Leslie Lehr, A BOOB'S LIFE

Leslie Lehr, A BOOB'S LIFE

“I understand how the culture created this situation where we all had these expectations for our lives that has to do with having boobs and how we judge ourselves and what our expectations are with the other sex.” Author Leslie Lehr shares why she was inspired to write a book about, well…boobs. She discusses why she doesn’t let breast cancer define her, and talks with Zibby about the importance of self-care.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Leslie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss A Boob’s Life.

Leslie Lehr: I’m so excited to be here. Super fan.

Zibby: I’m so excited you’re here. As I mentioned to you, I have had your book for almost — no, it couldn’t have been a year. Six months or something. I’ve been just super excited to talk to you about it.

Leslie: Do you think about your boobs all the time and think about the book when you put your bra on in the morning? Everybody has to deal with their boobs every day.

Zibby: I just put my bra on and hope it fits. Let’s not be too tight today.

Leslie: During COVID, though, you can just — COVID kind of killed the bra in a lot of ways.

Zibby: Yes. I feel like I’ve moved more into sports bras on a regular basis.

Leslie: Me too. I’m wearing a real one for you special today. Otherwise, it’s all sports bras.

Zibby: Thank you. Although, actually, I just got this one, which I can show you because it matches your cover.

Leslie: Oh, that’s nice.

Zibby: I feel like I should give this to you.

Leslie: I’m wearing a blue one today too.

Zibby: Are you?

Leslie: Yeah.

Zibby: I’ve never had a blue one before. There you go. It was meant to be. I don’t think I’ve bought a new bra in years.

Leslie: Bravo.

Zibby: I got some special ad for that color. I was like, okay, sure. It’s my favorite color. I hadn’t even had time to put it away. There we go. Anyway, A Boob’s Life: How America’s Obsession Shaped Me…and You, I’ve had this, by the way, on the floor of my son’s room for the last couple days. He keeps being like, “Boobs.” He’s six. He’s like, “Why are you reading about boobs?” So why are you writing about boobs? Why don’t we start there?

Leslie: Why I started writing is because I got out of the shower one night — I had gone through breast cancer. We were in this cool new place to live. We were supposed to have this romantic evening. I looked in the mirror, and my boobs were crooked. I was so angry. I knew I was just grateful to be alive, but I suddenly kind of rehashed my whole life. After everything I’d been through with my boobs, couldn’t they be perfect? I wanted to fix them so bad. My husband said I was obsessed. I’m a feminist. I was totally insulted by that. How could I be obsessed by boobs? I settled down. We watched TV. David Letterman was doing his last week on The Late Show. He’s the famous comedian for being smart. He got the Mark Twain award and everything. All these stars were guesting. On his monologue, top of the monologue, he tells a boob joke. And not just a boob joke, but about J.Lo who was producing a new fabulous series that was a huge hit, I think Pacific Blues or something. I looked at my husband and was like, “I’m not the only one if it’s true.” Date night was off. He went to bed. We had just moved in, so I had all these boxes. I thought, why am I obsessed? This is a weird thing. I started going through my scrapbooks. I did call my doctor first. Left a message about my boobs. I know breast cancer people who spend two years of surgeries to get their boobs back.

Anyway, I looked through my — the old-fashioned kind where you actually cut out articles and clippings and newspaper and song lyrics with pictures. I thought, wow, this is bigger than just me. I saw this old picture of me and my sister and my mom. We all had red bikinis on. It’s in the book. Just looking at that picture makes me laugh because my one-and-a-half-year-old sister has this teeny, tiny — we have these teeny, tiny strips. My sister could not keep it on her nipples. She’s one and a half. I was three. It was a big deal. I realized, wow, I knew at three years old how taboo breasts were. I thought, yeah, this is totally my next book. I had to figure it out. I didn’t know if I’d ever write another book because I had chemo brain for a really long time. My analytic side came back. I was working with other writers, but creatively — then suddenly, it was just like, I have to explore it. I had to use my life. Honestly, I’m very nervous about what everyone’s going to think about my personal life. I had to use myself because it turns out my whole life, timewise, was an example of all this stuff that happened in the United States that made us obsessed with boobs in a way that’s beyond biology. Long answer to a short question.

