Everything else

Boobs

An owner’s guide.

Illustration by Emma D.

OK, so maybe someone has let you know that having one side of your chest be smaller than the other is normal. But did you know that almost everything your breasts do is normal? Trust. What even is a body? It’s a fleshy suit that sustains our earthly consciousness. That’s pretty fucking weird, and yet totally normal. So! THE TRUTH.

Part One: Health

Breasts can be set wide apart or close together. They can have a fold underneath, or not! Two to six percent of the population straight-up has a third nipple. “Normal” doesn’t exist. Healthy does. Your mission is to know your own healthy so that you can pick up on any changes that might occur.

Now, there’s not a lot you have to do to make sure your breasts are OK when you’re young. Medical organizations disagree on how old someone should be when they get their first breast exam—or if they’re worth getting at all. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Cancer Society both recommend starting at age 20. A breast exam at your age is just your doctor or clinician feeling your boobs to see if there’s anything that seems unusual. Usually this person is your gynecological practioner—and if you’re past puberty and/or sexually active, you should have one of those. If you’re in the U.S., Planned Parenthood is a good resource for affordable (sometimes free) health care.

Health-care providers used to recommend that everyone feel their own breasts at least once a month. But these recommendations have changed. After data came out showing that doing monthly self-exams didn’t have any affect on the rate of women who died from breast cancer—and, as a bonus, caused a lot of unnecessary testing and freaking out, the United States Preventative Health Taskforce changed its guidelines to recommend against breast self-exam entirely. But guidelines from other organizations, like the American Cancer Society, still recommend it, but only as an optional method for checking in—not to “find something,” but so that you’ll know your own enough to notice if anything changes. If you do want to learn how to do it, here’s an adaptation of the instructions from the American Cancer Society (ACS):

  1. Lie down with your right arm above your head in a dramatic faint position, like you were born into a culture that invalidates all feminine emotional expression as hysteria! Haha that’s nobody reading this, I know.
  2. Take the middle three fingers of your left hand and place the fingertips just inside your right armpit, up near your collarbone.
  3. Press your finger pads down and move them in a circular motion at three levels: light pressure “to feel the tissue closest to the skin,” in the ACS’s words; “medium pressure to feel a little deeper; and firm pressure to feel the tissue closest to the chest and ribs.”
  4. Repeat, moving in a vertical line with a little overlap to cover everything. I call this move “mowing the lawn,” but I am open to suggestions. Go as far up as your collarbone, as far down as your bra line, and as far out as the middle of your armpits.
  5. Switch the arm behind your head to your left, and repeat on the opposite side.
  6. Take a break to enjoy a refreshing beverage.
  7. Stand up, face a mirror, and press your hands on your hips like serious business, looking for, per the ACS< "any changes of size, shape, contour, or dimpling, or redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin.”
  8. Raise your right arm slightly and feel around your armpit. Switch and repeat.

What are you feeling for, exactly? Healthy breast tissue feels like the tops of broccoli when you press down on it. Since many people are visual learners, I’ve decided to go there.

Sketch by Meghan Pye

If you do come across a change that seems suspicious, try not to think “cancer.” Also try not to think “Don’t think cancer!” because that’s ineffective, too. Try “Don’t think corgis! Don’t think corgis!”

People under the age of 25 have a ridiculously, ridiculously low rate of breast cancer (like, less than 1%). What are common in young women, though, are conditions that are considered “benign breast disease,” which is kind of a dumb name, because disease suggests something harmful and scary, and what we’re talking about here are basically boob zits. For teenagers, the most common kinds of these are fibroadenomas, fibrocystic changes/cysts, and infections like mastitis or abscesses. Most of you have never heard of any of those conditions, even though they’re incredibly common—and they’re feeling kind of resentful about it, because, what, do they have to be mean like cancer to get us to pay attention to them? “OK, fine. Listening.” In order of popularity:

