Humans are asymmetrical. You don’t need me to tell you that. There have been hundreds of anthropological studies on the fluctuating asymmetry of the face alone. You can google it or get any couple issues of National Geographic to tell you that, and while it can be a minor annoyance when putting on liquid eyeliner, that’s not what we’re taking about today.
Today we are talking about more pronounced, physical asymmetries that require specific alterations for clothing so that the wearer may feel and/or appear more symmetrical. While one can fairly easily tailor a garment to fit minor asymmetries, it took me months of researching breast cancer survivors, their many different stories and reconstruction choices, and their feelings of not always wanting to be this “beacon of cancer survival” to learn about more intricate alterations. Heather Sanders was a huge help, and my beloved friend Denise, who has been featured on here a few times,
introduced me to trusted me with her local breast cancer survivor group. You can read about those women’s stories here and my technical article here. We have also had Tina write a WWA: Sewing After A Unilateral Mastectomy.
Today, please welcome Torina and Eleanor sharing their powerful stories. Torina brings us her story of growing up and being denied her asymmetry, and Eleanor shares her unique breast cancer story as she is living it today:
“Maybe if you stood up straight….” “Your problems must be because you slouch…” “You have terrible posture…” “Let’s just straighten those shoulders out…” “Just relax your shoulders…” “Lower your shoulders…” I’ve heard it all. People are not afraid to say nasty things to you when you have extraordinary shoulders. Also, United States culture prescribes that you will feel better if you look better, which actually makes most people feel like garbage about the way they look. I know I used to. I was born with asymmetrical shoulders. As I aged, I developed health issues that caused chronic pain in other parts of my body. As a protective measure, my body sort of curled in on itself to shield itself from the often agonizing pain, making my shoulders even more noticeable. Instead of addressing the issues of pain in my hip, pelvis, abdomen, and lungs caused by actual medical problems, medical professionals instead wanted me to wear back braces and do repetitive exercises so I could meet their idealized postures. I’ve never had shoulder pain (except when I tried wearing the braces) or any health issues associated with my shoulders so the emphasis on them is extremely odd and entirely misplaced by medical professionals and others.
Last year, as part of liberating myself from the culture of self-hate for profit and unattainable beauty standards, I decided to take up garment sewing. Logic. I would make the clothes fit me, rather than trying to make me fit my clothes. I also fired every person in my life who made me feel bad about the way I looked.
I took a beginner intensive class on garment sewing and messed around with alterations, and started by making pants and shorts. The bottom half of my body is symmetrical so it made sense for me to start there. I wanted to get some experience before tackling the top half. Pants were not difficult so I gained the confidence to tackle those shoulders. The level of alterations I have to make to a fitted shirt pattern is…A LOT. My shoulders slope up rather than slope down. They are broad. One is larger than the other and slopes up MORE. Instead of cutting a symmetrical pattern on the fold, I have to trace it out and dart out the back and do shoulder slope adjustments and work with the length to make sure it is still even along the bottom hem when I am wearing it…I haven’t tackled fitted sleeves yet. Now that I am figuring this out, I don’t have to wear stuff that doesn’t fit me anymore or make me feel uncomfortable in my body. It feels great.
Torina posts at @torinawashere about nature and her creative endeavors but most importantly she documents the incredible life of her cat, Janis Joplin. When she is not railing against ableism in the arts, she is drawing in the woods, identifying birds, and brainstorming kind ways to keep her resident skunk, Franklin Delano Roosesmelt, from digging up her yard.
I have two daughters aged 9 and 12 and have been making my own clothes on and off for about 20 years. I’m also a breastfeeding counsellor. We live on the edge of Leeds, in northern England.
Late last year, life took an unexpected turn. I found a lump in my left breast, which turned out to be one of a number of benign cysts, but the mammogram showed calcifications, which led to a biopsy. This confirmed early cell changes – ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) – which were considered likely to progress to invasive disease at some unknown stage. Due to the extent and location, it was recommended that I have a mastectomy. This was completely unexpected.
Five weeks later I had the surgery, and I’d already started sewing to help me cope. Pyjamas, a short robe and a couple of simple bras gave me some confidence.
I’ve spent a lot of time this year sewing bras, both with and without pockets and after seeing a few requests for help from other women on social media, I set up a Facebook Group called Sewing Flat and Asymmetrical to share ideas for anyone sewing for breast difference, whatever the cause. There are so many different options available to us as creative folk and it’s good to have a safe space where we can share ideas and learn from each other.
Now my challenge has changed again as I had reconstructive surgery a few weeks ago and for now at least, my new breast is bigger than the unaffected one. I’m therefore making different adjustments and am experimenting with foam cups to see if they will help balance things out when that’s what I want to do.
Eleanor blogs as Nelnan and Nora and you can follow her on Instagram as @nelnanandnora
The lesson in these stories, in all of our Who We Are stories, is a human lesson that can always be applied. No single story is like another and we are all unique, but it is in working together, we are so very strong. Yes, you may have an asymmetry or a fit alteration that is different than anyone you see, but that doesn’t make you difficult, and that doesn’t make you any less beautiful. To us, your Sew Folx, you are beautiful. We love helping each other, we love working together to solve fitting-head-scratchers, and we love seeing your proud of your makes. Sew on my beautiful people.
All photos are property of the authors.
Asymmetry is a huge part of my life, as I’m very aware that people see my asymmetry from a distance. Some days I really don’t feel that great about it all. Thank you so much for sharing, I knew of a few sewers with these problems but to know there is a diverse and quite large group makes me feel a little better about the challenges I’ll have when I next sew again.
this is the most beautiful comment. thank you. this is what we aim to do with ever WWA post – make you feel seen and not alone.
There’s nothing like having practiced Iyengar yoga for 30 odd years to make all the asymmetry apparent! 🙂 I was born with a congenital malocclusion of my jaw – creating facial asymmetry (though it’s not outrageously noticeable – except when it is). I always knew something was wrong, and my mum had a crooked mouth (to a greater extent than mine), but it wasn’t formally diagnosed until about 5 years ago – when 3D imaging could really do its thing. It’s more concerning to me that the occlusion plus early onset osteo-arthritis have collaborated in a suspect fashion and now I have no disc in my left jaw hinge (which has created a variety of challenges I’d be just as happy to never have had to think about). But this ain’t my only asymmetry. My left breast is half a size larger than my right (totally not visible in a bra that fits properly). My left calf is more sinewy than my right (though only noticeable to me). Of course I’ve got one foot and hand slightly larger than the other. Given the choice, natch, I’d be perfectly symmetrical and, well, just perfect all around. Alas, instead I’ll just wear things that fit and use props when doing yoga and try to pull the whole bone thing back from the edge via diet and lifestyle (my only options, really, as I’m not a candidate for surgery).
Point is – asymmetry is the new symmetry!
wOW! It never occurred to me that my shoulders could be weird. I thought shoulder were supposed to be straight across. Well no part of me seems to approach the norm except in very general term. I hope that this means i can figure out how to do the alterations! I’ve figured out harder things.
I have sloping shoulders (thanks Gran) and fairly severe scoliosis so one hip is almost straight up and down and the other is like a shelf!! Im early into my garment making journey so have a lot to learn but I appreciate this focus and also love the photos that Torina shared…they really cracked me up. 🥰
Torina – your shoulders look good to me. As a matter of fact, I envy you.
I have narrow shoulders that slope a lot and any straps constantly slide off. I wear a crossbody purse, but the grocery bags still slide off the other shoulder. It drives me nuts!