MY EYES ARE UP HERE
Somehow, as I was writing a book about a girl with uncomfortably large breasts, I didn’t anticipate how much people were going to want to talk to me about breasts. Strangers. Neighbors. Mammography techs. Usually their own. Occasionally someone else’s.
To be clear, there are other things to talk about in the book, too. Greer, the narrator of My Eyes Are Up Here, leads a full and complex life of ideas, relationships, responsibilities, and a range of human characteristics. She’s got an excellent best friend who thrives on confrontation. She’s super good at math and skeptical about the quality of the Spanish language instruction she’s getting at school. There’s a new boy who is relying on her to shortcut his acclimation to school. There’s some drama with the drama kids (as is often the case), who are performing an outdated and sexist musical (as is often the case). There’s quite a lot of volleyball. I could talk about volleyball all day.
Greer is confident in a lot of ways and painfully unsure of herself in other ways—like most of us are when we are on the way to adulthood. Like many of us are even now. And finding the way through is what this book is about.
….but there are also breasts. And, it turns out, a lot of people who want to talk about them.
Please indulge a sidebar here to note that once you start talking about breasts, you quickly run into a vocabulary problem. In most cases, I am a proponent of calling body parts by their proper (but non-Latin) names, with the exception of refusing to say “abdominal pain” when what I really mean is “tummy ache.” In the case of breasts, however, unless we are talking about surgery, feeding a baby, or self-exams, a lot of people don’t use the word. “Breasts” are what is still staggeringly susceptible to cancer, or the driest part of a chicken. It sounds clinical. (Or culinary.)
Most women I know say “boobs” instead. I try to be little careful, so as not to appear cavalier (especially in my new role as boob confidant), and because I don’t believe it feels right coming from, say, the guy who works at the animal hospital behind my house. There is a near endless list of other names ranging from cutesy to deeply misogynistic, and probably a dissertation in the works somewhere examining that list. In regard to My Eyes Are Up Here, you could go super clinical and say “macromastia,” but then only librarians, my editor, or other word-loving nerds would know what you were talking about. So please forgive boobs. (In the book, Greer often refers to hers as Maude and Mavis. This, unfortunately, is not a solution that scales to wider discussion.)
I wasn’t always someone who was comfortable talking about bodies—especially not mine. Like Greer, who spends each day under the cover of an extra-large sweatshirt, I spent my high school years doing anything to divert attention from my body: big, drapey clothes; the posture of a Disney crone; no swimming without a t-shirt. I went to chiropractors for my back, to orthopedic doctors for my neck, I took a lot of Tylenol for everything. I stretched and did physical therapy to strengthen my core, in case the real reason my shoulders hurt was because my abs were weak. I ran with two sports bras at once, which is the Spandex equivalent of a python. I didn’t own a tank top. When I got invited to a formal event, my mom sewed me a purple taffeta sleeping bag with a pretty lace collar. It was a weird thing for a 19-year-old person to wear to a fancy party, but it was very nice of her to sew it to my specifications. Even after I had breast reduction, I let all my coworkers believe I was having back surgery. (Most people come back from back surgery with all new shirts, right?)
Over a long time, I got more comfortable. I mean that both physically and not physically.
And then came this book. One of the first things people learn about Greer is what makes her so uncomfortable in her own skin (the cover and title help with that). Early on, I wondered if that it might make it uncomfortable to talk about—though to be honest, that’s also exactly why I wanted to write it in the first place. But a few things have surprised me. The first is the number of people who readily chime with their own experiences, as though they’ve been waiting to be asked. Sometimes it’s about breast surgery (way more common than you think), or a funny or painful story about their own Maudes and Mavises. (One friend described an embarrassing net fault playing volleyball. Her team essentially lost a point because she wasn’t a B-cup and got too close to the net on a block.)
Sometimes someone will tell me that she had “the opposite problem,” meaning that she felt self-conscious because she was flat-chested. But’s that’s not the opposite; it’s really kind of the same. I know this because it’s never really about boobs at all. It’s about being too big or too small or too slow or too hairy or simply too much in the eyes of somebody else. It’s about wishing your body or your face or your skin or your walk or your voice fit a mold. And then, hopefully, realizing that it doesn’t have to.
The second thing that’s surprised me is how much I love these connections, these tiny revelations from friends or strangers. When someone launches unbidden into a tale about underwires or nursing a baby or trying out those weird strapless adhesive things, I am all in. And I come back with perspective on built-in shelf bras or the magic of lanolin or a vow to never try those weird strapless adhesive things. I love how quickly we find solidarity in vulnerability, and how maybe solidarity can create invulnerability. It is not uncomfortable; it’s a relief.
There was a time I would have dropped to the floor and hidden under a rack of underwear rather than tell the lady at Nordstrom what size I was looking for. But now? I guess now I’m someone who talks about boobs.
Laura Zimmermann is a writer, a storyteller, and a maker of cheesecakes. You might find her at a softball game, a jazz concert, or a nonprofit board meeting, but you’ll never find her on a ladder or entering a triathlon. She is a multi-time winner of Moth and WordSprout story slams, and has frequently shared stories on the Twin Cities Listen To Your Mother stage. Her debut YA novel, My Eyes Are Up Here, will be published by Dutton Books in June 2020. She lives in Minneapolis with her three favorite people, who show up in her stories whether they like it or not.
My website is laurazimmermannbooks.com
My Twitter is @laurazimbooks
Instagram is @laurazimbooks
Thank you to the Teen Library toolbox for sharing Laura Zimmerman