BY: MAGGIE SMITH
Photo by: Carly Reis
The package was on the floor when I got home. I gave it a wide berth and pretended to ignore it. The next day, the box still sat on the floor – I stood over it, picked it up, placed it at the end of my bed, and walked out. As I slept that night, I kicked it off the bed and found it sideways on the floor in morning. I righted it, grabbed some scissors, and prepared to cut the tape but heard Mr. Coffee emit its final gurgles and sighs from the kitchen. I dropped the scissors and grabbed my mug instead leaving the package to remain unopened. Later that day, I cut through the tape, peeled back the tissue paper, bent back the flaps, reached in and grabbed the items from their storage. I promptly dropped the goods on my bed with a huge sigh and prepared the box for recycling. Eventually, I stood – hands on hips, with a disapproving frown on my face – staring at the items. Three sports bras stared back at me.
Dr. Weiss wasted no time – my husband, Patrick was late and I was nervously plucking at my uniform when he began speaking. I assumed Dr. Weiss would wait until his arrival to share the findings, but he didn’t, and at that moment, I learned about my genetic mutation, BRCA 2. Instead of shock, I felt relief and wished my husband could experience it too – he eventually made it through DC traffic and shared in my resolve to move forward. I felt as though I now had permission to start my life, to gain control over the demons lurking in the corners of my mind. I took action that day in May, 2009 by scheduling a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy for June 2, 2009 and a total hysterectomy for my 30th birthday six months later.
The BRCA 2 genetic mutation places me at a much higher lifetime chance of developing breast and/or ovarian cancers than the general population of women. I, with the full support of my family, chose to take action with preventive surgeries to decrease that risk. I met with my surgeons and felt comfortable with the procedures until Dr. Rose mentioned “implants.” I balked and quickly refused the appointment. Patrick and I had done our research: post-mastectomy implants did not fit into our lifestyle and delayed full recovery. My daughter, Emily, was eleven months at the time of my surgery and being told that I could carry nothing heavier than a gallon of milk meant no baby cuddles for a month; I am in the Army and serve on active duty and the mastectomy was already projected to impact my push-up performance; I live an active lifestyle as a runner and avid outdoorswoman making my large, D-cup breasts a nuisance and not something I was looking to replace. I explained my desire for “total and complete flatness” to my surgeon who raised his eyebrows and told me I should, “at least talk to the guy about options.” I never did and lost six pounds during surgery – running was suddenly easier.
In fact, running was my healing process. My husband, before surgery, signed me up for the first Runner’s World Marathon Challenge for the Richmond Marathon. The race was in early November, approximately six months post-mastectomy, giving me little excuse to remain in bed or feel sorry for myself. It literally propelled me back to life, health, and pain-free movement. Two weeks post-surgery I ventured out for the first time and felt incredibly awkward given all the changes to my body composition. It did, however, feel wonderful to have a fitness goal on the calendar even if my body felt foreign. I slowly built confidence and signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon too. That fall, I experienced what it feels like to cross the finish line with a BQ at both races. My next goal came naturally: Boston 2010, six months after my scheduled hysterectomy. I ran a 3:24.
As my running progressed, my confidence in my athletic abilities grew and I felt good about my health choices. However, my confidence faltered when it came to my appearance – being totally flat is hard to dress. Darts – those lines stitched into blouses and blazers to accentuate a woman’s curves – are my nemesis. Form-fitting tank tops leave me exposed in odd places because I have nothing to fill the void or they make me look “manly” or severe. Women’s t-shirts are bulky in the chest but snug everywhere else. It is a subtle issue but it chips away at you and I found myself sporting ill-fitting running gear and looking longingly at women who rocked a good outfit. For sure, it sounds superficial and I am not a fashion-forward person but I do care about my appearance. I like to feel good in clothes – who doesn’t? Even my husband checks himself out in the mirror when he tries on pants or shirts to make sure they “look okay.” Plus, I am in the Army and sport a gender-neutral uniform that offers little room for self-expression – sometimes, I like to feel feminine and it is hard to do that when you don’t have breasts because so much of society’s definition of femininity – and how clothes fit – is wrapped up in the curves I removed.
Back to the sports bras on my bed… I was attending an Army school in Georgia this summer and roasted. The heat and humidity suffocated me and I felt defeated, exhausted, and run down. I slugged along trails in the heat and, for the first time in a long time, wished I had a sports bra to wear running. Two things had discouraged me in the past: my age (I’m 37) and my flatness (total flatness). I realized I had to get over the age issue – I am proud of my body so why not? But, the bra issue was systemic – I felt defeated by the clothing industry because no one makes a bra for someone without breasts! Basically, I was afraid to try something new because I had been discouraged so many times before.
A month before, I purchased my first running tank in years: the Oiselle Sarah Attar “Twin Lakes” tank. I completed Leadville 100 in 2016 and felt compelled to purchase the top for sentimental reasons. It fits beautifully. The cut and fabric mold to my body and not to shapes or curves that no longer exist. It is a beautiful top and it prompted me to purchase the two remaining designs and to write a thank you note to Oiselle. In the note, I mentioned my difficulty with clothing and specifically my inability to find a sports bra that worked for my body type. Within days I received a response and a willingness to collaborate on the “find Maggie a sports bra campaign.” It is difficult to rectify my feelings: on the one-hand, I am a confident and out-going advocate for preventive surgery who has put my story “out there” for others to hear and learn from; on the other-hand, I am a self-conscious person who struggles to simply “feel good” about my body, its uniqueness, and the choices I made about my health.
When the package arrived, I felt overwhelmed. Oiselle’s founder, Sally, and Dr. Lesko has responded to my letter with action and a challenge: try these, see if they work, if they don’t we’ll help you find something that does. Compelled by their willingness to go out on a limb for a total stranger, I put on the ember-colored “Hi Ten Bra” and hit the trails. The top, its fabric and its fit, lived up to their hype; I loved the shape, the way it felt, and mostly, how it made me feel. It sounds silly but the mantra, “dress for success,” seems totally applicable to this case – I felt good and ran well. I tried two other bras (the Lesko and Bae Bras) and experienced the same feelings.
It seems silly to write about how running in a sports bra made me “feel good” but it helped me overcome some general fears about my body, its shape, and about being different. I did not expect such a welcoming response to my thank you note and it is likely that little to no progress on body image would have been made without Oiselle and its amazing cadre of women stepping in and taking action to help me combat my fears and insecurities and providing me with encouragement to try something new and totally outside my comfort zone. Pushing limits and figuring out how to live my best version of me is something I do cautiously but my goal is to become more of a risk-taker and less of a self-hater because progress is made when you leave your comfort zone and confront reality as it really is, embrace it, and make the most of it.