April 11, 1977 12:00 PM

She unbuttons her blouse to expose her brassiere and says, “Put your hands on both breasts, then give a good squeeze. Can you feel the difference?” she asks.

Ruth Handler, 60, co-founder with her husband of Mattel Inc., the nation’s largest toy manufacturer, and the woman who, nearly 20 years ago, dared to put bosoms on Barbie Doll, is back in the breast business. This time she is promoting, with near messianic zeal, a prosthesis for women who have had mastectomies.

“There are 90,000 breast removals a year,” Handler says matter-of-factly. “It happens to one out of every 13 women in America.” Ruth Handler is herself among the statistics: Seven years ago she underwent radical surgery for the removal of her left breast. “I was really depressed,” she admits. “But I felt even worse when I went looking for a good prosthesis. I tried every breast on the market. They were globs; there were no lefts or rights. You wouldn’t think of putting your right shoe on your left foot, would you?”

In 1975, five years after her operation, Ruth and Elliot Handler resigned from Mattel (the company was under investigation and later sued by the SEC for falsification of its profit figures in 1972). Ruth’s morale plummeted. “I couldn’t just screech to a halt after racing all my life,” she explains. She taught management courses at UCLA and Southern Cal for a while, then decided to act on the idea she’d been mulling over for months.

“I’m a real-world person,” she says. “Just as I thought a teenage doll should have slim ankles, a trim waistline and realistic breasts, so a woman who has had a mastectomy should look well and feel good about herself.”

She teamed up with Peyton Massey, a leading designer of artificial limbs, from whom she had bought three custom-made breasts (at about $400 each). They formed Ruthton Corp. and hired a team of chemists and engineers. “We started with my breast size—36C,” Handler explains. “Then we looked for other 36Cs to compare our model with. One doctor got so excited, he opened his files so I could call all his patients. I promised the women a free breast if they would just come in.”

The final product, called Nearly Me, is encased in a nonsticking polyurethane outer skin. Its core of sculpted foam is surrounded by sealed compartments of silicone fluid to give the breast a natural softness and resiliency. Each lightweight prosthesis comes in 30 left and right sizes, 30A to 42DD, selling for $98 to $130.

Handler picked her small staff carefully. Though a diverse group otherwise, all have had mastectomies. “You have to have been there yourself to know what a patient is going through.” Handler says, “Women fear everything from death to rejection by husbands and lovers. A woman feels less of a woman. Our staff is sensitive to these problems.”

Wherever Handler has introduced Nearly Me—in Dallas, Kansas City and Philadelphia—women have flocked in by the hundreds. She will be selling in 15 cities by 1978 and is considering expanding into swim-and sleepwear and brassieres designed especially for her customers. “Frankly,” Handler says, “there’s no telling where this business might go.”

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