew any of that. My identity began and ended with my breasts. I remember looking at my friend over my rum and coke that summer night, and thinking that the fact that I could be summed up in one sentence was both liberating and overwhelmingly frustrating.
When I had spent many years in Korea, a country where I have been groped more than any other (mostly by old women, curious and praising my ability to nurse babies), I had thought I had made peace with the message my body sent out. I had been through the older men I had trusted who had assumed that a D cup meant I was horny, I had been through alternately embracing and reviling the sexual persona that seemed to precede every room I walked into, my breasts the first part of me to round any corner. I had been through being called a slut, because I looked that way. I also had been through men who had really, really loved me, who saw me as a whole, incredible being. I had been through and beyond the small town ideas about what defines a woman, what defines me. I had taught children who called me “camel teacher”, and mimed running up to me and bouncing back, and yet who would run to me with hurt elbows and feelings because a hug from me meant softness and warmth. I had made peace with my body, I thought.
My first university teaching job, I was one of a very small handful of women. One night a staff party had extended beyond the usual barbecue meal and we continued on to a bar. A male teacher from Australia and I were drinking Tanqueray together at the bar while the other guys played darts. AD and I had been good friends, and we had a little bit of an innocent office flirtation. At the time, the TV show, Survivor, was really popular and we had an office pool going on who would win. Ad looked at me, drunk.
“ Shel, do you think you could play Survivor?”, he asked.
“ No way in hell. I like my comfort too much.”
“ If you were going to play, what would you wear?”
“ A tankini, I guess.”, I answered, not sure where the conversation was going.
“ Yeah, but, do you think you could run?”
“ What do you mean? Because of the tankini?”, I asked.
“ No, because of…… you know.”, he slurred and gestured to my now double D breasts.
“ Fuck off, AD, You’re drunk,” I shot back with a grin, slammed back my gin and walked out of the bar without saying goodbye to any of the guys, sat down on the sidewalk and cried like the 13 year old I still, deeply, was.
First they had been sexual, then maternal. Now they were a disability – a joke. I was deeply shamed.
Now, I’m a big woman, in a body that isn’t meant to be. I have one of the hardest bra sizes to fit – 36 DDD which means I have small bones. Most women of my cup size have much larger ribcages. I’ve managed to make my hips and belly proportionate, to my breasts and have an exaggerated hourglass figure. I’ve eaten my way to the point where my breasts are not the first thing you notice about me.
I am far too bright to think it is all as simple as that. I’ve read so many books, had so many conversations and breakthroughs, so many theories about why I am overweight. There are layers there I’ll probably never get to in this lifetime. And yet, I believe the relationship of doing harm to myself, my own body, started right there, with a rainbow v-neckline and a hormonal 16-year old boy. How do you begin to forgive yourself for sending out a message you didn’t even recognize?
Recently, I had lunch with two female friends who are lovely and wise and have each dealt with body issues. It was supposed to be coffee and flea-market treasure hunting. It turned into multiple glasses of wine and girl-talk that took us far past the time we needed to make the flea market.
“Let’s take Shelley to the bathhouse”, said SS, knowing that in my 16 years in country, I had never been.
I am the ultimate bath-lover and until I moved, had spent the last 3 or 4 years in an apartment without a bathtub. Yet, I never went to a bathhouse. In a country of mostly svelte women, I was sure that I would be stared at, talked about and perhaps even poked and prodded. In my clothes, with the right bra and a generous amount of black, I could look a little smaller than I really was. Naked, I needed to be seen through loving eyes. As strong as my desire for hot, hot water was, I could never bring myself to strip down in front of strangers.
But that day, I was drunk, and buoyed by the confidence of my large-hearted, beautiful girlfriends. Plus, honestly, I have a bit of a 40-plus hormonal kick that makes me feel like a goddess in spite of it all and makes me not give such a damn.
Off we went, three drunk, white-skinned, wet women. SK taught me the rituals – how important it was to get really, really clean before getting in the pools. She pointed to the scrubbing area. The Korean women there were all shapes- some bigger than me. Yet, they were lovingly, carefully cleaning their bodies, spending long minutes on an inner knee or a patch of belly. The scrubbing was luxurious, slow. They gossiped and chatted and scrubbed each others’ backs. I tried not to stare, but was taken by the simple beauty of getting clean – with no judgment, no shame, no stigma.
After dipping in the first pool, I forgot myself, and happily followed SK from pool to pool each one a different temperature. I was completely naked and particularly enjoying the transition from hot to cold and back again. I was taking care of my body in a way and a tradition that was so much older than me and my hang-ups.
Exiting each pool, I had to climb over a tile barrier to get into the next one. The water weighed my breasts down. Nobody looked. Nobody cared. I felt free.
I felt clean.
Note: For a better idea of what the Korean bathhouse experience is like, I suggest you read my talented friend Grace Smith’s blog post about her first time here.