The Double Bind of Women’s Breasts; Learning to Love What I Lost — II
When I finally came to grips with the fact that my breasts were not going to re-grow and that I was likely stuck with these B-cup breasts for the foreseeable future, my initial feelings were that of relief. I could find shirts that fit with buttons that didn’t pop. I no longer had to wrangle myself into two sports bras for a workout. I could even casually pick up a bra at Target and toss it in my cart next to the sinus meds and throw pillows simply because it was cute. Aside from their galling post-pregnancy capitulation to gravity, I found I rather liked my smaller, less cumbersome breasts.
But here’s what also happened: the already growing sense I had of my own disappearing act as a soon-to-be middle-aged woman, the one I had noted several years earlier as I observed the ways my body is viewed in public spaces compared to my husband’s, was now compounded further still. My relationship with my breasts was changing and so too was my relationship with the world around me. I no longer turned heads when I entered a room. I no longer needed to roll my shoulders and hunch my back in an effort to minimize my abundance when walking alone at night. I no longer heard cat-calls when I stepped off the bus and the male gaze no longer lingered when I sidled between tables on my way to the restroom at a restaurant.
One would think this would be freeing and it was. To no longer worry about the gawking and harassment of men was freedom indeed. But without it I no longer understood my own body and the space I occupied in the world. If my breasts were no longer noticeable, conferring on me a false sense of femininity and power, what were they for? What was I for? Because without my most noticeable feature, I discovered I was no longer noticed at all.
In 2015 there was an ad campaign by a group called DOCTORS Plastic Surgery, with banner ads on subways and city buses in New York City. It depicted a woman in a white tank top holding a pair of tangerines in front of her breasts. She is pouting. Next to that there is an image of the same woman smiling. This time she is holding grapefruits in front of her breasts. The tagline reads: “Breast Augmentation Made In New York — $3900.”
Females accounted for 92% of all cosmetic procedures in the United States in 2016and the number one procedure was, as it has been for more than a decade since the return of FDA approved silicone implants, breast augmentation. Or, colloquially, boob jobs. Unsurprisingly we have the highest breast augmentation rates in the world.
Contrary to the New York City advertisement, typical implant surgery costs roughly five to ten thousand dollars after all is said and done. The implants themselves will last roughly twenty years, give or take, before they will need additional attention and/or replacement. Follow-up surgery is typically more costly and complicated due to the buildup of scar tissue from the first surgery and risks for both surgeries include bleeding, infection, leaking, rupturing, kinking of breast tissue, pain, and loss of sensation.
American women collectively forked out over one billion dollars last year for breast enhancements. The number is staggering but is it really such a surprise? If our breasts play so vital a role in what makes us desirable, why wouldn’t we do anything and everything to make them perfect? If our femininity rises and falls with the size of our breasts, why wouldn’t we risk the complications, shell out whatever it takes, and voluntarily lay ourselves on the surgeon’s table?
The voice shouted out the open window of a passing car in Southern California. It was my second year in undergrad and I was out on a walk with a friend. The remark was followed by a long, low whistle and the honking of the car’s horn as the two men inside looked me over before finally speeding away. Since my breasts were then DDs and my friend’s barely a B, it was obvious to both of us who the intended recipient was. I felt my cheeks begin to warm and I stared resolutely ahead. My friend put her hands over her own breasts and said, in a tone that was both bitter and wistful at once, in an attempt to lighten the moment, “Well, they definitely weren’t talking to me!” We laughed awkwardly and continued our walk.
It wasn’t the first or the last time I have experienced the unsolicited and unwelcome comments, remarks, whistles, jeers and looks of strangers, and even on occasion friends and family, because of my breasts. One of my coaches used to make subtle remarks about them with a wink and a smile, a few of the boys on my diving team decided it would be fun to name them (“Twin Peaks” — originality wasn’t a strong suit) and more than one man at my church growing up made sly (and sometimes not so sly) reference to them.
Many of the women who were in close proximity at the time of such remarks would make their own comments as well, leaving me with no doubt that I was supposed to consider myself the lucky one. I was desirable. I had the golden ticket; a secret weapon that I could wield should I ever feel unattractive or uninteresting, which I often did. Eyes followed me through the grocery store and down the street and in the hallway as I walked to Pre-Calculus. My overabundant breasts commanded the attention of both the boys at school and the deacons at church and I understood, always, that I was supposed to be pleased. Men noticed me. Men wanted something that I had. It made me feel powerful and alluring. Forceful and distinctly feminine.
Yet at the very same time it also left me feeling lewd and deeply ashamed. As much as I wanted to be noticed, I often fantasized about what it would be like to cut my breasts off altogether and be done with them. The cognitive dissonance brought to bear by these feelings of simultaneous delight and disgust was always a double bind. Because if the only two options available to me were to be desired for my breasts or not be desired at all, I was bound to lose either way.
The dictionary defines femininity as simply “the quality or nature of being female.” One might believe that there is room within this definition for many different ideations and meanings to be encased within it. And in theory, there is. But in reality, the culture defines both masculinity and femininity, and in American culture at least, the boundary lines for both are narrow and unrelenting.
