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aunt sally the tassel dancer
Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

My grandfather was one of ten children. His vocation—electrician—landed him right smack in the middle of his siblings’ respectability spectrum, which ranged from orthodox rabbi to burlesque dancer. This burlesque dancer was my great aunt Sally, who in the 1940s was an institution at Boston’s Scollay Square night club, The Crawford House. Renowned for her ability to spin her tassels in opposite directions, there was even a drink named after her called the Tassel Tosser, made of brandy, triple sec and anisette. She made headlines, performed for servicemen and graced the cover of the men’s “humor” magazine Laff. The anecdotes go that women would see Sally, and then throw out their backs trying to spin their breasts in opposite directions at home.

Though my genetics may predispose me to this unique talent, I have yet to try the trick, probably because I spend most of my waking hours hiding my breasts. So, I guess you could say that spinning them for an audience is basically the opposite of my personal M.O.

I don’t have huge boobs. It’s not like anyone’s ever passed me on the street, stopped in their tracks and muttered, “Goo goo gaga, look at those honkers.” (Not that I’m aware of, anyhow.) But my boobs are proportional to my body. And being nearly five foot eight, I’d say they’re pretty there. Boob reduction territory? No. Wear a bra every time I leave the apartment to walk my dog? 100 percent. Wear a sports bra to bed? Don’t mind if I do! Wear a normal bra with a sports bra on top just to feel extra secure? Where can I sign up?!

Why am I, a liberated, body-positive feminist, so repressed? I don’t know. I think it’s probably a sensory thing? And yet, I do have a few boob-specific memories that may have been formative. But also, maybe not. Either way, I’ll share them. The first, possibly the earliest, is when I my mom was driving me from a piano lesson or dropping my brother at karate, when I noticed a jogger, boobs bouncing wildly and commented, “I don’t think her bra is working.” My mom laughed, and I guess I thought I was onto something.

The second memory is twofold. I, probably around eight or nine and definitely not a doctor, confidently diagnosed myself with breast cancer. I told my mom, and next thing I knew a trip to the zoo with some family friends (actual doctors) turned into a walk with Dr. Sheree telling me, seemingly randomly—for although I could diagnose myself with cancer, I could not figure out that my mom had told Sheree about my “condition”—that I was at the age where I would start developing breasts. Oh, I thought to myself. I am probably developing breasts, not cancer. I told my mom my new diagnosis. Relieved, she took me to Limited Too to buy the sports bra I would wear to shreds over the next five years. (Don’t judge me.) 

The third memory: In seventh grade my mom took me to see Boys Don’t Cry, the biographical film about Brandon Teena, a trans man murdered in a brutal hate crime. The ticket lady emphatically advised my mom it was not an appropriate movie for me to see, to which my mom responded, “I will take my daughter where I want to take my daughter.” (And yes, we laugh about that poor ticket lady to this day and how right she was.) Alas, I spent most of the movie with my eyes and ears zipped into my puffy coat like a scared turtle. But I did catch one scene from the film that I’ve kept with me forever: Hilary Swank binding her boobs flat to her chest. All major plot points and themes of gender, identity and violence aside, my 12-year-old brain went straight to: Now that’s a good bra.

Though a walk down my adolescent memory lane is lined with the Dalí-esque imagery of boobs, boobs, all types of boobs, I honestly don’t find it that atypical. But I do wonder now why I’ve become so obsessed with compressing my boobs down while my great aunt so freely flaunted them. One could argue that she was an extrovert and I’m not, but I am very much an attention-loving extrovert. So, fortunately for my disposition, in the 80-some years since Sally headlined at the Crawford House, there have sprouted so many more outlets—Instagram, improv, stand-up!—to attention-grab sans boobs. In all the ways that I exercise my exhibitionist side, mostly in improv shows nobody goes to, I spend the moments before I go on stage fixated on how much my breasts shift, worried they’ll distract the audience. (If there is an audience.)

I’ll never know why—or even if—Sally relished the boob-focused attention, but I do understand why I do not. They’re an interference, a diversion from my amazing personality. Eyes up here, boys! (Hmm, no one’s in the audience. Now I’m starting to see Sally’s point...)

And that’s probably why that Hilary Swank scene has remained the Platonic ideal of a bra—something I’ve sought high and low for and have never found. So, when another class of sports bras, tattered and worn, graduated from the school of my boobs (it seems like it’s a seven-year program, with lots of transfer students, aka bras I’ve acquired from friends who’ve left them behind or my mom giving me ones she didn’t like—ya know, normal bra acquisitions), I visited the Athleta in the new glammed-up mall next to our office. I was feeling confident—confident enough to tell the saleswoman that I was looking for something that would, uh, essentially ACE Bandage my chest down? “Like this,” I showed her by cupping my boobs over my shirt, pressing them up and squishing in. “Let me, uh, go ask someone else,” she managed to mumble before shuddering away. Next thing I knew, the esteemed in-store “bra expert” was outside my dressing room. “Like this,” I started showing this new woman my desires, but she stopped me mid-press and squish and explained that I already had the strongest product in my dressing room, the Glory 2.0. She wasn’t wrong. It was like a military-grade harness with underwire and racerback straps.  

The bra is so intense, in fact, that I needed to ask for assistance to put it on. With the underwire, cross back and the classic bra snaps, getting the configuration locked and loaded is akin to putting on a highly complicated soaking-wet swimsuit. The first couple of times I wore it, I set my alarm clock 20 minutes early to make sure I had time get it on, and still, I had to ask my husband to snap me in.

When the inevitable morning came that he was not there, I contorted my body in ways I did not know possible, twisting and turning my arms, swiveling my neck and arching my spine in the name of compressing my boobs. Other, less capable women would throw out their backs if they tried. But me? This is my trick. It’s a physical wonder, getting this bra on my person. In fact, it’s a God-given talent. I’m basically the Harry Houdini of bra-wearers. I can see it now—my name in lights! Bold, front-page headlines shouting Incredible Woman Masters Dangerous Boob Contraption!

They’ll probably even name a drink after me. And like my boobs, it will be neither shaken nor stirred but incredibly flat.

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