California or Bust

When discussing the body, always go to the top. We’re talking cha-chas, ta-tas, wah-wahs, chihuahuas. L.A. loves ’em—so we got ourselves some

Let me tell you what happened with my breasts today. First, I spilled a latte all over them at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. The lid on my cup wasn’t tight, so when I went to take a sip, milk foam poured and then puddled on my sweater. Stooping to wipe up what I presumed would be a mess on the floor, I found that little coffee had gotten past me. For the first time ever, my breasts were too grande for my latte.

Later, I took my breasts out to lunch at the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, where they promptly attracted the attention of, well, everybody. Outside the Broadway Deli, two men approached. They were well dressed, respectable-looking, and as they veered toward me, the one in the black designer suit leaned in, his eyes fixed like spotlights. “We love them,” he announced, smiling wickedly.

I’ve had breasts for years. But now I have the biggest, firmest breasts in sight—a plump, jiggling set that obscure my downward vision and get in the way when I drive. My new breasts are D cup. They weigh 23.2 ounces—about the same as a couple of average grapefruits. They sit high on my chest in a bra that makes the most of my cleavage.

I’ve spent my whole life pretending breasts don’t matter. Part of me still wants to believe it’s true. I can make all the arguments, which basically come down to this: Women should be valued for their selves, not their shelves. Still, I have to admit, at the moment the breasts I’m toting feel like more than mere flesh. They feel like the source of all power.

The perfectly rounded breast is to L.A. what big hair is to Dallas. More than palm trees or surfboards or stars on Hollywood Boulevard, the breast—especially the surgically augmented breast—has become this city’s icon. That it taps into an American obsession only makes the symbol more potent. Saline or silicone, globelike or teardrop, ta-tas put the la-la in Los Angeles.

Angelyne. Pamela Anderson. Melanie Griffith. These women have the kind of breasts that people associate with Southern California. Six breasts among them, and not one could be found in nature. Angelenos accept this. We joke about it. We exchange tips on how best to spot the fakes. One woman I know says U-shaped cleavage is the tip-off. Another studies breasts at the beach, searching for the telltale melon shape, the way certain implants defy gravity. It’s a sport, and women here play it as much as men do.


Remember the scene in the movie L.A. Story when Steve Martin gropes Sarah Jessica Parker? He blanches, confused. “Your breasts feel weird,” he says. “Oh” she replies, as if she’s heard this before. “That’s because they’re real.”

Then there’s the Seinfeld episode when Kramer explains his expertise on the tactile properties of fake breasts by saying “I lived in L.A. for three months.”

I know a producer of mega-action movies who once told a TV actress that she had the best real breasts he’d ever seen. Can there be another city on earth where someone, in a professional context, would say that out loud? The actress, eager to make the jump from TV to film, used to repeat the producer’s assessment with pride. To be genuine in a city built on illusion is rare, and she hoped it would give her an advantage. The last movie she made went straight to video.

For women who work in Hollywood, the breast is as much about commerce as cosmetics. A memorable first impression is a necessity—one many actresses believe is worth paying $4,000 for. “It’s a whole different world in L.A. than in the rest of the country,” says Brian Cox, a Pasadena plastic surgeon who trained here, in the Northeast, and in the South. “In L.A. a lot of people see getting implants as a career move. They see it as a cost of doing business.”

Nonactresses can’t use that excuse. Yet everyone can relate to the insecurities of the flat-chested woman. What man hasn’t worried about measuring up? Women, meanwhile, are so ruthless about their bodies that even the genetically fortunate find time to complain. Gwyneth Paltrow recently told Harper’s Bazaar that she hates her butt. Helpfully, the magazine ran a nude portrait of the actress and said butt, which looked like it should be bronzed and put in a museum.

When it comes to beauty ideals and the self-loathing they inspire, however, breasts stand alone. I should know. For more than 20 years, I have been an A cup—just barely. In all that time I have never, not once, had a stranger stare at my chest. I’ve been admired, loved, lusted after. I’ve had my share of attention but not my share of breasts. As much as I want to deny it, it pisses me off. It is time, I decide, to stop traffic. It is time to join the ranks of the well endowed.

Pamela Anderson
Pamela Anderson

Photograph courtesy

Julia Roberts used to be just another pretty woman. Now she’s an Academy Award-winning actress. In between, things changed. Specifically, her breasts.