  1. Fibroadenomas: Fibroadenomas are the #1 breast lump AND the #1 breast lump that is going to make you think you have cancer! Three-quarters of all breast lumps found in teenagers are fibroadenomas. They are usually round and feel solid, firm, or rubbery: aka exactly like you’d think cancer would feel. They seem to come out of nowhere, and usually grow to the size of a grape and then stay that size, shrink, or go away completely. Fibroadenomas are almost never painful, but can be tender around your period, especially if they’re larger.
  2. Cysts: About half of all the boobs in the world, if you really get in there and mush around, have a kind of ropy texture—sorta like a bunch of tiny beads all up in there. This type of texture has been called “fibrocystic breast changes” or “fibrocystic breasts,” because these breasts are more likely to develop cysts. Here is an unforgettably vivid explanation of a cyst: “A fluid-filled sac that is usually smooth, firm, movable, and sometimes tender like a water balloon without the water… [They] generally increase in size before the menstrual period and decrease afterwards. A large cyst may be round and feel a bit like an eyeball when pressed with the eyelid closed.” Whee! My doctor friend tells her patients: “Sometimes boobs are lumpy—whatever. Everyone’s boobs are at least a little lumpy. Some are lumpier than others. Check your boobs out every once in a while and see if they get lumpier over time, or if a single lump gets weird or anything.” Read more about cysts and fibrocystic breast changes here.
  3. Infections and abscesses: These are are pretty rare, and they’re usually preceded by a cause: breast trauma (e.g., soccer ball to the chest) is one. Another is nipple piercing: 10-20% of nipple piercings get infected, sometimes months or years after the piercing happens—picking a reputable piercing joint and practicing good after care will help prevent this from happening. Smoking cigarettes also puts you at higher risk for developing infections. Symptoms of an infection or abscess include breast tenderness, pain, heat, redness, swelling, and whole-body symptoms like chills and fever. This is something you should really get checked out! The first treatment is antibiotics, but in more serious cases the abscess may need to be drained surgically.

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58 Comments

  • HaverchuckForPresident November 13th, 2012 3:33 PM

    “Take a break for a refreshing beverage”
    Rookie is my go-to, like, for life.

  • Mary the freak November 13th, 2012 3:37 PM

    Eep. I am so proud of having boobs. That sounds funny. I actually got a new dress yesterday, and I look like super huge boobs in it. :DD

    BOOBS RULE!

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • O. November 13th, 2012 3:39 PM

    Can’t stress how useful this article is, certainly saves me trying to discreetly peer at friends’ boobs to figure out if mine are ‘normal’ or not!

    I found a lump in my breast about two months ago and went to the doctor who referred me for a consultation. Turns out was a fibroadenoma which as it says above is really common.

    Definitely recommend going to the doctor, because ignorance isn’t bliss – before my consultation I totally freaked out ’cause obviously a lump equals cancer. Now I’m more educated about my body and so relieved!

  • Resh November 13th, 2012 3:43 PM

    “Boobs: A User’s Guide”. Now that’s what I call title! My bra size is a bit under the average for my age, but my super-tallness makes me look EXTRA-FLAT, so it’s hard to get to like them. My new uplifting phrase is right up there: “Fuck it: it’s mine” Thanks a lot, Lola :’) <3

    • Lola November 14th, 2012 6:19 PM

      yay! i highly recommend an application of FI,IM to pretty much any body hate situation.

  • RXLWK November 13th, 2012 3:43 PM

    This article is revolutionary. The fact that you are addressing such a huge young readership and expressing that body positivity, gender identity and emotional fortitude are all subject to individual agency is incredible. I am grabbing my tits with one hand and slow clapping you with the other.

  • Mollylou November 13th, 2012 3:55 PM

    I don’t just read Rookie because of the awesome & informative content. I read Rookie because it’s HILARIOUS! Who knew an article about boobs could be so funny? (Okay, boobs can kinda be a funny thing, but still.) Awesome job, Lola. And I really love the super-scientific diagram of a broccoli boob.

  • Maddy November 13th, 2012 3:56 PM

    I’ve had a lump in my breast for at least a year and it’s stressing me out now, mostly because I just had my yearly physical with a new doctor and I was cowardly/uncomfortable and didn’t mention it. I have a shot scheduled for May, but it might just be a nurse. There is absolutely ZERO chance I will ever tell my mom because I don’t talk to her about anything and that works fine for me. I was going to send in a question to some site, maybe Rookie, these past few days, but was scared the answer would be: “Tell your mom. Go to the doctor. Get a needle in your boob and find out you’re fine.”