Zibby: No, no. Your book, it’s interesting how you used that, but it’s really your life story. It is really a beautiful memoir. You were able to weave in this really unique packaging for it, almost, with the boob thing, especially with breast cancer. I’m so sorry that that happened and all of it. At its core, this is a beautiful memoir about your life and everything from diving off the high board to falling in love and having the course of your life get knocked off. I just loved it. I loved it, is what I’m trying to say.

Leslie: Thank you. There is some stuff that happened in my life that didn’t have to do with my boobs that is in it. I just thought most women can look at their life from puberty, wanting bigger boobs, the cheerleaders and Playboy and Victoria’s Secret and wanting all that, and then having to hide your boobs to work, showing them to date, and then getting bigger to breastfeed, and then getting all saggy and droopy afterwards. The most popular elective surgery is breast implants. One out of eight of us gets breast cancer. It seemed like the stages of my life were really similar to many women today. Nobody had looked at that whole picture. I found books on breast cancer, books on breastfeeding. If you google breasts, you’ll also get chicken recipes.

Zibby: I know. That was so funny.

Leslie: If you google boobs, it’s mostly porn. Breasts, they’re an organ that makes blood into milk. Yet there’s not even a medical specialty just for breasts. Toni Morrison said if you haven’t found the book you want to read, you have to write it or something like that. I’m misquoting her. This was the book I needed to see, someone’s whole life from the breast perspective and to see how much the culture has affected how I feel about me, how I feel about my body, how I judge other women, and how, really, it’s held us back even in terms of childcare and abuse and all of this kind of stuff, but there’s a lot of funny stuff, as you know.

Zibby: You had one line in there which now, of course, I can’t find now that I want to quote it back to you. It was something like how at work you had to cover up your breasts. Yet as a new mom at home, they were the sole foundation of your baby’s survival and everything.

Leslie: And my identity.

Zibby: And your identity as a mom. That’s what you’re doing. It’s amazing, the physical handling that is involved in breastfeeding.

Leslie: You know. Four kids, oh, my gosh.

Zibby: I know. Yes, I have four kids. Going from being conservative in one respect and then literally having your shirt flown open walking around the house that way and how that makes you question, who are you really? If these are the two parts of your life, what is you, the essence of you then? I found that so interesting.

Leslie: Exactly. I did too.

Zibby: That’s why you wrote about it, maybe. Wait, can we talk a little about your breast cancer?

Leslie: Sure.

Zibby: I know that came later in the book. I loved all the preamble to the breast cancer, which was the bulk of the book anyway. Take me a little bit through that and how it changed the course of your life and how you see it now.

Leslie: I was completely surprised by it. I don’t have the BRCA gene. Most people think that you do if you get it. Eighty-five percent of us don’t. I was totally healthy. I exercised, ate a lot of vegetables. When I looked back at it, though, I did have a lot of drama and stress in my life from my family and my ex-husband at that time and the regular drama you have with a lot of kids and just life. I had always been the person who took care of business. I really think that your emotions and lack of self-care affects your immune system. In fact, there’s this gene that I found out that actually can trigger a weakness in your immune system so that women are more vulnerable to breast cancer. When I got it, it was a total surprise. I wasn’t good at self-checks. Although, forty percent of people who are diagnosed find their things, so do that. I’m a bad example. I got a mammogram. I was like, oh, there’s a thing. Whatever. I’ll do it again. I’m a half-glass full person. I’m like, nothing’s wrong with me. The radiologist was, “No, if it was my wife, I’d check it now.” They checked it now. Sure enough, had we not checked it now, and this is the creepy part, I would probably have died because it was a really fast-growing thing. By the time I had a surgeon and everything nailed down, it had quadrupled in size. It was just freaky. I never had imagined. I feel immortal. I’m strong. I try to do everything. I’ve been through some rough times. I kind of thought I was doing well, and so it was a real blow.

