Breasts, boobs, tits, tatas. Mind the title, because, yes, this really is a story about tits, but it’s also, oh! so much more than that.
Because, what are breasts to women? I won’t overstep boundaries and assume to know everyone’s relationship with their own; however, whether we have them or we don’t, and no matter size or stage of growth or decline we think they’re in, they become part of our identity.
In the graphic novel The Story of My Tits, author and illustrator Jennifer Hayden narrates how hers developed — both breasts and identity — in tandem and simultaneously unfolds a story of contested self-worth, family, imperfect love and loss.
At the beginning it was flat. As an adolescent, Hayden says, she was a late-bloomer who “wanted breasts more than anything in the world,” but they just wouldn’t arrive. Quickly skipping forward, she grows through a shy training bra stage and into college. There, packing a small bit of cleavage, she discovers the world of dating. Surprised to meet lovers of all shapes and sizes, she finds out bra size doesn’t matter quite as much as she thought.
She brashly celebrates her new confidence by entering into a series of casual, lousy, eccentric and romantic relationships, discovering herself along the way. Such is life, and such is college life.
Then, on the eve of her graduation, Hayden’s mother is diagnosed with breast cancer.
The diagnosis is followed by a radical mastectomy and the thus-far-humourous-story-of-tits becomes an emotive and raw story of life, the nearness of death, and living in spite of it. As the ghost of cancer reveals fissures in her family, Hayden invites us to observe the naked turmoil left bare by its wake. The aftermath, including a not-so-secret affair eating away at her parent’s marriage, causes Hayden to reconstruct her ideas around what partnerships and love look like, and come to terms with the infinite understandings of what those are.
And then, as she grows into a woman, marries, and has children of her own, breast cancer hits twice more. And the third time it’s her own.
So, yes, this is a graphic novel about breasts. But Hayden really uses the “story of my tits” as an abbreviation to reveal the challenging and changing relationships we have with ourselves and each other throughout our lives. Through the development of her “tits,” from nonexistent, to novel pleasures, to breastfeeding tools, to agents of cancer, they changed shape, status and roles, and, as a person, Hayden did, too.
Ultimately, The Story of My Tits is a wonderfully honest story about the chaos of life. Life that’s messy and precious and real, and how we can’t control all the things we want to control and we’re not always our best selves; and also, how we survive and change, and we learn and we can care enough about ourselves and each other to try and be our better selves, even in the face of discomfort or grief.
But, like life, don’t take it all too seriously. If the title hasn’t already tipped you off, Hayden maintains a surprising lightness with her frank sarcasm and self-deprecating sincerity throughout. It made me cringe, laugh out loud and audibly sigh, all omens of a good book, indeed!