Before I knew that I was pregnant with my daughter, I knew that there was something up with my areolas. The light, almost pink rings around my nipples had suddenly grown wider and darker. Now a warm, deep taupe hue, they were foreign to my body. I wasn't sure how I felt about the change, briefly worrying about whether the contrast to the rest of my skin was unattractive; briefly wondering whether it'd be impossible to go braless in white or beige tops now. Although I'd long understood that cultures across the world are often taught to fear and hate the areola, that was the first time I actively feared my own.
For a time, I wondered whether it was fear of somehow being more visible that freaked me out the most. Women's nipples and their surrounding areas are regularly deemed inappropriate, after all. It is a part of the body that is, all at once, hyper-sexualized by mainstream media and cultural norms, while also treated as taboo precisely because of that hyper-sexualization. The female nipple is famously unwelcome under the usage policy of Facebook — but so are areolas.
My areolas were bigger now. They had darkened. They were further away from the perky, dainty, white-washed, male gaze-friendly imagery of boobs we are fed and taught to find "aspirational." Did this make them "bad" now?
I'm sure beauty standard BS played a role in my fears, as it does in our general anxieties over the areola. When thinking specifically about my concerns with my new ones, however, I have come to believe that the reason I feared them most was their ultimate association with aging (the preservation of youthfulness being a beauty standard in and of itself). With becoming a mother. With stereotypically "serving my purpose" as a woman — reproducing — and having proof of this etched on my body.
With the realization that I was going to be a mother came a lot of panic, most of which had nothing to do with my figure. I questioned the likelihood of balancing my professional goals with motherhood. I wondered whether my child-free friends and colleagues would distance themselves from me — the boring new mother of one. I chastised myself for not making "better" use of my 20s; for giving up the freedom this decade could've offered me in exchange for diaper changes, evenings in, and Super Monsters re-runs.
When I'd look at my areolas in particular — those that sat on floppier, saggier breasts — I couldn't help but feel 'old.'
The panic didn't ease once my daughter Luna was born. I spent months feeling somehow anti-feminist for making shifts to my career in favor of dedicating more time to her; for prioritizing "building a home" over climbing the metaphorical ladder at work. If I didn't hear from them regularly, I also convinced myself that my old buddies wanted nothing to do with me. I grew worn-down — the physical exhaustion of sleepless nights and the psychological exhaustion of trying to figure out who the hell I was now leading to dissociation from everything around me.
Through it all, there was the fear that I "looked like a mom" now. It seems absurd as I type the words out today. Mothers are not all boot-cut jean-wearing, white sneaker-rocking, oversized canvas bag-carrying clones of one another. They come in a variety of ages, shapes, sizes, aesthetics, and personalities. Yet when I'd look at my areolas in particular — those that sat on floppier, saggier breasts — I couldn't help but feel "old." And women, of course, are not supposed to get old.
In a recent conversation with author, blogger, and founder of the #SaggyBoobsMatter movement Chidera Eggerue, known virtually as The Slumflower, we spend some time discussing breasts. She notes that, certainly in Western cultures at large, "We are taught that a woman's value decreases with age whilst a man's value increases." There is no female equivalent of "the silver fox" for a reason. We may call to mind the image of "the cougar" or "MILF," but both come with the association of desperation. The women are very rarely depicted favorably, or as "catches."
"Sagging of the breasts is normally a feature associated with older women," Eggerue continues. "So any signifier of aging is instantly met with shame."
I would extend her analysis to include changes to the areola. As they grow larger, darker, and more visibly worn-down and wrinkled (for breastfeeding mothers, especially), our bodies carry another sign of aging. Our "expiration dates" have suddenly arrived.
The more I sit with all of this, however, and the more comfortable I become in my new role as a mother, the more I realize just how preposterous the notion of a female expiration date actually is. My life is not over because I am a mom now. My sex drive hasn't ceased to exist. My own unique beauty has not vanished. My desires to travel, to explore, to seize adventures and opportunities have not become mute. My career isn't ruined, simply because it looks a little different now. I am not ruined, simply because I look a little different now, too.
There are likely infinite reasons why we fear our areolas, from the reality that feminine breasts are over-sexualized, to the fact that lighter nipples are socioculturally deemed more covetable than darker ones (a problematic belief seeped not only in sexism, but racism), to issues of beauty standards that revolve around aging. It's crucial that we deconstruct these myths, though, and that often begins with deconstructing the baggage we carry with us due to our own bodies.
My areolas aren't "perfect," as defined by old-school women's magazines or porn, but this doesn't have to hold any significance beyond the fact that I'm growing up, I have a kid, and my life doesn't look like it did when I was 16. For all of this, I'm actually grateful. Why should I feel any different when it comes to my boobs?
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.