A Boob’s Life
Barnes & Noble
Published by: Pegasus Books
Release Date: March 2, 2021
Author Leslie Lehr wants to talk about boobs. She’s gone from size AA to DDD and everything between, from puberty to motherhood, enhancement to cancer, and beyond. And she’s not alone - these are classic life stages for women today.
At turns funny and heartbreaking, A Boob’s Life explores both the joys and hazards inherent to living in a woman’s body. Lehr deftly blends her personal narrative with national history, starting in the 1960s with the women’s liberation movement and moving to the current feminist dialogue and what it means to be a woman. Her insightful and clever writing analyzes how America’s obsession with the female form has affected her own life’s journey and the psyche of all women today.
From her prize-winning fiction to her viral New York Times Modern Love essay, exploring the challenges facing contemporary women has been Lehr’s life-long passion. A Boob’s Life, her first project since breast cancer treatment, continues this mission, taking readers on a wildly informative, deeply personal, and utterly relatable journey. No matter your gender, you’ll never view this sexy and sacred body part the same way again.
"As women we are always asking ourselves, are we enough? Leslie Lehr's witty, wise, and sometimes heartbreaking memoirs, A Boob's Life, uses our relationship with breasts, and the ways others define us through them, to explore what it means to live in a woman's body. Original, thought-provoking, and with an elegant sense of humor, A Boob's Life is a must-read."
"When I was a little girl dreaming of having breasts, I had no idea about the non-stop ogling and boob-worship I was in for as a woman in America. Leslie Lehr explains it all in this funny, passionate, upbeat book. You’ll never look at yourself in the mirror the same way again. Wow!"
Leslie Morgan Steiner, New York Times best-selling author of The Naked Truth, Crazy Love, and Mommy War
The body is not a thing, it's a situation.
Simone de Beauvoir
Some people think that having large breasts makes a woman stupid. Actually it's quite the opposite: a woman having large breasts makes a man stupid.
My nipples are cross-eyed. I see it clearly in the bathroom mirror the moment I step out of the shower. As steam clouds the view, I wave my towel and pray it was an optical illusion. No, they’re definitely pointing in different directions, as if embarrassed to meet my eyes. Or maybe this is payback. The truth is, my breasts have been loathed and loved, suckled and stuffed, radiated and reconstructed. They have doomed one marriage and inspired another. Yet, every step of the way, they’ve had the finest treatment in America. By now, they should be perfect.
“Hon?” my husband, John, calls from the bedroom. “What’s taking so long?”
Since we married a few years ago, both of his parents passed away, and then I got cancer. This is the first home we’ve bought together, a condo with an ocean view we’ll enjoy for a few years as a reward for all we’ve been through. The ninety-nine-step climb is like a stairway to heaven, but I didn’t have to die to get here.
This is our first night to relax and renew our romance. I try. First, I dab perfume behind my ears and unclip my damp chemo curls. Then I take a deep breath and look again. If I raise up my right shoulder and arch my back just so, my breasts are lush and round and almost even. But there’s no ignoring the truth. I pull a cotton nightgown over my head as fast as I can. Then I shove my towel so hard into the plastic hamper that the piece of crap falls over.
My husband tears his eyes from the TV as I stomp into the bedroom. “You OK?”
I snatch my phone from the cardboard moving box by the bed. “I have to call my doctor.”
“Now?” he asks, over the swell of applause for The Tonight Show. “Are you in pain?”
Yes, I want to say, psychic pain. Then I realize the doctor’s answering service won’t consider that an emergency. When I shake my head, my husband smiles and pats the bed beside him. I surrender the phone and scooch over. He rubs my leg and glances back at the TV, where the host is mid-monologue. I start to relax. Then the host tells a boob joke about J-Lo.
The TV audience roars.
I turn to my husband who, to his credit, is not laughing. “This guy gets millions of dollars and that’s the best he can do? She’s the producer of a successful TV show.”
He shrugs. “Comedians have always made boob jokes.”
“Exactly. It’s not original. Why are they laughing? There’s a neon sign that flashes the word laugh?”
“No, they’re really laughing. I bet half the people in that audience are women, and they’re laughing, too. Boob jokes are funny.”
“But why?” I ask. “Every woman in the world has boobs.”
“That’s why. They’re the first female body part a man sees when a woman walks into a room.”
The laughter dies down. The comedian is talking, but I don’t care. I hate him. “What makes a boob funny?”
“Boobs just sit there, all round and funny looking.”
“Dicks just sit there too, and they’re far more funny looking. Why aren’t there more dick jokes?”
“Dick jokes are insulting.”
“All jokes are insulting. They make fun of something. Isn’t that how humor works? Is it how the word sounds? I mean, no one says ‘breast jokes.’”
“Breasts are beautiful, everyone knows that. When you call them boobs, it’s funny.”
“But ‘boob’ means stupid. How can an organ that turns blood into milk for babies be stupid?”
“Lighten up, hon.” He winces as if I’ve been shouting.
“I just don’t understand why people always laugh at boob jokes. They’re not funny.”
“Why are you being so sensitive?”
I don’t answer, on the grounds that it might incriminate me. I remove his hand from my thigh. He raises his eyebrows. I take a deep breath and try to let it go, but I feel like punching somebody, and he’s the only one here. So much for romance.
John changes the channel. We see a young woman vacuum-wrapped in a cocktail dress wave at a weather map of Southern California. Her chest sticks out so far, she’s in danger of toppling over.