It becomes a lifestyle, breast cancer. We had surgery. Me and my boobs, we had surgery. I thought I was fine. Then suddenly, oh, no, we have to do all this stuff to prevent it coming back, the whole chemo and radiation and all the drugs for years and years. It just struck me that so many women go through this. You don’t feel like it’s a thing. Then seeing the pink, it’s like, yeah, yeah, we know. Yet that really does save lives for people to get checked. I really resented people to say you have to be grateful for your life because I always was a person who will smell a flower and be really happy about it. I really do feel like I got lucky and I survived for a reason. Anything that I can do to help women be kinder to themselves and take better care of themselves and ask for help so we don’t have this kind of responsibility and get childcare and get fair everything so that we’re not so stressed out because this is killing us. We don’t need all this responsibility. Our culture’s really contributed in a bad way by objectifying our breasts to make them for men instead of just this wonderful women, baby thing. I’m part of the culture. I have implants. I liked when I got them. I didn’t mean to get them. It was a whole deal. I think it’s a double-edged sword being beautiful. We want to be beautiful. We live here. Yet our breasts, they feed our babies and they can kill us. Now I’m all about self-care. I don’t think it’s a cliché or a trend on Instagram. I think it’s really important. Every day, we have to do something just kind to ourselves. We have to not be afraid to ask for help. We need childcare. We’ll never be equal because that’s just how our bodies are built.

Zibby: Did my mother call you to tell you to say this to me? She was literally on the phone with me yesterday saying the same thing. “Take care of yourself. You have to take care of yourself.”

Leslie: My friends, I kind of have a habit of now saying, “So what are you doing for yourself today?” Zibby, what are you doing for yourself today? It can’t be exercise.

Zibby: Can it be this?

Leslie: Yeah, but this is kind of work. This is what you do. You have to do something just for yourself even if it’s just five minutes to chill out or something unrelated to work or exercise or your kids. It’s like the oxygen mask on yourself. That seems like a cliché. It’s true. It’s really true. It affects your physical.

Zibby: I do believe my work is a form of self-care for me because I created it to do something that I would bring my whole self to and would enjoy.

Leslie: That’s magical.

Zibby: I feel like I’ve cheated the whole thing.

Leslie: Because you love what you do.

Zibby: But I can let it stress me out.

Leslie: You still have deadlines and obligations.

Zibby: I’m not really joking. Doing this conversation with you, I will now be able to go out and deal with the rest of the day with the kids in a much better way. I have these built-in resets. I should take a walk or something. I guess I should take a walk. Okay, fine.

Leslie: It doesn’t need to be a chore. You can just sit down and clip your nails or watch some garbage TV for five minutes, just something that allows your body to reset. We’re on go all the time. I didn’t realize that. I’m just as bad at it.

Zibby: What do you do for self-care then?

Leslie: I try to walk at the beach. This morning, I didn’t have time. I just walked around the block, but I listened to a podcast. I just really try to notice things outside of myself. I guess they would say mindfulness, but it’s weird. Our bodies, our minds, our physical, it’s all together. To answer your original question of breast cancer, I don’t want to be the breast cancer person. Sick of pink was my nickname on the chemo board.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you —

Leslie: — No, no, no, I didn’t mean that. My point is, I don’t think anyone who gets sick should let cancer define them. For me, in the book, only two chapters are on breast cancer.

Zibby: I know. I’m sorry.

Leslie: No, but it is really important.

Zibby: I’m drawn to overcoming challenging things.

Leslie: Of course. I think life is really challenging. We should treat ourselves like little kittens, give ourselves that love, or treat ourselves like we would a best friend. I think we’re really hard on ourselves, women, because it’s our job to take care of everybody. That’s what I learned from being sick. I don’t want to get sick again. I also feel like I want to get this book out because I think that’s part of the message. I do feel like I have things I want to do on this earth before I die because I feel like that could be taken away from me any time. It did make me feel more mortal. Yet I’m not quite as strict about certain things. I’ll have a cupcake.

Zibby: Oh, yeah. I just had a cookie, and I didn’t even have cancer.

Leslie: Good.