“It takes a village to create that cleavage.” That’s what Roberts said about her bustline in Erin Brockovich, the movie for which she won the Oscar. The village she was referring to was led by costume designer Jeffrey Kurland. Working with directors like Woody Allen and Neil Jordan, Kurland has designed women’s undergarments for a variety of physiques, from Queen Latifah’s to Robert Downey Jr.’s. For Brockovich he made Roberts’s modest breasts look like two U-boats preparing to surface.

When I meet Kurland he is wearing jeans, a ponytail, and a silver bracelet on his wrist. He’s just dropped off his six-year-old daughter at school. He laughs easily and seems to enjoy his work. So I ask him to build me some submarines of my own.

Kurland is intrigued by what he calls my “sociological experiment.” “Very Margaret Mead-y,” he says. He agrees to help me but issues a warning: “You’re going to get a negative and a positive reaction. People don’t tag girls with big breasts as rocket scientists.” He predicts that I will begin to view myself differently, too. “You’re going to look down,” he says, “and see something you didn’t see before.”

I’m counting on it. I want to glimpse how the busty half lives. And maybe, finally, I’ll get this damn monkey off my chest.

My mother never took me bra shopping. Small breasted herself, not to mention free spirited, she didn’t wear bras. She saw them as pointless, and during my teens, my body didn’t do anything to convince her otherwise. Since then I’ve explored lingerie stores with curiosity and mystification but without much urgency.

Jeffrey Kurland needs building materials. He wants underwires with molded cups and wide, multihooked straps in back for support. He needs “half pads” and “whole pads”–chicken cutlet-shaped pieces of foam with which to force me inward and create, for the first time, a valley where now there is a plain. In the intimates department at Bloomingdale’s, I buy all these things. I buy bras with silicone inserts, with air-filled pillows, even with water balloons. I buy a B cup, a C cup, and one that promises to take me from a C to a D.

Since I last laid eyes on a padded bra, the technology has become outlandish. So has the language. There are “Sexy Fit” bras with removable “cookies,” “H2O Smooth Water” demicups, “Liquid Kiss” bras, and the “Original Oxygen Lift” with “100% natural air.” These things don’t just make the most of what you’ve got. They treat you as the foundation upon which to add a couple of floors.

A lot of women see these breakthroughs as cause for rejoicing. I don’t. In fact, I’ve always understood breast implants better than I understand the padded bra.

If big breasts really matter to you, a boob job delivers. To be sure, a woman who undergoes major—and from a health standpoint, unnecessary—surgery to enlarge her breasts is taking a risk. But what she gets for her pain and money is what our culture has encouraged her to want: a more Barbie-shaped body. The man or woman she lies down with will likely know that her big breasts weren’t made by Mother Nature. But the illusion will be maintained, with clothes or without.

An Oxygen Lift Bra can’t make that claim. What it can and does do is telegraph to its wearer and all who know her how much she desires big breasts, how much she thinks they matter, and how inadequate she feels not having them. In a padded bra, a night of passion devolves into a series of tactical maneuvers. I’ve never felt comfortable in a padded bra because it seems like the worst kind of lie: one that’s sure to be discovered.

Seeing padded bras as humiliating, however, places me in the minority. I ask around and learn that many women put fiberfill in the same category as hair gel, mascara, and lipstick. It’s not about false advertising, these women tell me. It’s about fitting in. One friend says she doesn’t wear her padded bras to start relationships. She wears them to love herself.

Jennie Nash, a 37-year-old writer who lives in Torrance with her husband and two daughters, writes about this idea in her recent book, The Victoria’s Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming, and Other Lessons I Learned from Breast Cancer. Her relationship to her breasts, she says, has changed since her mastectomy and reconstruction. When she dresses up now, for example, she wears sexier clothes. Partly because she feels more grown-up and partly because she is celebrating what it is to be alive.

Nash laughs when I reveal that I am preparing to don a padded bra that will take me up three cup sizes. Then she offers advice. “You have to put on a whole new sense of your body,” she says. “Your costume gives you a new place to be, but you have to put on a new head when you put on those big breasts. We create and assume a sense of who we are.”

Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe

Photograph courtesy

Mary Ellen Fields is my bosom wrangler. That’s what she calls herself, only half jokingly. The manager of Bill Hargate Costumes in Hollywood, Fields is a master seamstress who often collaborates with Jeff Kurland. Fields made Julia Roberts’s clothes for Erin Brockovich and created the underpinnings that made Sigourney Weaver’s chest otherworldly in the 1999 sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest.