“There’s a boob joke for you. Think she’s really a meteorologist?”
“That’s just for ratings,” he says, which proves my point. Or maybe his.
Now I’m sorry I insulted the woman. The tight dress doesn’t make her slutty or stupid. That was my interpretation. How can I laugh when the joke is on me?
My husband clicks to a sports channel. Men on TV shout about games with balls. I want to make a crack about that, but he’s just being a guy. He can’t possibly understand the frustration of a flat-chested teenager or a nursing mother or a deflated divorcée.
“I don’t want my breasts to be funny.”
He turns, surprised to see me on the verge of tears. “Hon, your breasts are fucking gorgeous.”
“You’re just being nice. Look.” I pull down my shoulder straps.
He smiles at my bare breasts as if this is a reward. Then his gaze rises to my reddened face, and he realizes this is part of the debate, one he can only lose.
I feel bad, so I let him fondle me.
“You aren’t naked very often,” he says. “I don’t notice the details. It’s more fun to see them together with your pretty face.”
Now, he’s pandering, so I pull up my straps. He removes his glasses and rubs his weary eyes.
“When did you get so obsessed?”
“Seriously, hon,” I say, looking down. “Do you think I should get them fixed?”
He turns off the TV. “Up to you. I like all breasts. They’re like pizza. There’s no such thing as bad pizza.”
“For men, sure. For women, all pizza is bad.” Especially if we want to stay attractive to men like you, I think, cursing myself for being caught up in this competition.
My husband slips under the covers. I kiss him goodnight and grab my phone. Then I tiptoe out of the bedroom to let him sleep. Though that’s a big fat lie. The truth is I don’t want him to hear me call my doctor to complain.
I close the door of the room that will be my office and squeeze between moving boxes to my desk. If only it wasn’t so late. I scan my contacts to find someone else to call, maybe a woman who could talk me down. I see my mom’s number and wonder what she would say. Or my sister. Each of us has two daughters. That’s seven sets of breasts between us. Like most women, we rarely talk about them. They wouldn’t want to start now, on the phone in the middle of the night. I call my doctor and leave a message.
On my desk are a few framed photos, the first I’ve unpacked. The top one shows my bare-chested dad lifting me over his head like a human barbell, the next one shows him teaching me to swim. My favorite is a faded picture of my mother, my baby sister, and me, a skinny three-year-old. We wear matching red bikinis by our apartment pool in Arizona. I remember how important it was to keep those teeny strips of red cotton over our nipples. My sister was oblivious that her top was an inch too high. The sight used to make me laugh so hard my stomach would hurt. Hiding nipples was a rule, like brushing your teeth. Mom’s red top has far more fabric, but as she leans down to hold our hands in the picture, her cleavage presses into a perfect line. We all look so happy, holding hands and saying “cheese.”
I set the picture down and start unpacking a box of books and magazines. It’s a great way to stall in case my doctor calls me back. Maybe I am obsessed, but it’s not just me. Everyone is obsessed. Or why would boob jokes be so funny every single time?
I fill the small bookstand, then wonder where to put magazines I didn’t read before the move. Flipping through them aggravates me more. How can Vogue claim breasts are out of style when they’re permanently attached to our ribs? Elle shows low-cut Oscar gowns that are either empowering or objectifying, depending on your point of view. It reminds me of Twitter, where #FreetheNipple pictures of topless protestors compete with celebrity nip slips. Censorship is even more arbitrary. The Walking Dead TV show can slash a breast into a bloody pulp as long as they don’t reveal the areola. Even Picasso paintings get blurred on the news. I shove the magazines back in the box.
Maybe my husband is right, and I’m obsessed. But when you’ve been every size from AA to DDDD, it’s hard not to take the jokes personally. And now I’ll never find bras to fit.
I give the doctor five more minutes and do some research. I open my laptop and Google “breasts.” Within half a second, the screen fills with links to breast cancer, breastfeeding, and chicken recipes. Go figure. I type “boobs” in the search bar and get millions of links to porn. That proves something, but I’m not sure what. I close my laptop.
It’s hard to believe the bikini photo was taken over fifty years ago. Born in New Jersey, I grew up in Arizona and Ohio before moving to California. As far back as I can remember, everywhere I’ve lived, breasts have been the Holy Grail, the quest for female perfection. I’m beginning to think breasts are more than a body part. They might be the whole game.
I have to show my husband.
In the bedroom, he’s already snoring. The sliding door is open to the balcony, and the ocean air is chilly. I set the picture down, get in bed, and spoon his warm body. My bad boob, the one with the extra scar tissue, is pressed against the mattress. It’s uncomfortable. I roll to my good side, facing the picture.
Was I jealous of my mother? Was that when my obsession started? She’s twenty-four in the photo, a young and beautiful graduate student. And stacked, no doubt about it. I didn’t inherit her curves, but I wasn’t resentful. I was proud, like my dad.
Goose bumps cover my arms. We aren’t just posing for the camera. We’re smiling at the person behind it: my dad. This is his perspective, the male gaze. How did it become mine?
My stomach clenches, and I’m six years old again. I’m hanging upside down over the diving pool a million miles below. My father’s grip is tight around my ankles as he stands on the high dive. Don’t let go. All I can hear is the buzz of mosquitos and the beat of my heart. Far below, past my dark hair and my flailing arms, the water glows an eerie blue. The color is clear to the bottom of the pool, where the drain looks like a mouth waiting to suck me up. I hear my father’s voice.