Dolly Doctor

“That’s such a silly myth.” Your OG Dolly Doctor Melissa Kang answers your questions about boobs

"There’s lots of anxiety and concern about breasts.”
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Boobs. They’ve been around since the dawn of time and they’re certainly not going away any time soon.

WATCH: Deborah Hutton’s BreastScreen journey

It’s incredible that two bumps on our bodies have the potential to have such an impact on our lives.

Having questions about our anatomy is natural and common, particularly during puberty.

In fact, for the original Dolly Doctor, adolescent health doctor and researcher Melissa Kang, questions about boobs were “by far” one of the most common categories of queries during her tenure with Dolly magazine. And it remains that way currently.

“Breasts are not just bits of your body,” Melissa tells Girlfriend. “They represent so many things. There’s lots of anxiety and concern about breasts.”

The doctor explains that the most common questions surround asymmetry and growth rate, while one of the most common myths about boobs is that “sleeping with a bra on would either stunt your breast growth or give you breast cancer”.

“Breasts represent so many things.” (Credit: Getty)

“There was a lot of confusion about the role of bras and when you could and couldn’t wear one and what harm would happen if you did or didn’t wear one,” Dr Melissa says.

Buying a first bra can be extremely daunting and difficult, particularly when it comes to knowing how to properly fit them.

“There’s a part of me that says it doesn’t have to be rocket science,” the doctor confesses, before adding that it’s important to be comfortable – especially for those with larger breasts.

“If you’ve got small boobs or medium sized boobs, there’s actually no medical reason to wear a bra or to not wear a bra. It’s about personal choice or it could be fashion. But I do think for people with larger breasts or who are just very physically active, it certainly does help to have good support around your breasts, it makes it more comfortable to move around.”

Melissa suggests that getting “checked by a professional fitter” would be beneficial in these cases.

Just like buying a first bra can be a monumental part of puberty, undergoing your inaugural menstrual cycle is an equally significant milestone. And periods certainly affect our boobs, particularly as they are developing.

“It gets a bit confusing when you are young and your breasts are still growing and perhaps you are just beginning to have your very first period,” Dr Melissa says, explaining it can take a year or two to get into a pattern regarding the “regularity” and “stability” of adult hormone levels.  

“Until that time, it’s a bit hard to know what to make of breast symptoms.”

“What happens in what I call a ‘mature menstrual cycle’, you get this pattern in the second half, and then midway between periods, you have ovulation, and then following ovulation up until the start of your next period, your hormones change quite a bit. And that can lead to things like what we call fluid retention. So you can feel bloated. And you also can get breast pain.”

The Dolly Doctor alum clarifies that this can feel “very uncomfortable” as boobs become tender and sometimes swollen.

“Then as soon as the period starts, it disappears. And that’s how you kind of define it as premenstrual, because it goes away once your period starts,” she adds.

“The other time that, as a teenager, you might get sore breasts is in that early stage before you start having periods when your breast is just starting to grow quite fast. They can be a little bit tender then as well.”

Considering how monumental losing your bra- and period-ginity can be, it’s no surprise information about them are pretty common in school curriculums. What’s less common in the classroom are discussions about gender diversity and how this can influence boobs and how we think about them.  

“When everyone goes through puberty, regardless of what their chromosomes or their sex or gender are, that we’re all pretty much all born with breast tissue,” Dr Melissa tells GF.

“Boys often get breast development and some statistics say it’s up to 70 or 80 per cent of boys will get some breast development during puberty. It might not even be noticeable particularly, but, for some, it can be very noticeable, and they can be very self-conscious and worried about it.”

She goes on to explain that for some adolescents, whether or not they develop breasts can contribute to “gender dysphoria”.

“If you were assumed to be say a girl at birth but, at some point, during your childhood or early adolescence, you realise that you identify as a male, growing breasts can be very distressing and vice versa.”

For some people who are uncomfortable with their growing breast tissue, they turn to methods such as binding their chest.

Melissa refers young people who are seeking assistance in this space to resources such as: Minus 18 and The Gender Centre.

She says safety when binding is paramount as it can be “very tight”.

“It can be restrictive in terms of breathing,” the doctor explains. “Recommendations are that you don’t sleep in a chest binder and you don’t leave it on for hours and hours and hours.”

