The first time I became aware of my breasts as a problem for society, I was in middle school, bra-less, running up the stairs to my teacher’s flat. She watched me panting and grumbled, “Your chest just keeps expanding and expanding. When is the rest of your body going to catch up?” I looked down in confusion at my chest. I hadn’t noticed any expansion, just that I had breasts with big nipples that always seemed to be in the way, and feeling them had become a habit.
I was unconscious of touching them. I’d be talking to a friend only to find her gaping at my chest. There I was, one hand on each breast, brushing my nipples up and now. She’d ask, “What are you doing?” or snap, “Stop that” and I’d stop, puzzled as to why she was bothered. I didn’t realize what a habit it had become until high school, when I found myself standing on stage during a debate with Mfantsipim Boys Secondary School. I was giving a rebuttal to an issue when my friend at the back of the auditorium caught my eye. She stood wringing her hands madly, eyes bulging. As I raised my brows by way of a question, she beat her breasts pointedly. I looked down at my chest. My fingers were playing on my nipples in full view of the audience. I dropped my hands.
I wasn’t in the habit of feeling my breasts particularly because they felt good, although they did feel pleasant. I touched them because they were there, the way I’d absentmindedly roll a pen on my desk while listening to the teacher.
When I started growing breasts, no one at home paid attention. No one bought me a bra, and I didn’t long for one. I liked being unbound. As a child, I hated clothes. I ran around the house in my drawers, and when it rained, I ran under the rafters, feeling the rain on my face, licking the drops. The water would flow over my chest and into my drawers. I would squeal around while my stepmother shouted helplessly for me to come inside. At night, I slept with only a sheet between me and my body. When my breasts grew, they were just another part of my body to be freed from clothes. At some point, my father suddenly decided I should wear a bra. I didn’t understand what the fuss was about. Though I complied for peace sake, I hated harnessing a part of my body for no reason I could understand.
In our house, no one talked about sex. When I acquired a boyfriend, I had no clue what breasts did to boys, because he wasn’t eager to get into my pants. I felt safe with men. What’s more, growing up in small towns, women with bare breasts were ubiquitous. My sisters wore bras when their breasts pointed to their toes. I assumed that was the only reason for wearing one, to lift up fallen breasts. I hated pulling off my bra to see the imprint of seams on my breasts. I would scratch and rub my nipples, feeling sorry for them. Now a full-grown adult, I loathe constricting my breasts as if they are something to be ashamed of. I imagine that if I were a man, I would hate having to harness my testicles. I’d let them swing freely. I can’t imagine the heat generated, the sweat and the urge to scratch.
I’ve tried to respect society’s sensibilities by wearing a bra, but my nipples remain visible. Shortly after college, on my birthday, a man asked me to dinner. Weeks before, he had interviewed me for a secretarial job I didn’t get for lack of typing skills; I had no hard feelings. Over yassa chicken, he asked me if I had been nervous during the interview. I said yes and asked how he knew. He laughed and said, “Your nipples tightened.” I laughed with him and we went on to talk about other things. However, when, despite my bra, a Christian school secretary expressed dismay at my pokey nipples, I took to flattening them with sellotape as well. Peeling off the tapes hurt and drew tears from my eyes. I would stare at my nipples turned ashy with glue, rubbing and rubbing until they felt better.
Today I get fed up sometimes and discard my bra. Fellow women nudge me, asking why I don’t wear one, usually shooting me a look of disapproval. For church and formal events, depending on my attire, I wear it. Recently, on an evening out with girlfriends, I wore a strapless jumpsuit that precluded a bra. I was going to tape my nipples down as usual, but in my rush to get out of the house, I forgot. At the club, I sat hunched at the table, arms crossed over my chest, not wanting to dance because someone might see my nipples. While others thrilled to the Lipstick Band, I remained glued to my seat. When I finally confessed my nipples were showing, a friend said, “Aren’t they part of your body?” I flung my arms away from my chest. Yes indeed, are nipples not part of every human’s body? And yet how harshly we judge women.
Three years ago, when Serena Williams won Wimbledon, she wore a high neck dress with a pleated skirt, a departure from her usual flamboyant style. Women attacked her pokey nipples despite her firm bra. In 2013, when the US women’s soccer team won the world cup, Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey on the field. She got roasted for exposing her sports bra, though no nipples poked out and her breasts were fully covered. Her sports bra was only a teeny smaller that what athletes wear for track and field events today. At an US Open tennis match, Aliset Cornet wore a sports bra that covered her small breasts completely, no nipples to speak of. When she was about to serve and realized her she’d worn her top backwards and removed it, she got fined for changing her top on court. I applaud the tennis federation for reversing the penalty. Women spectators get treated to Federer’s hairy torso and Nadal’s rippling muscles. It’s okay for men to display edible, bean-size nipples. Women notice them, find them attractive. No one finds it offensive for men to be semi-nude.
I’m certainly not advocating that men cover themselves. I’m all for people feeling free in the bodies God gave them. Vivre le corps, say I. What I don’t get is why a woman’s body is both adored and feared, disgusted and desired, savored by babies and rejected by the breast police, why a woman can’t be free in her body without society condemning her.