For Simona Halep, Less is More
In her run to the 2014 French Open final, Simona Halep repeatedly declined to discuss her 2009 breast reduction surgery. Can you blame her?
But the reality is, there's no avoiding the topic. Halep has gone from around the No. 250 player in the world in 2009, when she downsized to a C cup at 17 years old, to French Open runner-up.
Saturday on the red clay may not have been Halep's day to win, but in the more than three hours before she lost 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4 to Maria Sharapova, Halep cemented a place for herself at the top of the women's game.
By reaching the French Open final, Halep is now No. 3 in the world. By giving Sharapova a match that the five-time Slam winner called, "the toughest Grand Slam final I've ever played," Halep has arrived as a likely contender for majors for years to come. Yet, she can't seem to shake an outside fascination with a decision she made early in her career.
Pull up YouTube clips of Halep playing pre-surgery, and you can see what a lot of well-endowed women who play sports have long known -- the girls can be unruly.
Think of any physical activity that requires quickness and a change of direction -- they kind of get left behind. Your breasts just aren't on board in the same way the rest of your parts are. You are moving down, they stay up. You go left, they reluctantly follow. On a sudden stop, they are like the crash-test dummies that keep moving out through the windshield.
Could Halep have become a Grand Slam finalist with double-D's? Perhaps, but for a player whose game is defined by precise footwork and graceful balance, there's simply no way to know. Yet would we be as compelled to discuss her surgery if it had been, say, an ACL replacement? Absolutely not.
As a society, we are obsessed with breasts.
How powerfully is breast size correlated with attractiveness? Last year, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery statistics, 313,327 women in the United States had breast augmentation surgery. By comparison, there were 122,838 reductions last year.
Women spend loads of cash on push-up bras and shirts with plunging necklines -- all purchased to enhance that cleavage, real or manufactured. We wait as pre-teens for that sign that we've become a woman, and envy those girls who developed first.
Breasts are displayed on the red carpet and airbrushed for magazines, while nursing mothers are told to leave the mall rather than be indecent. It's a strange world we live in, and the allure of the sexual breast and distaste for the functional one is just a single illustration.
Can you imagine being 17 and trying to make sense of all these crazy messages?
Halep, however, always had potential to be a great tennis player growing up in Romania. In 2008, she won the French Open junior tournament, like Martina Hingis, Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin before her.
It's easy to see how large breasts can affect the motion of a player's serve, or perhaps a two-handed backhand. Stephania Bell, an ESPN medical analyst and physical trainer, has treated athletes with back and neck issues who felt the injuries were due to their physical frames. Halep has previously said that she made her reduction decision in part due to back pain.
"You look at physics," Bell said. "It's like taking a counterweight and putting it on the front of you."
While Serena Williams has made it into the record books, counterweights and all, any girl past puberty can tell you that every body carries weight differently -- and there's an exception that proves every rule. Nobody put it more bluntly than UFC fighter Ronda Rousey did in this piece on the subject from ESPN The Magazine's 2013 Body Issue: "You don't see big t------ in the Olympics, and I think that's for a reason."
I confess to my own conflicted relationship with breasts. As a woman who's the same size as Halep pre-surgery, and a casual runner and roller derby player, I'm not putting on sneakers or skates without at least two bras -- and one of them had better be a structural wonder, the Verrazano Bridge of sports bras.
Yes, annoying, but then I think back to those quiet moments when I nursed my babies. New techniques have been able to preserve the ability for women to breastfeed after the procedure, but it's a risk. If I'd had potential like Halep, like other elite athletes, would that even be a consideration? Children must seem so far away at 17.
I have a high school friend who had breast reduction surgery in her 20s to go from an F to a C cup. After she healed from the surgery, her back pain was gone and she could move better immediately. Through the years, she has become part of a secret sorority of women who have opted to scale down, and seen their lives take off. She's had friends who feel so much lighter that they take up running -- the double-bra nightmare of every double-D woman, conquered.
"Every girl that I've spoken to about this who has done it," she said, "loves it."
The biggest difference? Confidence.
It's easy to find photos of the pre-op Halep. Her ta-tas were glorious, but clearly a little unwieldy. How many creepsters watched her matches just to see the physics of them in motion? Did she get more sexualized attention than she wanted?
In her final, it was the glory of Halep's tenacity and superior footwork that was on full display. She wore an orange top that was different from all the other players' outfits. From neck to torso, her shirt was loose, ruffled at the top. The most notable characteristic in a world of spandex was that it was not form-fitting. You couldn't really see how they moved, how much space they took up. It was as though she'd found a way to pixelate her image in real life.
Almost like she was telling all of us, "Hey, my eyes are up here. Let's focus on my game."