The experience of gender dysphoria is something that is becoming increasingly amplified as we continue to learn more about gender diversity and make strides to be more inclusive.

It’s important to normalise these conversations in the classroom as well to ensure teenagers don’t feel isolated if their experience of puberty looks different to someone else’s.

Because everyone has different journeys when it comes to puberty and breasts, knowing what is – for lack of a better word – “normal” when it comes to the body can be tricky. Melissa elucidates on this issue.

“I’m the first to admit that I’m very guilty of constantly answering questions that came to the magazine by saying this is “normal’,” the doctor confesses. “I feel a bit guilty for saying you’re either normal or you’re not normal when it’s not like that, necessarily.”

Dr Melissa Kang getting vaccinated against COVID. (Credit: Instagram)

“If you look at all human beings and different bodies that you’re born with, or the changes you grow or different ways that your hormones are produced when you reach puberty, we know that there’s a whole diversity of bodies, and that includes the genital parts of your body and also your breasts.

“Some people are born, it’s extremely rare, but some people are born, for example, without any breast tissue. So, whatever their sex is, they don’t grow breasts. It’s much more common at the other end to be born with extra nipples and maybe even an extra breast or two.

“That might have been something in the past that would’ve been labelled as abnormal when it’s not, it’s just part of that whole spectrum of humans.”

Dr Melissa suggests that in our culture and society, we “idealise” a standard body shape which can “create distress for a lot of young people”.

“When you’re young and becoming aware of who you are in the world, I think your body is very much kind of your outward self,” she says, adding that emphasising positive perceptions regarding body image is vital.

Boob positivity is something we should be emphasising. However, there are negative experiences that can sometimes come with breasts – namely, breast cancer.

Learning how to check from lumps from a young age is important, according to Melissa. “Not because you’re likely to get cancer” she stresses, simply to get into practice as you grow up. 

Here’s how to check for lumps. (Credit: Getty)

The doctor shares instructions on how to check for lumps.

“You look at them in front of a mirror with your hands on your hips and kind of push in a bit so that the chest muscles push them out. Look at the nipples, at the skin so you get to know what they look like and you’ll notice if there’s any differences.

“Then when you go to feel them, you can do it standing up like in the shower or you can do it lying down, maybe with a hand behind your head. And then you get the opposite hand, you feel around, and then you swap hands and you just go around in a circle.”

She adds that the breast “has a thing called a tail”.

“It can go right up into almost the top of your armpit. So we always say, when you’re examining your breasts, don’t forget to go right up into your armpit. Because every now and again, you might feel a little bit of a lump there as well.”

With so much readily available medical information at the tips of our fingers (thanks internet), discerning legitimate health advice from some dude whose cousin’s brother-in-law is a doctor can be tricky.

Increasingly, we’re seeing medical advice being shared on social media platforms such as TikTok. And while the democratisation of information has many benefits, in a medical sense, it can be dangerous if misinformation spreads.

Dr Melissa speaks on this – and you’ll be pleased to know it’s with quite an optimistic perspective.   

“I tend to take the approach of… let’s give young people credit for their intelligence and actually be supportive of teaching them how to question information that they’re getting,” she says, adding that young people still seek out legitimate government and health websites for serious concerns.

“We do have to stay vigilant and we do have to make sure that we’re supporting young people to know how to appraise or critique information that they see online, but also trust that if we build good enough relationships with them and their parents do and their teachers and the health professionals that they see, that they will trust their doctor more than anybody else.”

Building these positive relationships is integral to normalising these questions about our bodies, according to Melissa.

“I think the concerns that young people have about puberty, about their bodies, about their relationships, about sex, I think those have been around in humanity forever and ever, and will continue to be that way,” she says.

“I want adults to be honest with young people about all of this and not to feel that if we don’t talk about sex, then they won’t think about it. You know, that’s just such a silly myth. And boobs and body image and periods, they’re linked.

“I just want to encourage adults, parents, teachers, as well as young people to not shy away from having conversations from a young age about all of this, because I think that that is much more likely to ensure that young people grow up sexually, physically, and mentally healthy.”

Passionate about sharing her knowledge about breasts, Melissa has teamed up with Yumi Stynes to write Welcome To Your Boobs. Your intersectional, easy, no-silly-questions guide to your breast friends. You can buy it right here!

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