Zibby: What is on your bucket list? What do you still want to do?

Leslie: I’m working on another book. I want to finish that. This book was picked up. Salma Hayek is making it into a TV series for HBO Max. I really want to do that. I want to see that. In it, my boobs are going to talk. The main character is named Leslie. She is in it in a really funny part. I’m not writing it. It’s not the book. The book is totally me. I just want to enjoy myself. I want to take the time. These projects, I want to see them get out in the world. I feel like as a writer, we get the chance to have a voice. That’s the kind of writer I am. I’m horrible at marketing and technology and stuff. I have a lot of clients I work with who do various things. I’m really good at story structure, so I deal with that. I can’t write a book every six months or a science series or something. I really only write because — my first book was Welcome to the Club Mom. It was essentially a bunch of rants about how weird it was to be a mom and stuck at home. It was great, but oh, my god. Every book I write has something that I want to say. It gives me a way to say it and get heard. That’s what I like to do. I like to get my opinion out. Writing it down is a way to do that.

Zibby: Awesome. What is this next book about? Can you say?

Leslie: It’s a novel. It has similar themes. It’s a period piece, but in a very cool period. It brings in everything with relationships and betrayal and family and different races. It’s this whole microcosm of an example of everything. It’s a real outgrowth of this. Also, it’s based on something that really happened in my life. I had to wait for certain people to die to write it. Now it’s like, ooh, now I can write it. Now I can do it in different points of view to see what they were really thinking. I can make it into a story that has a nice resolution. That’s, for me, what novels are. In this book, in A Boob’s Life, what was really fun also was seeing the patterns of all the stuff that happened in my life not just in my boobs, but in my relationships and in my family, my mom and my dad and my ex-husband who’s no longer with us and my current husband, just to see how the relationships and men and women are so related to our boobs and our identity and pulling it towards this conclusion of, okay, here’s how we got to today. Here’s how we can try and make the world a better place. It kind of can start with our boobs. It all relates.

Zibby: I really loved how you showed us the relationship between your parents. Your mom, when she went through a really hard time, that scene was amazing when you found out that she was comatose on the — a scene, it’s your life. I’m sorry. I’m like, yeah, that’s a great scene you wrote there.

Leslie: I expanded it in a fictional way in the next thing.

Zibby: You did?

Leslie: Yeah, because it’s weird.

Zibby: You didn’t write that much about it, by the way.

Leslie: No, one sentence. It was one sentence.

Zibby: I was like, wait, wait, wait, what? What? What is this? I went back and read before and after. I was like, did I miss something? Where is the whole story? Maybe go into that a smidge more.

Leslie: I’ll go into that in my novel in a fictional way. For me, I add so many things like that in this book that are just these little, oh, yeah, and then… You can’t go back into them because I want to focus on the boobs and how we got . My mom is fine today. She actually just read A Boob’s Life. It was tricky. I actually didn’t want her to read it while I was writing because she would influence me. I would make it all good for her. I was very careful, as you say. Even with my dad, he hasn’t read it yet either, but I’m sure he will any minute now. Even my ex, I hope that by the end they understand that I understand how the culture created this situation where we all had these expectations for our lives that has to do with having boobs and how we judge ourselves and what our expectations are with the other sex. I kind of give everybody a pass because we have to live here. I think if we’re aware of how we are and how things are, we can do better and be better for other people Anyway, my mom now did read the book and loves it. She’s very happy with it, so phew. Also, when you say anyone in any books — here’s a writer tip. Anyone you want to talk about, just say they’re beautiful or if they’re a man, they’re really well-endowed, and you can pretty much get away with everything.

Zibby: You were super complimentary about your dad in the beginning, what he looked like, this tall, bronze, Princeton guy. Obviously, your feelings about him — at least physically, as a specimen.