When I first arrive for my fitting, Fields is sewing lobster epaulets onto a Disneyland costume. As we wait for Kurland, she shows me 41 fur-trimmed Santa suits that are about to be shipped to a pageant in Missouri. She is wearing jeans, a white T-shirt, and a measuring tape around her neck. Kurland shows up in overalls. I’m the only one who’s not wearing a shirt.

I try to approach the experience like I would a massage. We’re all professionals here, I repeat to myself. But the label fits Kurland and Fields much better than it does me. About every three minutes, two contradictory questions pop into my head. One is, Can I pull this off? The other is, What if I never want to take these things off?

“Bend over. In and up,” Fields says when I get the first of the bras on. She grabs one of her own breasts to show me how she wants me to arrange myself. “We’re trying to point you as far forward as we can.”

They don’t call it costume construction for nothing. “You’d never make it through a metal detector right now,” Fields says. She is using oversize safety pins to attach several push-up pads to the inside of a 34B Wonderbra—while I’m wearing it. Once that’s done we add another layer of foam to the outside, which we cover with a 36D gel support Felina bra with built-in fluid pockets. To this we affix silicone Enhancers, squishy, breast-shaped linings designed to increase cup size. Finally, we stretch a 36D sheer cup bra over the whole package. Fields promises that after she sews all this together–a process that will take more than nine hours–there will be one set of straps, not three.

I have never had the faintest hint of cleavage. But now I do. My breasts don’t exactly touch–Fields is no magician. But with her help, and the applied pressure of all that synthetic material, they are near enough to say hi. Imagine a fluted bud vase. There’s just enough room between my breasts for a slender one of those. Which is vastly less room than there’s ever been before.

I start trying on clothes—a short skirt, a stretchy top. “You see how you’re doing that?” Kurland asks. Without even thinking, I’ve begun standing up straighter with my chest stuck out. “It looks good,” he says. “I’m getting used to it. It’s working.” When I put on a navy blue turtleneck, he gasps. “I’d be hard-pressed to know that wasn’t you in there,” he says.

Now that I’m in there, Kurland reminds me, I’ve got to sell it. He recommends high heels, to shift my weight forward. “You want to exude the confidence that you think big, breasted women have,” he says. “You don’t want people looking at you because you’re feeling uncomfortable. You have to drop that and walk through the day like this is really you.”

I’m taking this in when he tells me to look at the floor. “You can’t see your feet,” he says triumphantly. Fields laughs. To be seen beneath my breasts, she estimates, “your feet would have to be size 18.”

Writer Amy Wallace
Writer Amy Wallace and “The Girls”

Photograph by Esmé Watson

I call them “The Girls.” The generic nicknames works early on while I’m getting accustomed to having my breasts precede me. But as I get to know them, I decide that the girls need their own names. They are separate entities with their own identities used to commanding attention, not paying it.

“Nice rack,” says a drag queen named Kiki, who I meet on my first evening out. His own breasts are an ingenious contraption consisting of two condoms, filled to near-bursting with birdseed and then knotted together so they hang around his neck. He’s curious about my girls, so I invite him to touch them. Kiki says the girls are a little hard but but have credible bounce.

That first night the girls move, but I don’t. At least not the way a bombshell would. “Imagine yourself as a string of pearls,” says my friend Scott, who has worn women’s clothing himself. It’s not just about the headlights, he tells me. It’s about the head. “Think pink,” he says, pushing my shoulders back and urging me to relax. “Think soft.” After watching Kiki perform at the Atlas on Wilshire Boulevard, I consider naming the girls after his lounge act, Kiki & Herb. But I hold off.

The next day I study “A Few Words About Breasts”—a list of more than 300 synonyms, from “angel cakes” to “zingers,” that Playboy published in 1986. There are some humdingers on the list: “humdingers,” for one. I try a few of these on, but decide that I can’t in good conscience refer to anything attached to my body as “sweater meat.” I seek inspiration elsewhere, rereading Nora Ephron’s famous 1970s Esquire article about being flat as a board. I watch topless women discuss their chests in HBO’s 1996 documentary Breasts. I sign on to a Web site called I wade through a 352-page treatise, A History of the Breast.

Then I remember a famous Hollywood snapshot taken at Romanoff’s, the swank Beverly Hills restaurant, in 1958. When I dig up a copy, it’s just as I recall it. Jayne Mansfield is on the right in a tight white slip of a dress that serves up her nearly naked breasts like a couple of ripe papayas. Sophia Loren—no pancake herself—is on the left. She wears something revealing and black, but it’s her eyes, not her outfit, that get you. She’s looking down and to the side, sneaking a peek at Mansfield’s decolletage.

