My Ngoc To
When I was about six weeks old and still inside my mother, my milk lines formed. This happens in every mammal: the skin of the fetus suddenly thickens along two parallel lines that run diagonally from the groin to the armpits. Then, just as quickly as they form, the mountain ranges collapse back onto the skin. Within just three weeks they have disappeared almost completely, leaving behind only two small peaks at the chest. These are the buds from which future nipples will form. Other mammals have different rates of milk line recession, resulting in more nipples later on. Pigs, for example, can have as many as eighteen nipples from which little piglets can suck.Humans would ideally have two nipples, and in some cases where the recession does not happen properly, third nipples will grow out from the improperly reduced milk line. Luckily, or perhaps not so luckily for me, I came into the world with the correct number of mammary seeds planted in my chest.
I felt them when I was nine, sitting in front of the computer after dinner and playing Snake. Something compelled me to reach under my shirt. Perhaps it was just natural childhood inquisitiveness—students in my class that year had started to whisper things they somehow knew should not be heard by our teacher. Or perhaps it was an odd new sensation of my shirt rubbing against something that had not been there before.
The giggling curiosity that compelled me, as well as all the other blushing boys and girls, was a byproduct of having new chemicals inside my body, in all of our bodies. My ovaries, having received some very specific chemical inclinations, had begun seeping estrogen into the bloodstream. When the signals reached my chest, the seeds started to grow, evolving into a lump of milk, tissue, and glands, otherwise known as a breast bud. The more precise term is thelarche, which derives from two Greek words: thele, meaning nipple, and arche, meaning the beginning, or onset.
I made sure that no one else was close by and slid my right hand up to my chest, massaging the area under the left nipple. A hard lump, like a little stone, was lodged underneath the skin. At first I was unsure if it truly existed, but each trial resulted in the same discovery: a nickel sized lump nested right under the left nipple. It hurt when I squeezed it too hard, and I kept pinching, as if in a dream, the pain affirming its existence. I checked the right side, and sure enough, it had its own bump. It was smaller, but it ached the same. The stones were real. I could not excise them from my body, and I could tell no one.
What I did do, however, was observe. I figured whatever happened to my older sisters would inevitably happen to me. My middle sister, seven years older than me, bore the biggest breasts, the most slender neck, and the daintiest wrists. Her unique combination of beauty traits made her a pageant queen many times over, but we will not get into that.I knew that my neck was shorter and that my bones were thicker than hers, so there was never any hope of competing with that. However, I gauged that there was potential in my breasts. On the weekends I sat on the bed examining the way she applied mascara and lipstick, brushed on rouge and eyeshadow, and put every hair in place. Most of all, I admired the portion of fabric that stretched between the two mounds of her chest, wondering when the day would come that my body could impose the same physical effect on the fabric surrounding me.
I came home from the fifth grade one day, and my mom handed me my first bra. “You’re a big girl now,” she said, “You need to wear this.” This first one was a simple sports bra, with the most intricate part being the elastic band that clung like death to my chest. I could not see any practicality in wearing it, only that it helped me fit in with the other girls in the locker room. It still seemed possible, perhaps, that these things were temporary, and by tomorrow we would be free of them. That same year, I was taught that the sun would someday die, and I, feeling the pressure of the contraption beneath my shirt, realized that my childhood, too, would eventually dissipate just like the sun.
The sports bras turned into slightly more shaped training bras, where the cut and design suggested something a bit more feminine. The day came when my two sisters took me to Victoria’s Secret to buy my first real bra, like the ones my mom wore. “See the numbers? That’s for the diameter of your chest.” They said. “You’re a 32.” They explained the meaning of the letters, the clasps, the straps, and how the cups should never ride up when I raise my arms to the air. If they do, then I should loosen the straps, and they taught me how to do that too. We settled with a black bra with no metal reinforcement or padding, frills or laces. It was a polyester and spandex breed that sat smoothly on my skin, invisible to anyone but myself. “You’re an A cup,” my sisters said. I repeated that in my head. My breasts seemed so inadequate next to theirs, but at the end of the day, I was glad to have my letter.