    I’m stressing, please help.

    • Blythe November 13th, 2012 4:36 PM

      I’d maybe mention it to the nurse person. You gotta realize that these people see lots of naked bodies and super gross things and stuff and they WILL NOT BE FAZED by boobs. Seriously. They’ll be professional and then it’s much less embarrassing (take it from someone who got into a loud argument about birth control with a pharmacist). If you don’t want to do that, talk to a trusted adult! Oh my god, I sound like an advice column. Your dad, if he’s an option, would be fine. Taking care of your kid is more important than EW BOOBS. Or maybe an aunt/cousin/etc? Even a family friend can at least help you figure out what to do! Or one of your friends. It’s probably fine, and it’s probably just one of those ones they talked about that isn’t harmful, but you still should check. Even if it’s just for your peace of mind.

      • Maddy November 13th, 2012 7:48 PM

        Ok, thanks. Yeah haha that’s pretty typical “advice column” stuff, but I’ll try to mention it. thanks :)

        • Blythe December 28th, 2012 6:12 PM

          This is all really funny to me now, because a bit after I wrote that comment, I found a lump in my breast! It’s a fibroadenoma, but a slightly worrisome one so they’re going to biopsy it.
          BUT THE POINT HERE is that now I can super officially tell you from personal experience that it’s not embarrassing at all.

    • hellorose November 13th, 2012 8:04 PM

      i agree with blythe. doctors and nurses see plenty of crazy things everyday and it is part of their job not to be fazed by it. i completely understand feeling awkward and uncomfortable about having someone look at and feel your boobs, but the setting is so clinical and any doctor or nurse will be so professional that it should barely feel any different than having them look down your throat or in your ear or do that knee tapping thing.

      chances are it’s one of the common and easily treatable things listed above so nothing to worry about, and needles won’t even come into it!

      if you feel like you can’t talk to your mum, then is there a school nurse you could chat to instead? any medical professional should treat anything you tell them as confidential so you could talk to your school nurse, or even your school counsellor without it becoming everybody’s business. you don’t even have to show them anything, just say ‘look, i’m a bit worried about this thing and what would you advise because i feel very uncomfortable about telling my doctor or my parents’.

      good luck!

    • sully-bean November 15th, 2012 1:42 PM

      Hi Maddy! *HUG* don’t stress, it’s okay! basically, SAME HERE and i went to the doctors and it wasn’t even awkward AT ALL like it doesn’t take that long and she just poked about and said it was okay. That’ll probably be the same for you! I PROMISE it isn’t bad. And you’ll feel so much better after, it’s like a weight off your chest! (LIKE MY PHRASING THERE? :D) Don’t worry, buttercup. <3 It's gonna be okay.

  • taliabc November 13th, 2012 3:59 PM

    OMG every time I read the comments from an article thingy, everyone’s like super glad you’d touched on that subject and i never really got it, but after this boob one, THANK YOU SO MUCH! I actually have had a cyst(benign) for some like, a year or something(I got it checked out and stuff with the ultrasound and everything) and this has totally reassured me about not being the only teenage girl with one aha, so thank you!! :-)

  • emine November 13th, 2012 4:04 PM

    After this article I actually felt like hugging my boobs. Thank you, Rookie! Honestly, the fact that you talk about the female body so often and so comfortably is one of my favorite things about you guys. I can’t count all the times I read an article regarding body issues and thinking OMG I’m not the only one! Lots and lots of love

  • jenaimarley November 13th, 2012 4:12 PM

    This is just so good. <3

    I feel like there are a lot of misconceptions about boobs! Like that not wearing a bra will give you saggy boobs in the future or that wearing bras will give you cancer. And of course the fear of abnormality.
    So it's nice to have a really practical and open approach to the subject of our lovely body parts!

    • mynamesambertoo November 13th, 2012 10:51 PM

      I wonder if wearing the wrong size bra, like if it is too small, can affect you? If you can’t afford to get new bras, I wonder how wearing a bra that is too small can affect your health? I also wondered if sleeping with your bra on is bad. I used to do that when I was in my early teens. Do u guys know? :~ /

  • Morning Moon November 13th, 2012 4:13 PM

    I hate having big boobs!!!!!!!!!