Sophia checks out Jayne at Romanoff's in 1958
Sophia checks out Jayne at Romanoff’s in 1958

Photograph by Joe Shere, MPTV

I’ve always loved this picture. It’s a stolen moment that would have been lost forever had the photographer not opened his shutter precisely when he did. It is also a reminder that men do not have a monopoly on scrutinizing the female form. My search is over. I look down at my impostors and pay homage to the real thing. Hello, Sophia and Jayne.

When I’m sporting by 38Ds some women look envious. Some skewer me with disdain—the kind they reserve for a brainwashed sister who willingly suffered to fulfill a male fantasy. Women look, but they don’t ogle. Ogling—that boldly desirous, aggressive way of seeing—is primarily the domain of men.

To the extent I’ve been ogled in the past, it has never been site-specific. I’m tall—five feet ten inches—and in heels I sometimes get noticed. But never have I experienced the breast-focused eyeballing that Sophia and Jayne invite.

At first being ogled is mortifying, though partly that’s the stage fright that comes with being newly on display. Once my initial terror fades, I have to admit it gets intriguing. It’s fun to be the center of attention, even under false pretenses.

I’d say my experience matches the anecdotal evidence compiled by Shahla Chehrazi, the proprietor of Avisha Lingerie in Redondo Beach. Half of Chehrazi’s customers are men, and when they come into her high-end shop, she asks them what they’re into. “Some of the guys, the first thing they look at is the breast,” she says. “Then I have guys that say, ‘If I wanted to play with a ball, I’d go to Toys ‘R’ Us.’”

If you’re a breast man, though, chances are good you’re also an ogler. There’s the businessman at the outdoor cafe in Sunset Plaza who swivels in his chair, slowly and unabashedly, as Sophia and Jayne saunter by in a turtleneck sweater. There’s the bartender at Musso & Frank who gawks at them in a low-cut blouse as if they, not their owner, are ordering the martinis. There’s the lawyer whom I see at the gym. I’ve actually met him once before, but when a friend reintroduces us, he shows no sign of recognition. Maybe that’s because his eyes have yet to get anywhere near my face.

If I were trying to date any of these men, I’d be offended. If I were hoping to make a connection, I would have to worry, at some point, whether they have any interest in the rest of me. But I’m not, so I don’t. Instead I marvel at their brazenness.

A friend of mine, Alice, has naturally large breasts. I ask her about ogling. She says it is most obvious in public places where men gather in groups. She suggests that Sophia, Jayne, and I traverse a plaza where men gather to eat lunch. But I can’t go alone, she cautions. I’ll need a companion to note the expressions on their faces. “You can’t look at them yourself,” Alice shudders. “It’s really icky.”

I make the mistake of forgetting Alice’s advice.

I’m at the 3rd Street Promenade when the two men swoop in and make a beeline for my boobs. At the moment that one professes his “love” for Sophia and Jayne, I foolishly look him straight in the eye. What I see is neither fond nor flattering. It is taunting, as if my figure—its very existence—gives him the right to diminish me. Whatever he feels for the girls, he doesn’t think much of the woman bearing them—if he even notices I am here.

Twenty-three ounces doesn’t sound heavy. It’s far less than a liter of Coke. A couple of Cornish game hens weigh twice what Sophia and Jayne do.

Nevertheless, my back hurts. After a long day of masquerading, my shoulders are marked by two wide red stripes where the bra straps dig in. Under my arms, the sides of my body also bear the bra’s imprint. And my real breasts? They feel like they’ve been buried alive.

Janet Jackson on the cover of Rolling Stone
Janet Jackson on the cover of Rolling Stone

Photograph courtesy

Every morning I struggle to strap the girls on. The procedure is made more complicated by my decision to keep them hidden from my four-year-old son. Standard psychology holds that the fascination with breasts begins in infancy, when the maternal breast plays both a nurturing and a nutritional role. If breasts represent mothering, I figure, it’s probably best not to mess around with my son’s understanding of mine. But this makes for some loopy logistics. After I drop off my son at preschool, I pull Sophia and Jayne from a plastic grocery bag and duck into the bathroom to change.

