The identity women derive from their breasts transcends ideas of utility verses sexual, big verses small, saggy verses pert.
The complexity and scope of the relationship stretches far beyond the musings they make during brassiere shopping, or the pop-eyed men who direct their conversations at their chests.
When Brenda Barnes’ breasts shape-shifted from cup-size 56 H (“as in Jesus H. Christ,” she laughs) to an A-cup in the time it takes a surgeon to freeze, cut and stitch, the alteration of mind and spirit was nearly as profound.
“It’s a health decision,” says the 46-year-old, who lost a (literally) staggering five pounds from each breast in a reduction procedure performed in April, primarily to alleviate the pain.
Such was their weight, the strain on her shoulders was actually separating her upper arms from their sockets.
“But I think it’s a decision, too, about personal transformation. In some ways, I’m really not interested in being the person I’ve been.”
Big, boisterous, loud and funny, Barnes cannot always be entirely trusted not to scratch her crotch in public or to be the lone heckler in an otherwise silent audience at an Arts Centre performance.
Before she got chopped, her voice and her boobs constantly warred to make the biggest splash when she entered any room.
In the 1980s, the former naval officer became one of only five women in Canada to attain a bridge-watchkeeping ticket for minor war vessels.
She wore two titles: Naval Lieutenant, courtesy of the Royal Canadian Navy, and “Captain Torpedo-Tits,” a name affectionately given by her brother.
She was true to both.
A stalwart servant to institutions from the navy to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to government of Yukon, the previously abundantly-stacked Barnes has also cut a dominant figure in her tireless devotion to rebellion, challenge and non-conformity in artistic, political and feminist pursuits.
She earned a following at local dances spinning records as “DJ Double-D.”
The making of the disciplined rebel began early in life.
Not long after her parents’ divorce, she found herself and her younger brother plucked from the public system and enrolled in Catholic school.
The 15-year-old Barnes, conceived out of wedlock, was left to simultaneously reconcile two emerging identities: good Catholic girl and lesbian.
Expectations were high for the student after whose maternal grandfather her new school itself was named.
“(Catholic school) was pretty interesting because we both had missed the crucial years of indoctrination, so we already had some ideas of our own,” she reflects.
“Part of the creation of the young, kind-of-rebellious Brenda Barnes was the knowledge that I was kind of living a charmed life on borrowed time, because at some point I was going to have to come clean with my parents and my family.”
She readily rose to the challenge of the strict school, becoming a straight-A student and achieving star-status on the swim team.
But as doggedly as she over-achieved to please her family, including a father who swore he would kill himself upon learning any of his four children were queer, she continued her informal education on being a self-loving and well-adjusted freak in an unaccepting world.
Maybe her breasts were the catalyst; by 12, her ego was as developed as they were.
In Grade 6, her classmates followed her about the change-room after phys-ed, chanting, ‘“Brenda needs a bra,’ in pig Latin.
“Poor little Brenda,” she says.
“I was mortified. I thought to myself that early, ‘Well, if this is the way it’s going to be, and people are going to make fun of my body and make fun of my tits, that it was necessary for me to have a greater repertoire of ammunition – better boob jokes, better boob stories, basically, as preemptive measures, or one-upping or diffusing the power of the putdown or deflecting the hurt or the damage that it may have caused.”
No, it is not always easy being a loud and proud, overweight lesbian with hooters as big and bold as her ideals.
Oft accused of taking up too much room in the world, physically and otherwise, Barnes as often reacted by boldly annexing even more space and oxygen, flipping the finger at those with contempt for women who do not measure up. Her breasts, her frequently-obnoxious irreverence and her booming voice in lockstep, Barnes left no doubt of her presence, and, like the minesweeper ship on which she served, a sizeable wake behind her.
It was self-preservation and self-celebration, without question.
Yet, in a sense, Barnes was not unlike the women who starve themselves, undergo liposuction or have saltwater baggies surgically tucked into their breasts to make them more desirable to their mates, employers or friends.
By bucking the prescriptive norms, she paid them a kind of respect.
“I’m not interested in being that reactionary person any more, either,” she says. “It’s time for a more mature response and anticipation of the world and trying to express my way through the world in a more sane way.”
Books like Our bodies, Ourselves blazed trail for women everywhere who sought to educate themselves on sexuality and gender identity. Today, most schools offer classes on those subjects, as well as how individuals relate to their physical selves.
“They talk about body image and how people develop it,” says Karen Brunger, director of Toronto-based International Image Institute, who has introduced and taught body image in several Canadian colleges.
“A lot of times, it’s from what people have said.
“The danger has been when women really believe they are their bodies.”
The body is a house, Brunger explains.
A major renovation to the physical form manifests in dramatic changes to the emotional, spiritual, sexual and mental self.
Barnes’ surgeon suggested reducing her breasts by one-third to one-half their original size.
But it had taken 20 years of $100 bras, chronically sore ankles, knees, back and shoulders and referrals to physiotherapy in order for her to summon the courage to go under the knife.
“When the surgeon came to see me in pre-surgery with his magic marker, I said, ‘let’s have a little chat here,’” she says. ‘“If I’m going to be a half to a third of the size I am now, I’m still going to have big tits, and I don’t want to come out of here with big tits.’”
The two settled on an A-cup.
The congruency between Barnes’ physical presence and her demeanor remains.
Now less obtrusive physically, she is also noticeably less so verbally, and even professionally.
Once a maverick who made her living through politics, non-profit organizations and casual broadcasting gigs, Barnes is now employed by Yukon government’s Women’s Directorate. Sometimes, she even wears a pink blouse to work.
She believes gender is not absolute; that it exists independently of sex.
As such, the dominant and ego-driven Barnes has always been more male-identified than female.
Smaller breasts seem to suit, and they have cut down nuisance attention from whence it was never wanted.
One of her greatest post-surgery compliments came from a friend who told her “You look exactly like you’re supposed to look.”
“Those large breasts on me always felt out of place,” she says. “I always felt I was reaching out to the wrong target audience. Men fetishize breasts way more than dykes do. There was a lot of barking-up-the-wrong-tree moments.”
After some complications including a re-opened incision, Barnes is finally back to her beloved swimming. Now that she is no longer plagued with pain and “top-heaviness,” she also hopes to resume cross-country skiing and other healthy pursuits that would not have otherwise been possible.
“By all means, I should have done this 20 years ago.”
Thus far, the only drawbacks thus far are the fruitless quest for a 48-A brassiere and, perhaps, making the acquaintance of her long lost stomach.
“I can see now that I have a belly,” she laughs.
“I couldn’t see that before. I foolishly thought nothing grew in the shade, but I was wrong. So, now I’m working on the lower bench.”