    • rachelcallari November 13th, 2012 8:06 PM

      I’ve always been self-conscious about my huge boobs. I used to want a reduction for that reason. I often felt like people over-sexualized me, and I hated the attention I got for them. Through the years I have learned how to handle that (often) negative attention, and begun to appreciate my body for the wonder that it is! However, it is encouraging to hear that insurance usually covers the surgery. I am still considering it for the future, because these days I have a lot of back problems. At a 32GG I think it should be justified… haha! Morning Moon, your tits are fantastic. Don’t let other peoples’ opinions impact the way you think of yourself!

      • mynamesambertoo November 13th, 2012 11:08 PM

        I think my mom is an H Rachel. She had a lot of the concerns you expressed. We are experiencing financial problems to some degree, and my mom complains about how expensive the bras are for the higher up letters. She even has to order hers from catalogs/online to get the ones that have special made straps for better support. They are as much as $60. The cheaper bras also leave friction scars around her shoulders. But don’t get too frustrated. I think some women, like the writers at Rookie, and maybe some influential women/organizations are noticing these problems more and more and are taking steps to address it!

        • rachelcallari November 14th, 2012 10:19 AM

          Yes, the bras are VERY expensive, Amber. I am required to spend an average of $70 on each bra. I own two at a time: one sports bra, and one regular bra. I have to replace them on an average of every 5 months, because they wear out from the stress put on them. I have to go to a specialty store in my town (so grateful that we have one where I live.) Thank you for the encouragement. I am so glad that this is beginning to be addressed! And I love that girls aren’t so afraid to talk about stuff like this anymore.

  • Newyorkbeats November 13th, 2012 4:14 PM

    Oh god haha, it really does feel like broccoli.

  • creepchic November 13th, 2012 4:38 PM

    The best part of my day was reading the phrase “breast lashes.” Love it.

    • Yasmin November 13th, 2012 5:45 PM

      Seriously. “Breastlashes” reframes the concept in such a nice way that c””’:

  • Blythe November 13th, 2012 4:39 PM

    I don’t know what you’re on about, but ultrasounds do hurt! I’ve had to get my heart ultrasounded twice, and my heart is, ya know, under a boob. Maybe it was because I was at a pediatric cardiologist’s place (I’m 16) or maybe the guy doing it had never been near a boob before, but ow. Obviously, you should get an ultrasound if you need it, but it’s probably going to be uncomfortable at the least.

  • Anna F. November 13th, 2012 5:38 PM

    How many of you were mushing your boobs as you read this?

  • imogan November 13th, 2012 5:46 PM

    This is really good! I personally think there isn’t much awareness given to teenagers, with good reason as well as bad, but I’m glad that rookie has done this article! Thank you!

  • Abby November 13th, 2012 6:07 PM

    After you said it felt like broccoli I grabbed my boobs and started feeling them because obviously I had to find out if you were serious… and my roommate was like, “Abby… wh-…. what are you doing….?” oops… lol

  • Olivia November 13th, 2012 6:41 PM

    Broccoli boob diagram so good holy shit

  • 062131 November 13th, 2012 7:37 PM

    This is so so very interesting, thank you Lola!
    I’m also taking a look at the links, like the one about binding, and really admiring the community & support for people who don’t feel comfortable in their bodies and/or gender. (not very sure about which terms to use)

  • i-like-autumn November 13th, 2012 7:54 PM

    BOOBS!

    I want to shout out to all the peeps having trouble talking about boobs- it’s okay. I was afraid to talk about my boobs for a long time, too. Only about a year ago I became really comfortable with & talking about my boobs.

    Oh, if you don’t like calling them boobs, give them a NAME. I call my boobs a variety of names, ranging from la ladies to boobage to titties. I found that when I talked about “la ladies” to my mom & doctor, I was a lot more comfortable about it.

    Autumn
    i-like-autumn.tumblr.com

    PS: Broccoli diagram takes the cake.

  • kellyraeofsunshine November 13th, 2012 8:02 PM

    The broccoli image is killing me! I had a cyst removed a couple years ago that I used to call my “little corn.” I became a little attached to it and even had them print out the ultrasound of it for me. It’s on my mirror :D

  • Moxx November 13th, 2012 8:11 PM

    “my little corn” oh my god you’re great <3

  • Moxx November 13th, 2012 8:21 PM

    Once again, thank you for addressing the important topic of breasts.