Sophia and Jayne soldier on. I take them out for dinner at Spago. A book party for Quincy Jones is under way, and the place is packed. I run into a former studio executive whom I have known for years. This, I think, should be interesting. His eyes dart to my bosom, and he appears to register its growth, but he is unfazed. Many women he knows, including the former model at the next table who is his third and current wife, have undergone similar transformations. If he’s thinking about me at all, he’s probably wondering, What took her so long?

I feel a tug on my sleeve. It’s the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, a woman I once worked with and have long admired. Suddenly, I’m sweating. She greets me warmly, but all I feel is panic. What is she thinking? Will she ever take me seriously again? After a few minutes I can stand it no longer. This isn’t really me, I tell her.

“I wasn’t going to say anything, but I’m so relieved. I thought you’d gone Hollywood!” she says, laughing in a way that suggests she was holding her breath. She gives all three of us a hug and heads back to her table. I let my paranoia settle. What does it say about my breasts that I am embarrassed to be seen with them?

The girls are beginning to tire. Like many an aging breast, Jayne is losing her shape slightly, while Sophia has developed a stubborn wrinkle. I had vowed to wear them until I understood their essence. Now I sense that our time together is growing short.

One Saturday night they feel like dancing, so we head to Barfly on the Sunset Strip. Brad Pitt is an investor here, and there’s a crowd around the red velvet rope at the door. My pocket guide to nightclubs describes Barfly as a place that “boils L.A. down to its most superficial elements,” so it seems the perfect spot to measure the girls’ clout. We present ourselves to the bouncer. All it takes is a glance. He unhooks the rope. We’re in.

Under an incongruous photograph of Charles Bukowski, men and women are wriggling around to a techno beat. Mine are by no means the only big breasts in the house. There are plenty of other distractions, from bare midriffs to butt-hugging jeans. The girls blend right in.

Later, as we approach the parking lot, I hear a flirtatious voice behind me: “Don’t turn your back on me.” The voice belongs to Kevin, an insurance salesman from Portland, Oregon. He’s kind of cute, in his red-and-black Hawaiian shirt, but I’m kind of sleepy, so I speak bluntly. What, I ask him, did he notice first about me?

Kevin is game. He likes breasts, he volunteers, but finds mine to be a little much. “Where I come from,” he explains, “women who have big breasts have big butts.” I let him in on my secret as a carload of teenage girls drives by, blasting Britney Spears. “I’m not that innocent!” Britney screams. Kevin then launches into some role-playing of his own. “I am very wealthy,” he says in a tone that makes clear he’s not. “I have a big dick. Do you want to fuck me?”

I laugh, sort of, and instinctively give the girls a comforting squeeze.

“I’m making a point,” Kevin says. I hope he is going to hurry up about it because Sophia and Jayne are itching to get home. I’m in my car now. Kevin stands on the sidewalk, talking to me through the half-open passenger window. Big breasts, like other big things, are often overrated, he says. “Tits,” he concludes solemnly. “Tits are great, but they don’t make a relationship.”

There is a phenomenon plastic surgeons talk about though rarely encounter. A woman elects to have her breasts augmented, the surgery is successful, and the woman’s physical prognosis is excellent. Her mental state, however, deteriorates. She just can’t accept her new body.

“It’s a dramatic change, and some women never incorporate the implants into their body psychology,” says Christine Petti, a Torrance-based plastic surgeon who has seen this condition just once in 13 years of practice. “They think they want them, but once they have them, no. It’s a phobia.”

I understand completely.

When I look in the mirror, I’m struck by the visual tricks that proportions play. My waist looks nonexistent. Everything about me is dwarfed by what rests eight inches under my chin. My D cups are like an invading army, threatening to take over my life. Not once do they feel like part of me.

I wear them to jury duty. In the past I have always been rejected during voir dire. If the busty me gets chosen to sit on a panel, I think, it will prove Sophia and Jayne’s influence beyond a reasonable doubt. My experiment is foiled, however, because we don’t get out of the waiting room. I am left to ponder, day after day, why breasts hold such sway.

I think about push-ups—the exercises, not the bras. I think about how important it’s always been for me to be physically strong. A friend suggests that I, like many flat-chested women, work hard to find other sources of power. Last New Year’s Eve I made a resolution: Within a year I would do 50 push-ups at a stretch. I’ve gotten pretty good at dropping my chest between my arms. Sure, if my breasts were bigger, it would be easier for me to touch the ground. The push-ups I’d be doing wouldn’t be any deeper, of course. They’d just look that way.

This feature appears in the January 2002 issue of Los Angeles magazine.