Aside from the excitement of having something that all the other women in my family wore, I still could not see the purpose of bras. And so, inevitably, there were times when I neglected to wear one. This happened when I was ten and traveling back to Vietnam. My grandfather was a monk, and we visited him at his temple. When we arrived at the ornamented gates outside his residence, my eldest sister looked at me, furrowed her brows, and asked me why I was not wearing my bra. I had simply forgotten. Though I asked why it was so important, she did not explain her concern and instead just told me to keep my arms folded over my chest.
The temple had a courtyard at the center with statues and bonsai trees. When we had finished drinking tea outside my grandfather’s dormitory, I ran to the courtyard, sat down beneath a Bodhi tree, and posed as the meditating Buddha. Then we all lined up along either side of my grandfather and smiled at the camera. When we came back from the trip, I looked back at the photographs and was shocked to see that my nipples were very clearly protruding through the shirt in every picture. It then became clear why my sister had told me to cross my arms. I learned that nipples were something to be ashamed of, and since then, I have worn a bra every single day of my life.
It turns out that the body carries its own natural brassiere. Coopers ligaments, a set of connective tissue, are accredited for maintaining the shape and position of breasts. The ligaments descend from the clavicle and stretch through and around breast tissue. The clavicle thus becomes the line demarcating the beginning of breasts, and this may partly explain the sexual allure of that bone.
Cooper’s ligaments are named after Sir Astley Cooper, a British surgeon and anatomist who first described these ligaments in 1840. He also named many other anatomical parts, including Cooper's fascia, a thin film covering the spermatic cord; Cooper's pubic ligament, the superior pubic ligament; Cooper's stripes, a fibrous structure in the ulnar ligaments, and a variety of diseases.
Cooper is not the only man to insert his name into various aspects of the female body. Roughly a century after Cooper coined his ligaments, a pediatric endocrinologist by the name of James Tanner, who was also a Brit, came up with a system to measure breast development. Aside from breasts, he also demarcates stages in the development of genitals and pubic hair for both girls and boys.His scale, appropriately called the Tanner scale, defines five stages of physical development based on external sex characteristics.
In Tanner’s world, Stage One features nothing but the nipple floating on a sea of skin. There are no glands, ducts, or lobules, only the remnants of the milk ridges from the fetal landscape. Stage Two, and the thelarches form; I am playing Snake, feeling the buds. Stage Three, a continuation of Stage Two as I sit with my nipples exposed underneath the Bodhi tree. In Stage Four, the nipples start to protrude from the surrounding breast tissue, and I have sex for the first time. During those years, my left breast was frequently bigger than my right, as is common in many women, but my boyfriends didn’t seem to mind.
At this point in my life, I have reason to believe that my breasts are mature, and that if Tanner, were he still alive and could analyze them, would surely place me in that fifth and final stage. But for several years, from when I was nineteen to twenty-two years old, I put no thought into my breasts. They seemed inert and happy as they were, and I conducted my relationships fairly confident in my body’s ability to allure.
It did not occur to me that they had grown silently until I went to Victoria’s Secret to replace my old bras. The sales representative asked me what size I was looking for. I told her 34B, at which point she made a face and said, after glancing at my chest, “Really? No, you’re definitely a C.” I felt a bit violated that she could look through me like that, but also flattered. A part of me also questioned my feeling of flattery as a product of her attempt to sell a bra, knowing that Victoria’s Secret sometimes uses vanity sizes to make women feel more accomplished about their sexual development. Nevertheless, I tried the C’s, and they fit better than the B’s.
I remained incredulous for quite some time. I never thought that I would someday be able to match my sisters in breast size, but since then multiple incidences have me think that my breasts have become substantial. My boyfriend, whom I was in a long distance relationship at the time, told me each time we met that they were bigger. They were also more or less the same size which suggests that they had reached beyond the growing phase of Stage Four. At one point, out of the blue, he also told me that I had nice breasts. I asked him why they were nice, and he explained that they were very round and full, and the nipples pointed in the same direction. Though the relationship did not last, I will always remember him fondly for those words.
More recently, a young man asked me while we laid in bed if my breasts were fake. I sat up, wide eyed, and exclaimed that they were real. “Are you kidding me? Fake boobs are hard and cold, and not nearly as sensitive.” I said. “Mine are soft!”