Leslie: Well, he was. He was a prime example of the Playboy man and the Mr. America. He still is that way. Only now that has shifted. It’s a very tricky thing for many of us who have family members who we don’t agree with. Yet they so have influenced stuff through our lives. It’s hard. How do you love them and still think, how can you…? There’s a lot of that in the book. Clearly, he was a boob man like many in that generation growing up with Playboy. Then we were raised with Victoria’s Secret, my daughters. You’re thirteen. You go in there. Then you want to be an angel. Those women are freaks of nature. It’s a strange culture we live in. I just want everybody to know that I’m not the only one who’s obsessed. We all are. We take it for granted. It’s insidious. We don’t realize how much. Even me, I’ll see someone — I’m now getting reach-outs from people I know from high school. I grew up in Ohio.

Zibby: What part of Ohio?

Leslie: A suburb of Columbus, Upper Arlington.

Zibby: My family’s from Dayton.

Leslie: Dayton, I went to a lot of swim meets there, actually, when Keating gave out gold dollars for people if you won your heat at the swimming. It was Keating right before the big scandal. I know about that. Dayton had a pretty pool.

Zibby: Sorry, I got you off track.

Leslie: Anyway, somebody reached out from high school. I’m thinking, she had really big boobs in high school or junior high. I thought, ooh, she’s so tacky. She was really popular with the older guys. Now I think, she has no idea I thought that. She’s being really nice to me. That was my judgement because we think people with big boobs are tacky. When I did get a boob job, I was like, no, I’m an intellectual, I need to be more flat-chested. I did want to feel womanly. Now Dolly Parton and Salma Hayek have used their boob power for good. I’m all for whatever it takes to get attention so that you can do good things like give money to COVID and be really influential in empowering women and make great movies like Salma Hayek. I like to know that I automatically judge women by how they look. Though, I judge myself too. I think that’s just part of our awareness and the obsession that we don’t realize we have. We all have boobs. Every day, we get up, like you said, got to do something with them. You have feelings about them. Everyone has boob stories. I’d like to hear all of them. Mostly, I just want people to love your boobs. Whether that means you’re going to do something with them or not, it’s your choice. It’s your body. Just be aware. That’s really what I’m calling for, is just to let people know this is a big thing.

Zibby: Love it. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Leslie: I would say, first, read a lot. It’s amazing how many people want to write who don’t read. Read like a writer. If you read a book, afterwards, think about how they constructed it because that magic didn’t come easy. Also, study the craft. I’m big on craft. Get your butt in the chair. That’s the biggest challenge. Keep your butt in the chair. Then obviously, I only write about things that I have real passion about. Sometimes I’ll have clients, because I work with other writers, who will say, “Should I write this or this or this?” We can go through and see which will actually make the best story in terms of a desire line and all that kind of stuff, but if they don’t really care, probably shouldn’t write any of them. Writing is hard. It takes a really long time. You’re alone. You’re crazy with people in your head for hours. I don’t believe you have to write every day. I think women can’t do that. We have other responsibilities. If a story is strong enough to be staying in your head, that’s one you got to write about. Even this book took a really long time to both write — I was constantly updating it. I even updated it after the election. That’s why it was coming out during International Women’s Month. That was all intentional. It’s a long haul. One thing my dad did always tell me is that you can’t fail until you quit. I think writing is one of those things that — it’s a vocation. Don’t do it if you can not do it because it’s really hard. When you do it, then you have something that’s everything in your heart that you wanted to say. Other people get to hear it. Whether they like it or not, you’ve had a chance to have an opinion out there. It’s very exciting.

Zibby: It is very exciting. It allows you to connect with people. I felt like I read this book and then like we were already in the middle of a conversation by the time we started talking.

Leslie: That’s right. We’re already friends.

Zibby: Leslie, thank you. I’m so glad we got to chat. I hope we get to meet in real life. I’m excited for your book and love the story and will be holding my breath alongside you to hear what your dad has to say.

Leslie: Thank you so much, Zibby. Now I can listen to you every day on your podcast and think, I got to talk to Zibby too. I’m thrilled. I’m so thrilled. I can’t tell you.

Zibby: Aw, I’m so glad.

Leslie: Thank you so much. Love your boobs. My parting word.

Zibby: You too. Okay, all right, I’ll try.

Leslie: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye.

A Boob’s Life by Leslie Lehr

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