    I am still coming to terms with mine, but it’s so good to know that others have done it and have learned to feel fine.
    I still think the biggest part of the solution to breast discomfort (not physical discomfort- that’s a different problem) would be for people to stop being so weird about “female” breasts.
    People need to stop making dumb remarks and jokes about peoples’ bodies. It just feels terrible, and sometimes they don’t even realize what they’re doing because it’s considered such a “normal” and “ok” thing to do.

    Thanks again Rookie for being honest and supportive c:

  • Hannah November 13th, 2012 8:27 PM

    One time when I was in middle school, a girl told me I was going to hate having “big boobs” and that she was so lucky to have “small boobs” because my back was always going to hurt and hers wouldn’t. In fact, we have nearly the same boob size now, and neither of us have backaches over our boobs. So, fuck it and enjoy your tits ladies.

  • caro nation November 13th, 2012 8:29 PM

    When I saw this article, I instinctively and Tracy Jordan-esquely screamed “COMPUTER, I ALREADY KNOW HOW TO HAVE BOOBS!” at the screen.

    • Anaheed November 13th, 2012 9:30 PM

      Aaaah you just made me laugh so hard.

  • Emma S. November 13th, 2012 8:55 PM

    Lola, you are fab, and also, super hot grandma. xoxox

  • Lily November 13th, 2012 11:25 PM

    I beyond love this. Can we get like a vaginas: an owners guide to go with this??

  • Thoroughly Modern Natalie November 14th, 2012 1:10 AM

    Hey Rookies,

    Long time reader, first time commenter. I cannot tell you how crucial the part you guys are playing in opening the conversation on women’s issues, be it dealing with the male gaze to this very approachable, “Your boobs and You” guide.

    That’s why I wanted to tell you (and your readers) about a rare, aggressive, and often misdiagnosed form of breast cancer that not many women know about called Inflammatory Breast Cancer.

    Often misdiagnosed as a rash, IBC will not wait until you’re in your forties. There are cases of teenagers dying from this disease because they didn’t know what it was and in some cases, were too embarrassed to ask for help.

    Common symptoms include a bumpy rash that resembles an orange peel, an inverted nipple, discoloration (red or bruised appearance) and an increase in size of the infected breast.

    Please take the time to educate yourselves. Cancer.org has a good introductory page dedicated to IBC that is really clear about how to spot it, survival rates, etc.

    Much love to your and your boobs,
    Natalie

  • purrr November 14th, 2012 5:42 AM

    also, it’s cool to see rookie move towards being trans~friendly. when i saw the name of the article i thought that it would be only about assigned-at-birth-girls but no – all those callouts have been slowly molding rookie to one of the safest places online. YAY.

  • Musette November 14th, 2012 5:59 AM

    Great article! The only thing I’d add is that you talk about making your boobs smaller with binding or surgery, but you only offer surgery as an option for making them bigger…. but there are some pretty awesome +2 size bras etc out there- they obviously can’t make them 5 times bigger but they’re pretty effective!

  • Matheus November 14th, 2012 7:43 AM

    hi, im a guy from brazil, and i love this post, lola you are so funny! my right boob start growing, just the right one! My doctor says that I’m with excess estrogen. It’s a big change in my body that I’m accepting with open arms and mind and I’m loving it. I intend to go to the doctor now to control estrogen so nothing bad happens but I want them (or just the right one) grow. I’ve even made some pictures to send to you, photos of my first bra. soon I will send to you. w love xx

  • teeny November 14th, 2012 10:02 AM

    Actually, breastfeeding after breast surgery is possible, even in the case of top surgery. Check out Trevor’s amazing story of breastfeeding his son: http://www.milkjunkies.net/p/my-story.html

    And another resource: http://bfar.org/index.shtml

    I am not questioning any individual’s decision to NOT reproduce or breastfeed, but couldn’t let that common assumption go unchallenged!

  • Microbyte1 November 14th, 2012 11:28 AM

    yeah! i kinda needed and article like this , thanks !

  • spudzine November 14th, 2012 1:38 PM

    OMG I love this guide so much! I never really felt like I knew much about my own boobs, so this sure came in handy!