I said these things with confidence because my aunt has fake breasts, and she let us touch them. A week after her operation, she sat with us at dinner, and the topic settled on her implants. “Do you want to see?” She asked. Before anyone could give a response, she unbuttoned her shirt halfway and pulled out her left breast. My mother, father, sisters and I took turns pressing down on the engorged organs as the food grew cold on the table. They felt stiff and plastic, nothing like what their roundness implied, and judging from the blank expressions on my aunt’s face as we probed her chest, they were not very sensitive either. Nevertheless, they were beautiful.
After telling him that story, I cupped each breast in my hand, as if checking that my assertions were true. Each one filled up my palms with heavy, soft flesh that bulged out between the fingers. They felt solid and warm on my body. The weight of my womanhood suddenly felt very clear to me.
The baby looks a lot smaller than he does in the pictures. “Be prepared for flashes of nudity,” my sister says. “The boy has to feed every two hours.” She paused, as if thinking about something, and a look of vague revulsion creeps onto her face. “My breasts are huge now, look.” She lifts up her shirt.
I stare, wide-eyed. They are immense. I feel inclined to look away but cannot stop staring, as if her mammary demanded worship. Both breasts have inflated to about twice their size before pregnancy. They sag with the weight of milk and hang from her body like ripe papayas, dripping with sap, from the tree. Fresh veins, which have grown to supply blood to the glands now in full operation, decorate the surface of her pale, smooth skin. The nipples, once small and innocent, have darkened and grown into long, meaty tubes that now give milk.
The source of this milk comes from deep within the breast, inside little chambers called alveoli. Like underground caves with dripping stalactites, the alveoli are lined with secreting cells that trickle milk into little holding places called lobules. Bunches of lobules congregate to form a lobe, which empties its contents into a lactiferous duct that flows all the way to the nipple. Each breast contains ten to twenty of these lobes arranged like flower petals around the center. I can see the ends of those ducts clearly on the surface of my sister’s skin. They appear as little elevated dots that sprout in a circle much like the way mushrooms grow around in a fairy ring.
“This is a good learning experience for you,” she says as she breastfeeds the small, squirming child. He clings to the softness of her chest, and I think of Henry Harlow’s monkeys.
The experiments started in the 1950s. Harlow used Rhesus monkeys. He took the babies away from their mothers at birth and raised them on two types of surrogates: a bare wire mesh monkey and another one covered in cloth. They were both equipped to dispense milk through a nipples at the chest. Harlow found that the baby monkeys held onto the cloth mother for longer periods of time. In modified experiments, both surrogates were available, but the cloth mother no longer provided milk. Despite the wire monkey’s ability to feed, the baby monkeys still spent most of their time hugging their fuzzier option. If they were hungry, they would clamber up the bony frame of the metal mother, feed themselves, and then run back to the softer mother, their eyes wet with need.
The way these monkeys held onto the cloth surrogate is not too different from the way Joseph lies on my sister’s body. His head fits perfectly into the crevice of her breasts, and his arms splay out comfortably on top of her milk-filled pillows. It is as if everything beforehand, the bras, the beauty pageants, the cleavage, attraction, and the buildup of glands, all existed in order to build up to this one moment when the breast, engorged to its limit with milk, can expunge its contents into the hungry mouth of an infant.
It is two in the morning, and I tell my sister that after witnessing her sleep deprivation and hearing of the rips and tears and screams that occurred during her fifteen hour labor, I do not want to have kids. She doesn’t respond, but I know she is listening. When she finishes feeding, she asks me, “Does Auntie My Ngoc want to hold Baby Joseph?”
I nod excitedly, and pick him up with both hands, making sure to support his neck. The baby lies cradled in my elbow, gurgling. He looks like both his parents. He has his dad’s long torso and limbs, his eyes, and his lips. He has the tip of my sister’s nose perched on a bridge that resembles that of his fathers. My sister goes to get some rest.
I rock Joseph back and forth. His mouth points towards my breast, and I am painfully aware of how incapable my body is to nurture him. His eyes start to close for longer periods of time, and I can tell that sleep is settling. Something gives me the idea to hum jazz melodies to him, for they are the only melodies I know at heart these days. I start with Stardust, then Someone to Watch Over Me. By the time I am halfway through Misty, the baby is fast asleep. I hold him for just a bit longer, even though his tiny body was starting to feel heavy against my chest.