Four months into a nine-month trip around the world with my husband and two children, we arrive in the mid-sized city of Chiang Mai in Thailand, and I can’t find my jog bra. I tell my husband I’m going to stop by one of the Western malls to pick up a new jog bra.
“Ça n’existe pas,” he says.
“Very funny,” I say.
Nine years earlier, when we were living in Paris and I was pregnant with our first child, we went to Le Printemps department store to buy new bras since I had outgrown my regular ones. After measuring me, the saleslady in the lingerie department declared: “Ça n’existe pas.”
Surely I didn’t have the biggest breasts in all of Paris. I asked my husband, who spoke better French than I, if she could suggest another shop?
Peut-etre, she conceded, I would have better luck at a specialty boutique. My husband, gesturing with his hands, inquired whether she meant to say a boutique for women who are grosse – large?
“She means a lingerie shop,” I snapped.
A few weeks later at a dinner party, the hostess introduced me to a rail thin chain-smoking French woman. “She’s American,” I heard the hostess say. “On peut voir,” the woman answered. One can see. “Elle est trop grosse.” She is very large.
“Mais je suis ancienne,” I retorted.
My husband whispered in my ear, “You just told her you were very old.” Pregnant was enceinte.
When I’m not pregnant, I wear a 36C bra, which puts me above average but nowhere near the biggest rack in town. Or in Paris, as it turns out. Once we located a lingerie boutique, there were plenty of bras in my size and some that were even larger too.
In Chiang Mai, my husband says, “You do know they’re not going to have your size, right? Asian women are super petite.”
“There are tons of Westerners here too,” I counter. Along with the Western brands they love. At the sports clothing section of a big department store, I grab the L and the XL for good measure, and take them into the tiny dressing room. I manage to pull the larger one over my shoulders, but it squeezes my chest so tightly I can barely breathe, much less go jogging.
When I come out, there, standing right outside the door, is the saleswoman, waiting in the extremely solicitous manner to which I will grow accustomed across Southeast Asia. “XXL? ” I point to the tags and draw the letters in the air with my finger. “Oh. XXL! XXL!” she repeats finally, causing other shoppers to look our way. We establish that XXL does exist, but either they don’t carry it or are sold out. Nevertheless, I leave encouraged.
Ca existe! which begins to take on the meaning J’existe, as I walk the streets of Southeast Asia looking for women who look like me. Yes, many Asian women are petite, but some are tall and even rather chubby, with broad backs and stalwart bosoms. Where were those women buying their bras?
At the street markets, of course, where real life occurs. At a stall selling bras, I pull aside my t-shirt to expose my bra strap and pantomime jogging. The shopkeeper leads me to a display of what look like training bras– halter-tops trimmed with a little lace. No? How about some spandex ones with delicate spaghetti straps? I shake my head and thank her.
In the malls of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Seoul, Korea, all epicenters for the new capitalism taking hold in these countries, a person can buy anything she desires. Along with this new wealth comes an increased interest in fitness or the accessories of fitness, and these malls are lined with Nike, Puma, Fela, and Adidas shops, and they all seemed to be staffed by young men. I pretend to run and motion with my hands that I want to stop the bouncing. In modest Asian culture, this pantomime borders on the obscene. They want to stop the bouncing too.
My five-year-old son insists on joining me in the dressing room. I have no idea if I’m ninety or a hundred centimeters, and I’m not about to ask one of the young men to measure me. My whole body squirms as I try to work the largest one I could find over my shoulders and down my chest.
“Mom,” my son says alarmed. “I don’t think it fits.” Catching sight of myself in the mirror, I realize how ridiculous I look. Why is it that I can’t give up on this search? I’m not even that committed of a runner.
The closest I can come to explaining it to myself is, more than proving that I can fit myself within a continuum of French women and Asian woman, I am trying to defend my rightness to be just as I am. My son is eyeing me in the mirror, my naked belly with its telltale signs of childbirth; those breasts that nursed him, and still fascinate him, which refuse to be contained. J’existe.
“You’re right, Buddy. Let’s get out of here.”
The following week, we visit a Korean spa in the seaside city of Busan, Korea. My husband and son part ways for the men’s section, while my eight-year-old daughter and I head for the women’s one. After we take off our clothes, we shyly enter the main spa room. There are hundreds of naked bodies, from babies to grandmothers, soaking in pools, scrubbing each other’s backs, washing bodies and hair. We are the only Westerners present. It doesn’t take long for the steam and soothing waters to put us at ease.
“You know what Mom,” my daughter says, eyeing a group of women in an adjacent pool. “You don’t have the biggest boobs here.”
“Oh no?” I say. After that day with my son, I’d given up looking for a jog bra and had stopped comparing my build to other women’s as a result.
There’s a couple of ladies whose boobs hang way down. They’re all really old.
Six weeks later, back in the United States, I find myself in an Old Navy, replacing some of my kids’ worn out clothing. A wall of exercise clothes catches my eye. The sizes for the maximum support sports bra range from 32C to 40DD with my size smack dab in the middle, and I feel a jolt of gratitude to find myself back in a place where women of all sizes can find their fit.
Bliss Broyard is the author of the bestselling story collection, My Father, Dancing, which was a New York Times Notable book, and the award-winning memoir, One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life-A Story of Race and Family Secrets, which was named Abestbook of the year by the Chicago Tribune. Her stories and essays have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The Art of the Essay, among others, and she has written for many publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, NewYorker.com, The Believer, “O,” and Elle. She is currently teaching creative nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program and is honored to call herself a vintage Woolfer.