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Breasts, and misery

January 26, 2009

This morning, I got up with aggravatingly strong upper back pain and burny sensations, from spasming muscles. I feel like I’ve been trying to fly in my sleep again, with the wings I don’t have. So much other stuff has been going on, that I’ve been neglecting basic maintenance there, and not keeping a close check on starting to lead with my head. Working at Iceland, lifting and carrying things with head-forward posture–in bras that were constraining natural upper body movements, no less–brought this into the spotlight. It’s a more annoyingly persistent area of RSI than the lower back, at this point.

At any rate, I Googled to find some different trapezius stretches, since I can’t effectively massage that myself, even with a tennis ball against the wall. (Yep, I still think immediately of stretching what’s actively hurting, when I know by now that it will mostly straighten itself out if I get the pectorals loosened up some.) I did run across some useful stretches for the whole area, but also ran across something related which got me fired up on one topic again: Breasts Causing Upper Back Pain is a Myth.

Right on.

It has repeatedly amazed me how thoroughly a lot of women have internalized dodgy attitudes about breasts, even when they’ve examined other harmful messages we’ve been fed. This face of misogyny must be really deeply entrenched by now. Some of the comments I’ve seen on even radfem blogs have made me want to cry: at base, just having breasts is too frequently perceived as a recipe for misery.

In this society, it’s nigh impossible to think about breasts neutrally. Much ado is made about body parts borne by better than half the population. There’s a lot of bizarre social coding put on them. I can’t help but think of Barbara Mann’s anecdotes, in her Iroquoian Women, about students in her classes persistently sexualizing metaphors from another culture, and becoming visibly uncomfortable discussing them. These included planting mounds as the nourishing breasts of the Earth, and one man honestly complimenting another on having “large breasts” (i.e. being generous, and able to take care of a lot of people). There’s something bad wrong there.

Maybe we should look at our attitudes about breasts, before attributing all sorts of health problems and discomfort to having them. Messages from a sick society have a way of creeping in. Our breasts are treated firmly as a defining characteristic of our Other status, and are further Othered, sometimes by the people who have grown them.

I don’t doubt that a good number of women do feel discomfort related to their breasts. I’m just questioning the ultimate source of this discomfort. One analogy I have used before is the elbow.

Barring misfortune, everybody has elbows, right? Imagine if you were surrounded by images of hypersexualized elbows, from the time you were born, to the point that other people insisted on dressing you in clothing with elbow coverings all your life. Imagine that, as you approached puberty, it was socially expected that you wear slings to support your growing elbows, and were led to believe that it was only natural that other people should want to stare creeplily at them. Other kids openly made fun of your elbows, pinching and grabbing them when they thought they could get away with it–and also made fun of you when they noticed you were wearing your slings, grabbing at the straps. This behavior was tolerated by adults, who also made intrusive comments about your elbows.

You started slouching to detract attention from your elbows, and possibly even wore uncomfortable special slings to make them look smaller. Pretty soon, after wearing the slings for a while, it felt very strange when you took them off, feeling your arms moving naturally. Possibly you started sleeping in your slings, it was so disconcerting feeling them move around. You were repeatedly told that it would hurt if you ran, or did much other exercise, with those elbows of yours. You were also told that you risked pain and unsightly arm sagging if you did not wear your slings.

Other people felt free to make rude comments and stare if you decided to go out without your slings, making some pretty remarkable assumptions as to your motives–when you were mainly interested in not getting chafed and being able to move freely. No matter what sensory issues you had, you needed to suck it up and wear those slings. It quickly became less uncomfortable to go ahead and wear the things than to deal with other people’s reactions if you didn’t. Other people have felt free to exclaim, looking at shirts in a store, that they would kill themselves if their arms were that big–while you were standing right there, in a larger sleeve size. You got to hear an awful lot about arm cancer, and the importance of regular elbow exams, while being made to feel awkward about touching your own elbows.* Sometimes you craved the sensation of fresh air and sunlight on your arms, but you knew you would likely get arrested if you pushed up your sleeves in public, not to mention the reactions of passersby.

You don’t get to see much of other people’s elbows in their natural state, but plenty of surgically altered and Photoshopped ones. No matter how yours look, it’s not right. Lots of other people are entitled to opinions about your elbows.

Sure enough, eventually you develop some muscular pain. Your elbows are the first thing the doctor notices, and you have come to expect the creepy staring. The pain is blamed on the fact that you’re carrying those elbows around, and you are prone to believe that they mostly cause trouble. The doctor recommends surgery to make them smaller, and you are actually relieved, because that might mean that fewer people will be staring at and talking to your arms. This has consistently been attributed to the fact that you have elbows at all.