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/

  • sully-bean November 14th, 2012 4:13 PM

    CAN I PLEASE JUST SAY THAT COMING HOME AFTER SCHOOL AND GOING ON ROOKIE IS ACTUALLY THE HIGHLIGHT OF MY DAY.
    AND ARTICLES LIKE THIS MAKE ME WANT TO BE A WRITER BECAUSE, THIS IS JUST THE BEST. I LOVE ROOKIE SO MUCH OMFG YOU GUYS ARE THE BEST PEOPLE EVER AND I JUST FEEL SO MUCH MORE CONFIDENT AND HAPPY SINCE I STARTED READING A FEW MONTHS AGO AND JUST OMFG I’M SO GRATEFUL FOR EVERYTHING YOU DO. THANK YOU SO, SO SOSOSOSO MUCH. <3

  • Zan November 14th, 2012 4:28 PM

    Great article!
    So I’m actually a gynecological teaching associate (GTA), which means I use my own body to teach med students to give breast and pelvic exams. Basically I spend a ton of time talking and thinking about this stuff. The only things I would add are that, first, 98% of malignant tumors are initially found by women themselves, so despite the new recommendations it’s best to keep doing self-exams. Also (did you mention this? I may have missed it), you want to do the exam at the same time every month, 3-4 days after you START your period. That’s the point of your cycle with the least tenderness and fewest fibrocystic changes, and you want to do it at the same time so you don’t freak yourself out about a lump that is actually a totally normal monthly change.
    Yay self-exams! I recommend doing a self-pelvic too, if possible; it’s very exciting to see your cervix for the first time! If you have an OBGYN you can ask to hold a hand mirror during your regular check up so you can see what’s going on, and learn what’s ‘normal’ for you.

  • Lolly November 14th, 2012 4:47 PM

    Comment on the last paragraphs: a properly-fitted bra can make all the difference. When you get the proportions right, a DD cup is not big.

    Yup. Not a typo there. A proper DD cup is on the small, dainty end. It’s what most people would think of as an A or B cup.

    More and more bra-makers are going up to a K cup. I used to wear a DD cup, because it was the only thing I could find to go over my medium-lookin’ boobs. The problem there was that I was wearing a DD cup made for a band that was much too loose for me. When I got the band tight enough to stop riding up my back, I needed to readjust the proportions. Now I wear anything from a 28FF to 28GG. My boobs still look medium. They’re much more lifted, though, and my shoulders don’t hurt any more.

    So, as far as bras go, research how to get them fitting properly, and above all, don’t assume the cup size range stops at DD.

  • rhymeswithorange November 15th, 2012 12:59 AM

    Standing ovation

  • mynamesambertoo November 15th, 2012 12:11 PM

    Oh yea! Since it is November and the theme for this month is invention, thank you to Tavi and her team for their passion for discovery that led to the invention of Rookie Magazine! :)

  • lacecat November 15th, 2012 9:32 PM

    I finally had time to read this article. Although this was a very interesting thing to read, the song “My Humps” just kept on popping in my head! haha

  • mayaautumn November 19th, 2012 1:05 PM

    this was really informative and well-written! the type of article that just makes me love rookie so much:)
    and i also luv luv luv the broccoli boob pic ~^.^~

    http://mayathapapaya.tumblr.com

  • Justin Case November 19th, 2012 8:07 PM

    Can I just add something?

    I really feel like this owner’s guide is not complete without an explicit utterance of YOU CAN LIVE WITHOUT A BRA.

    Seriously, I understand it isn’t for everyone, but I have what I like to call ‘portable boobs’, small enough to go around with carefree, and I really wish someone had told me sooner that no, nipples are not ugly or indecent, and that there was no need to use those things in order to appear to have smooth, nipple-less, perfectly round globes on my chest, instead of my own pointy pair.

    I hated bras, never felt comfortable or free in them, but I felt sure I would be shunned if I ditched them. And then I did anyway and now, quite literally, feel 5838 times better about my body.

    Life without a bra is wonderful for me, so I really hope anyone else in my old situation can be made aware that bralessness is totally an option!

  • Candysays February 12th, 2013 3:27 AM

    You guys should do a piece on how to accept having small boobs……if you haven’t already