As a society we claim to offer women and men the right to decide for themselves what it means to be a woman or a man, but femininity has historically been determined and understood solely in opposition to masculinity. If a certain trait or characteristic was not associated with our understanding and expectations of men, it was assigned to women by default. In this way, breasts have always played a significant role in both femininity and masculinity. If femininity is understood primarily as that which is not masculine, then a woman’s breasts are her most outward and obvious signpost of femininity because they are what mark her publicly, first and foremost, without any words being spoken or information given, as “not male.”
Yet our breasts do not merely distinguish us as “not male” and therefore “female.” They also signify, by virtue of their size, the extent to which females are considered desirable. This desirability-based-on-size is, of course, determined by and bestowed upon us by men and for men, so it really isn’t any wonder why someone like Angelina Jolie and other mastectomy patients would understandably choose the arduous road to reconstruction. If to lose one’s breasts is to lose one’s femininity and desirability at the same time, what other option is there?
In her 1984 book, Femininity, Susan Brownmiller writes that femininity
“… pleases men because it makes them appear more masculine by contrast; and in truth, conferring an extra portion of unearned gender distinction on men, an unchallenged space in which to breathe freely and feel stronger, wiser, more competent, is femininity’s special gift.”
In other words, the primary function of femininity is to bolster and buttress masculinity. Women are what they are so men can be what they will be. Women need to be small so that men can be large. Women need to be quiet so that men can be loud. And women need breasts in order to both assert their female-ness, or not-male-ness, and reinforce the boundary lines between the two.
So a woman must not have breasts too big nor breasts too small. When a woman’s chest is too big she begins to take up space in the world that is reserved for men. If her breasts are too big, she herself is too big. On the other hand, when a woman’s chest is too small, her female-ness is not guaranteed and she is thus unable to confer manliness back upon her male counterparts.
When I was a sophomore in high school my mother drove my sister and me forty-five minutes to Sacramento to go bra shopping. Our small town had limited options and we decided to make a morning of it. We arrived at the Arden Fair Mall right when it opened and I remember standing in the fitting room with my sister soon after we arrived, asking her to loosen the straps on the bra I was trying. Try the hooks, I told her. Make sure it’s on the loosest setting. But no matter what we did, I couldn’t get the D cup bra to fit.
Fighting tears, I stomped out of the fitting room as only a disgruntled 15-year-old can do and told my mother I didn’t want a bra anyway. I sulked for the remainder of our outing and went home without one.
I knew instinctively, even though I couldn’t have articulated it in the dressing room that day, that I was pushing the limit. I was pushing the limit of desirability with my unruly breasts. I was already bigger than both my mother and my sister by that point and I hated it. I hated how big I was compared to my teammates with their impossibly small bodies. I hated how conspicuous my upper half was in my diving team swimsuit. I hated how my shirts billowed out below my breasts and obscured my silhouette. I hated how I had to use my arm to hold up my girth if I wanted to walk quickly down the hallway at school or, heaven forbid, break into a run. Buying a bigger bra seemed, at the time, an outward and obvious capitulation to the cumbrous load I was already forced to carry.
As a teenager it was all very vexing, trying to figure out what my body meant in public spaces, and with my ever burgeoning breasts I knew that I was balancing precariously close to “too much.” One more cup size would mean I had gone too far. I knew that the rules for a seat at the “desirable’ table were stringent. While I had certain things already stacked (pun intended) in my favor — I am straight, cisgendered and white, after all — I knew that my boobs should be big but not too big. And the rest of me: my waist, my hips, my thighs, and, most especially, my voice, should be small.
And so, like many other larger-breasted women, I bemoaned my big boobs for their inconvenience while at the very same time feeling secretly pleased and superior for my sensuous load. It was confusing. It still is. But I knew, even at fifteen, that I couldn’t afford to get any bigger. If I got any bigger I would lose my place at the proverbial table. I would lose, if not my femininity, certainly my desirability, and then what would become of me?
Women’s breasts are suffused with a vast network of nerves with a cluster of nerve endings in the areola and nipple. In male and female fetuses the nipple and areola develop almost identically and remain so through infancy and into childhood. With the increase of estrogen and progesterone during puberty, the woman’s nipple and areola develops further with the growth of her breast and becomes much more sensitive, while the man’s, though it contains the same number of nerve endings, remains elementary.
Stimulation of the nipple prompts the production and release of prolactin and oxytocin. Prolactin is important when a woman is nursing a baby as it promotes feelings of trust and bonding. Oxytocin is important for sexual arousal and often results in nipple erection. Some women are even able to achieve orgasm by nipple stimulation alone and recent research shows that sensations from the nipple travel to the same portion of the female brain as does the genitals. On MRI the female nipple lights up the same area of the brain as the genital sensory cortex, making them prominent players in female pleasure and sexuality.
So they do not, after all, exist merely to bring men pleasure. They are not only for ogling and squeezing and burying a man’s face. No, breasts bring women a pleasure all their own. They bring an arousal and sensory experience that has nothing to do, per se, with a partner. Why, then, do so few women actually know this? Why do our ads and movies, songs and magazine covers only tell us the story of men’s enjoyment of breasts? What about the women?