In America I found out that my bra size is 34D, not 34B as I had always thought. Apparently, my whole life in Indonesia I’d been squeezing my breasts into bras at least two cups too small for fear of being inappropriate.
Size 34C is already offensive for most Indonesians because other girls only wear 34A. Size 34B is considered ‘big breasts’. Bigger than that is just an invitation to be sexually harassed, like giving others the right to say: “Hey you’re asking for catcalling. It’s not their fault if men on the street stare at your breasts and get all excited. Blame yourself or your mother for passing you those ridiculous big breasts.”
So almost as soon as puberty kicked in, I learned to cram my breasts into the most unattractive and uncomfortable undergarments. And when I finally turned into a grown woman, I wore modest clothes everyday, not a sight of cleavage, nor tight clothes. If anything, I spent my teenage years impersonating a boy. My hair cut short, I wore loose t-shirts and baggy pants, even short leggings underneath my one-piece bathing suit. They kept me safe mostly. I still got harassed walking on the street. Men tried to grope my breasts and pinch my butt, but I just ran away and believed the harassment was a part of the experience to endure as a woman.
My mother was part of the problem. She never once encouraged me to be a proud woman. Quite the reverse, she made it clear that a woman shouldn’t be noticed. She filled my head with this idea that I was ugly. Actually, she literally called me ‘ugly’ as in I-cannot-imagine-some-man-would-like-to-take-you-as-his-wife ugly. Her typical comment was, “My youngest daughter Uly is so dark and ugly. Her ugly little butt is as black as the bottom of my old frying pan.” Naturally, I was very self-conscious about how I looked and was ultimately convinced that I was everything my mother said.
I grew up with the thought that I was ugly, and that my sexuality was something dirty that needed to be hidden or quashed. When I had my first period, instead of telling Mom, I made myself a sanitary napkin from used washcloths. By that time I was 13 or 14, old enough to take care of myself. Out of my nine siblings, only two brothers had remained at home throughout my teenage years, so it’s not like I had other people to turn to when it comes to questions about a woman’s body.
After a year, I casually told my mom that I had my period and asked her to buy me some sanitary napkins. She didn’t say anything and just bought me a pack of Softex, at the time the most famous brand of feminine napkins. She didn’t ask me if I knew how to use them, nor did we have a talk about womanhood.
Instead she said, “You’ll start to smell and sweat a lot. Take a bath often and rub some limestone on your underarms after your bath to get rid of the stinky smell. Boys don’t like stinky girls, you know that.”
She was right. I noticed how my body was changing: the smell, the sweat and other confusing changes that I mostly just ignored. My breasts, especially, got a lot of unwanted attention. When I walked on the sidewalk, male strangers stared at them. Some stopped their cars and asked me if I wanted a lift. It’s awkward enough to carry extra pounds on my breasts without all the stares, but now it made me feel dirty for having excited men with my body. Mama said a woman should always be unnoticed.
I finally had a boyfriend when I was 20, and experienced my very first kiss two months before I turned 21. Within a few months I broke up with him and found another boyfriend, this time a more serious one. Being in a serious relationship changed my life. I discovered my sexuality fast. It didn’t take me long to find out that dating was not just about holding hands, watching a movie, and sharing a meal. It went way further than I’d ever imagined. I had a picture of my mom and a big cross with Jesus on it strategically placed in my bedroom to stop me doing the dirty stuff. But, after a while, looking at her face and Jesus, no longer worked. Guilt was no match for nature’s desire. Nothing seemed strong enough to overcome the strength of a youth’s turbulent hormones.
But even after having found my sexuality, I still felt that my body was offensive to many. Except for my then-boyfriend, I kept myself covered all the time. Nothing had really changed, and the sexual harassment didn’t stop just because I was no longer a virgin. So I continued to squeeze my breasts into 34B and wore loose t-shirt that fit my brothers.
Eventually I married an American and moved to the United States. My new home has changed me to the core when it comes to how I dress. Two-piece swimsuit, short shorts and body-hugging dresses are outfits that I was not comfortable wearing back in Jakarta, but now I wear them on a daily basis. If I ever feel a little uncomfortable, it’s because I feel fat and that I don’t look good in them, not because I’m afraid of being judged and harassed. One hot summer night, I was taking the garbage out in a tank top and underwear when it struck me how comfortably I was in my own skin.
“Whoa… why am I in my underwear outside the house? Who am I really?”
But then again, I swim in nude at night in our backyard pool, and walk around naked in the house.
And then, there was the culmination of this particular issue. I was at the clothing store looking for bras with the help of a pretty salesperson. I asked her to get me a beautiful blue lacey bra—the non push-up kind—in size 34B.
“I don’t think you wear B cup, Honey. I can tell, you wear at least a D, or even double D,” she said.
I was puzzled. Decades ago, I didn’t have any idea that bra sizes could go that big. I thought C was the biggest cup for a bra. I’d literally never seen sizes bigger than a C back then. Not in the mood for arguing, I told her I’d try a size D. She brought me the bra I wanted in two sizes: 34D and 34DD. I put on the 34D rather embarrassed. They fit me like a pair of gloves! Not only was there none of the usual annoying spill, but my breasts also looked so damn beautiful. I tried the bigger size, and they still fit me really nicely.
Speechless, I felt somehow betrayed, like I had been lied to the whole time. I was mad at myself, at my mom and at Indonesia for tricking me into thinking that my big breasts were offensive to others, and that I needed to cover up my body, so no one will notice.
Eventually I settled with 34D. There’s still Indonesia in me – I still feel uncomfortable wearing a bra in a double-alphabet size. But I have learned how liberating it is to be able to express myself through clothing, even if it’s only in the form of a perfectly fitted bra.
America, my boobs thank you!
About Uly Siregar
Uly is a former journalist and a cleavage enthusiast. This piece is an excerpt of her memoir book—a final project for her master’s degree at Arizona State University. She can be followed on Twitter through her handle @sheknowshoney.