When Michelle Damm walks around the lakes in her Linden Hills neighborhood, she regularly sees women who need her assistance. Frumpy, bouncy, droopy, flat, it doesn’t matter the shape or size, she recognizes the mistakes. For nearly three years, Damm has made women’s breasts her business.
“Roughly 85 percent of women are walking around with the wrong bra,” she said. “They’ve got the wrong style for their body, or the wrong size for their shape. I see them everywhere and say to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, I just want to measure her. Her girls need me.’”
Damm is a vivacious spirit who quickly puts women at ease about baring their “girls” to her in places as intimate as the bathroom at a house party or a makeshift booth at the Minneapolis Convention Center. She usually measures women quickly, in a respectful, modest way. “No one needs to flash me,” she joked. “I’m not looking to have anyone’s boobs in my face.”
Oprah, with her “bra intervention” show, and Queen Latifah, who is spokesperson for a plus-size lingerie company, have helped popularize attention to women’s undergarments in recent months. “Women of America,” Oprah declared in an April show, “you need to rise up and get a proper bra fitting.”
And Latifah has said, “You’d be surprised how simply wearing the right bra can affect confidence. It may seem trivial in affecting a woman’s confidence but it works.”
The most common issue Damm sees is the wrong band size, which leads to shoulder straps that don’t stay up and cups that pitch forward as the band creeps up the back. “It doesn’t look natural, and the bra isn’t doing the work that it’s supposed to,” she says. “Without the right bra, I look frumpier and bigger than I am. With the right bra we stand up straighter, give our back greater support, and get the natural curves that make us look neater, thinner, and slimmer.”
The company Damm works for is co-owned by a former high school classmate, who piqued her interest by missing their 20th reunion to attend the New York City Lingerie Show. Since then, Damm has become an aficionado of the company’s best-selling product—the Oprah-endorsed Le Mystere’s Dream Tisha bra, which uses heat from the body to mold the seamless, lifting cups like a glove to women’s breasts.
Damm became the second sales rep of her classmate’s women-run Essential Bodywear company, which now has 225 female reps throughout the United States. She works with women from size 32A to 44G. She especially loves the flabbergasted reaction from flat-chested women who had resolved themselves to going through life without a female silhouette.
One woman Damm helped had breasts that hung to her belly after a stomach stapling operation that took out most of her fat. “I brought her girls up and she was absolutely shocked.”
Another customer had, for nearly 50 years, worn a flimsy underwire bar that left half of her breasts exposed under the nipple, because she’d never discovered the right cup size. “Now she looks fantastic,” Damm says. “Her husband is thrilled, too. It was such a transforming experience for her, that now she’s one of my six sales reps.”
From cars to kids to cups
Once upon a time, after getting a bachelor’s of science degree in business administration from Michigan Tech, Damm was a successful sales rep at Ford Motor Company. She was promoted every eight months for six years, and was groomed for the vice-presidential level. Instead, she took a year off to travel in 35 countries. She has climbed mountains on five continents, including Mount Kilimanjaro.
After she re-entered the work world, Damm spent six years selling pharmaceuticals. She left when her first son was born—choosing single motherhood after a brief relationship ended with her son’s father—and decided she was unwilling to go back to corporate sales. She made ends meet with odd jobs, relishing life as an unmarried “stay-at-home” mom.
As a sales rep for Essential Bodywear, Damm works with women at home parties (it’s the new Tupperware), wedding parties, hair salons, and individually. She also works with breast augmentation and reduction patients. Women lined up 10 deep at the most recent Women’s Expo at the Minneapolis Convention Center in January, where she sold $14,000 worth of product in three days.
When her son Teddy was 3, Damm decided to adopt a second child. And that’s when her real adventures began. Augmenting her family was more difficult that she expected.
Damm had one adoptive boy in her life three months before the biological mother managed to turn her life around and reclaimed him. Five different women picked Damm to be the mother of their unborn children. She shared months of bonding, ultrasounds and name choosing with each, only to have each woman change her mind at the time of the delivery.
Despite all the false starts, and the intense pain of loss she experienced in all six cases, Damm remained adamant that an open domestic adoption was best. She felt strongly that the best interest of the child is to be with the birth mother if possible. And it was that spirit of openness that led her and her adoptive son, Oliver, to find each other in the fall of 2003.
Both of Oliver’s birth parents were 13 years old when he was born. The birth mother—an “A” student—hated placing him for adoption, but family shame left her no choice. The birth father, who was largely raised by a grandmother in a loving but already overburdened extended family, strongly wanted to maintain contact. The trust his family had in Damm’s ability to stay open with them was one of the reasons her status as a single mother didn’t matter to them.
Even more than bra sizes, the passion that fuels Damm’s life today—and fills her child-centered home—is a quote from a friend: “All there is in the world is love and fear; make sure you’re on the right side of it.”
Damm’s view is that birth families are part of a child’s right, and there is nothing threatening about blending the birth family with the adoptive family. She strongly believes that the more family, the more friends, and the more community attachments a child has, the better.
As an example, she brings out the scrapbook of family photos that Oliver’s birth father’s family compiled for him. It includes photos and names of all the cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. Photos of his young father in a football uniform (“That my daddy?” Oliver sometimes responds when he sees it). It includes the touching letter from the birth father, who describes himself in the details of a young boy: his sports abilities, the fact that he likes to smile, his height. And, toward the end, these lines: “We thank God for your mother Shelly, just knowing that you are with a loving family. And that they are willing to let us be in your life. So I’m just writing to tell you that I do love you. Love, your birth father.”
“How can it be bad for Oliver to know that his birth father loves him and wants to remain in contact?” Damm asks.
Damm exudes confidence, with or without the right-fitting bra. Whether it’s helping her sons grow into strong young men, or helping women take pride in their breasts, her goal is to inspire the same self-assurance wherever she goes. And to keep her measuring tape hidden from view unless asked.