Could the pain have to do with hunching around, being half ashamed of your elbows? Could it also come from not having developed the muscles to support your arms properly, between wearing slings and being discouraged from exercising without them? Are you unaccustomed to feeling your arms move without slings by now, and are not sure how to interpret the sensations? Could it be that your body is made to handle the “excess” weight of your arms, since they’re part of the basic design? Has your thinking about your elbows become so distorted that it’s hard to be objective anymore?

It feels a bit strange, applying the social model of disability to just having breasts. It says a lot about attitudes, that this model seems to fit!

Yeah, I’ve seen this sort of thing in action, and have learned to fight a good bit of it. Thank goodness I haven’t picked up nearly as many negative attitudes as one of my cousins. She started out with G-cups, and wore an industrial strength bra, with the straps tightened so that they left grooves in her shoulders, 24/7. She also developed a habit of slumping in around her breasts, and didn’t get much exercise to build up supporting muscles. She had trouble with tight shoulders/upper back and angina, which were promptly attributed to her breasts. Not surprisingly, she gave in and had a reduction. (Another doctor also offered to remove a few “excess” ribs, but that’s another story.)

At a B-cup, her body looked completely out of proportion–she is also a big, apple-shaped woman by design–and she continued to have the same pains. The chest pain was coming from anxiety attacks, to begin with, and has since been successfully treated. Now she is left with painful and numbing incisions across her areolas, and a surgery-related cyst in one of them, which is frequently painful and drains to the point that she has to use a nursing pad regularly. The doctors have sloughed off these new problems. Not surprisingly, she regrets having gone ahead with the surgery, and is angry that her breasts were inappropriately blamed for multiple health problems.

Without the extra layer of social weirdness, this is also down to the fact that the majority of doctors are prone to attributing symptoms to what jumps out at them. I’ve had ACL reconstructions on both my knees, and had much more disabling pain after surgery on the second one, which went on for years. (My stepdad has had similar experiences with surgery for carpal tunnel–much more debilitating pain afterward, turning him into a “bad patient”.) With the common level of knowledge, and an “obvious” cause right there, it was repeatedly blamed on arthritic changes to the joint. I had begun to resign myself to being in serious pain most of the time, having my knee seize up regularly at the least opportune moments, walking with a cane–and popping as many NSAIDS as I thought I could get away with, the way they tear up my stomach. A cortisone injection did not help the pain. My quadriceps felt like they were on fire if I stood up for long. I had to stop swimming, cycling, or doing much walking; losing muscle just exascerbated the problem.

Guess what? Most of the pain is gone now. Most of it was coming from knotted up thigh muscles, as was the trick knee. The surgery (and PT regimen) had done further injury to the muscles, which started strengthening up again once I got most of the knots worked out. Additionally, surgery left me 10-15 degrees less range of motion–to “normal” range, when I’ve got hypermobile joints–and threw my gait completely off. Thank goodness that has loosened up with time, though that knee still doesn’t extend all the way after 10 years. None of the doctors I saw could see the myofascial stuff as a possible factor, but focused in on what looked “obvious”. My “nerve damage” from a broken tailbone has been similarly alleviated by some massage.

If a person has repeatedly heard that breasts cause all manner of discomfort and pain, that can look like an “obvious” cause.

I am down two cup sizes ATM, to a D–which I hadn’t worn since I was 12–and am having more shoulder and upper back problems now, as a result of losing muscle mass as I lost so much weight. As my upper body strength went down, I became more prone to muscle pain from normal use. It’s hard to believe that the lower baseline levels of upper body strength generally encouraged in/expected from women don’t also lead to more pain.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to blame all sorts of problems on having breasts. Other people in this society sure are eager to do it for us.

*No, I’m not dismissing the impact of breast cancer. My mom had a mastectomy, then died from underlying bone cancer. I am questioning the popular treatment of–and fascination with–it, though. I am questioning the callous treatment she received from the oncologist (“Stop whining like a baby, I’m just doing a horribly painful needle biopsy with no anesthetic! Oops, we need to lop off this one tomorrow, or you’re gonna die.”), which made her less keen to seek further treatment. (And given that this is his regular way of treating female patients, why did it take years for this doctor to get sued and lose hospital privileges?) I am questioning why so many strangers showed such obvious discomfort when she found a bra and falsie too painful to wear, what with the MRSAed-up incision under her arm and all. I’m questioning why the medical professionals missed the underlying cancer which was not in her breast. These are just some of the underlying questions I have, in this situation.


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