We Need to Talk about Breasts

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Photo © Carly Nasznic

BY NOA LEIBSON

It seems an incredible contradiction to care so much about breasts in the show ring, but label it taboo in discussions regarding our sport. Breasts—something we’re all familiar with and have an opinion of one way or another. Breasts—which have been sexualized and objectified to the point that there’s shame in discussing them. To the point that riders are shamed for having them or not having them in the first place.

The stigma that is attached to us and clings like a weight in the same way these parts can. Plenty of riders before me have talked about obtaining the glorified ‘equitation body,’ composed of long legs, a flat tummy, every part in order… despite how unrealistic this can be for so many. The quest to obtain such a body type has led many young riders to develop unhealthy relationships with food and fitness, leading towards mental illness and even eating disorders in some cases. 

Trainers and parents, whether consciously or unconsciously, have all too often brought up these ideals to be strived for. Yet older riders, too, may feel the shame from how their bodies have changed over time. They are not safe from a desire to chase after what we call perfection. 

These are matters that need to be discussed, lest more feel their self confidence plummet and go down a dark pathway. Body positivity belongs in our sport, and I dream of a barn full of equestrians that are happy with themselves. Ones who are able to make healthy, mindful decisions about their bodies. 

But during these calls to celebrate all bodies, there has been a profound silence relating to them. Breasts. I am sure a reluctance to speak publicly about them is due to the sexualization, objectification, embarrassment, and taboos I listed above. Yet, the mindset towards breasts in horseback riding and our deafening silence bringing them up in our reform demonstrates a requirement to confront them head on.

Photo courtesy of Noa Leibson

It’s time to break the silence. We need to talk about the need to hide large breasts. We need to talk about those with small breasts who do not feel womanly enough. We need to talk about young riders’ developing breasts. We need to talk about breasts across genders. And we need to address breasts as something that we can have healthy conversations about.

As a large-chested woman, I’ve had my share of breast-related experiences in horseback riding, and there are many others who are afraid to talk about them or don’t recognize how harmful their experience was. I was first made aware of the breast stigma in horseback riding when I was eleven years old. My body was changing, and I entered puberty early. I was still on a medium pony, and developing a bust at this time. During a horse show, after my class, I was pulled aside by a trainer and parent in a dark corner and was handed bras—like some strange, black market trade.

Photo courtesy of Noa Leibson

Until that moment, I had never really thought about my growing breasts and not at all how they factored into horseback riding. In that moment, I felt a profound shame for growing up and having something totally natural to myself. I became embarrassed merely for having breasts that hardly appeared yet as breasts, humiliated by these adults that I was meant to look up to, and began to think about my breasts negatively, when I hadn’t before. I made every attempt to hide them and hated them, since it was drilled in my head that such matters were unsightly for a child on a medium pony.

Photo courtesy of Noa Leibson

Breasts inched themselves into every aspect of my equestrian life, and yet talking about them seemed out of bounds. I felt the same shame when trying to buy a new show coat, when those helping me would look in silent terror towards me as they navigated sizing something for a small girl with a small waist and a large chest. I would laugh with an internal horror when friends giggled and made a passing comment about my breasts when I posted the trot. When I was competing in the equitation, people would talk about having a nice figure, but then their eyes would land on my chest. When I first began my fitness journey and lost weight in a healthy way, people uttered to me with glee that my breasts would lose the weight, too. 

They didn’t.

The gravity of this breast-shaming didn’t truly hit me until this year, at the age of 22, when I unexpectedly learned I needed a double mastectomy. It began with me only wanting a consultation on a reduction. I was sick of the discomfort in the saddle from my size, and didn’t want to deal with more pain. Yet I found myself in a hospital gown, clutching implants and crying because of this terrible history of breasts. Two thoughts tugged at me. For one, it felt like I was giving in to the equestrian stigma—that I was accepting defeat and sizing down. But in a way I also felt like I was reclaiming myself, moving forward with a positive outlook on my breasts, making decisions for my own health. But in being so objectified and shamed all my life, I found that I was doing it to myself. In crying in that chair, horrified for what was to come, the gravity of breasts being a part of my world with horses and without horses was profound. They are only breasts, I tried to tell myself. But they weren’t, not with how I was raised to look at them.

Riding after surgery. Photo courtesy of Noa Leibson

There are so many inconsistencies in our way of thinking. How we expect people to have some breasts, but not too much. How we’re expected to show off our physique and our bodies out of the saddle, then hide it when we’re sitting in it. When we talk about this ‘equitation body’ or being presentable in the saddle, whether we like it or not, breasts are a part of this conceptualization. 

But let me be clear: there is nothing shameful about breasts. They are a part of our bodies, same as anything else. They can be beautiful, life-giving, large, small, and an inevitable part of the equation of what makes a “riding body.” And when it comes to these riding bodies, every body is a good body. And so, all breasts are good breasts.

What we need now is to normalize talking about breasts in the same way we are now normalizing talking about the rest of our figure. Children should be educated and encouraged about entering puberty in the horseback riding world, and it should not be something to shun or make them feel dirty, like my experience. Trainers should not be making it their mission to figure out how their students might better hide their large busts. Every rider, I hope, should be practicing self-love, and we need to be able to accept all different kinds of breasts in the equestrian world. If we step forward and actually begin to talk about this issue, we can be more comfortable about confronting it and looking at it within our sport.

It’s time to bring up breasts in our conversations about breaking stigma and confronting harmful mentalities. It’s time to make peace, not war, with our bodies. Any person, at any age, should not have to feel shame because of something natural to their bodies. Breasts do not make a rider, a rider merely may have breasts.

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