Breasts and Me (Part I)
I was taught not to love my breasts.
By friends and foes, they have been teased on account of their shape, size, and mere existence.
There is no indication that any of us are born to hate our own bodies.
Yet, here we are, in a speck of time when people die from eating disorders, nonessential implants are procured like bread rolls, and sexual assaults are blamed on the victim’s appearance.
I have a fascination with breasts.
Specifically, the meaning they are being given in the world.
When social actors reinforce that your body is either wanted or unwanted, it makes you question who you are.
When your reality is based on your appearance, your inner strengths get blindfolded.
So how does cultural commentary on breasts impact someone’s life?
High school, circa 2008
Boy says, “You think you can tell me what to do just because your boobs are bigger than last year?”
Also high school, circa 2010
Boy says, “Oh sorry, you call those breasts? I thought they were peanuts.”
After high-school, circa 2013
Boy says, “You still don’t have any tits.”
Breasts and Meaning
breast \b r e s t\: either of the two soft, rounded parts of a woman’s chest that produce milk after she has a baby
breast \b r e s t\: either of the pair of mammary glands extending from the front of the chest in pubescent and adult human females and some other mammals;
also: either of the analogous but rudimentary organs of the male chest especially when enlarged
Observation 1: dictionaries do not have a standard definition of the word “breast”.
Observation 2: both men and women have breasts.
Anatomically, breasts are present in both males and females. They have different shapes and functions, with females’ generally being able to nurse babies.
Psychologically, their meaning differs. Women’s breasts are dissociated from their carrier and given a sexualized identity — men’s are not.
Most of us are fascinated with breasts for two main reasons:
- Seeing them is ubiquitous;
- Acknowledging them is erotic.
Thus the paradox emerges: breasts are simultaneously fetishized and censored. Which makes us want more of them.
Breasts on their own are mammary glands protected by layers of fat and skin.
Breasts held by those in power gain a life of their own. They are more than an organ. They become a paradigm, a political statement.
The “Free the Nipple” movement emerged in 2012.
Many take the phrase at face value, depreciating its aim to the public exposition of mammillae. But campaign slogans are inherently symbolic. They are the runway lights revealing a systemic issue, provoking people into action.
I am not eager to walk around with my nipples out. I live in London. It’s too cold.
Still, I support “Free the Nipple” because it means, “Stop vilifying our bodies. Start promoting respect and equality.”
“While breasts are often hyper-sexualized in advertising and pop culture, women are asked to cover when breastfeeding and erase their nipples in art photography on social media.”
- Egle Plytnikaite
The ASA’s language is simple, yet exhaustive.
If the degree of sexual connotation or gender stereotyping in an ad is not justified by the type of product being promoted — it’s sexist.
A street in London, circa 2019
A street advert for a fast food restaurant presents a female preparing herself to eat a burger. The central focus of the image is the woman’s cleavage and relative lack of clothing.
I ponder, ‘Is this how all the other women eat their takeaway?’
Breasts and Technology
#IWantToSeeNyome started trending after Nyome’s Instagram account saw a photo being deleted multiple times. This photo featured her posing topless, her arms covering her breasts.
Instagram threatened Nyome with account deletion if she reposted it (as reported by the Guardian, August 2020).
Nyome’s photographer, Alex Cameron, campaigned for the model’s right to share the photo. Among her arguments was this: similarly clad female models she’d photographed “never got reported or deleted.”
Nyome refers to her body as “fat and black” and says, “there is not a single thing wrong with it.”
Women’s breasts are sexualized and technology companies are slow to disrupt gendered canons.
Black women’s bodies receive this censorship with a smack of racism.
The laws and regulations governing most of our communities suggest that breasts, whether residing on bodies or in photographs, are inappropriate.
For whom? Are breasts being regulated to...
- protect women from sexual predators?
- avoid offending conservative people?
- not “distract” men from their daily tasks?
“Free the nipple” is but one example where women are reclaiming their right to their bodies. But we need to think bigger.
We need to understand the play between gender stereotype, media and politics.
Women’s breasts are being legally and socially monitored, online and off. Meanwhile, men are allowed to consume content that sexualizes them.
Pornography, though illegal in some countries, is the most obvious example of male-centric fetishization of the breast.
“Women are here to provide a visually pleasing experience, and their breasts will be tailored for this purpose.”
Let’s consider the positive scenario where the women working in these industries are doing so willingly. Were such services not designed for and by men, women’s work preferences would, still, be redundant.
We need a transfer of power from the men using breasts as products— back to the women bearing them.
“Though breasts still carry an overload of cultural and sexual expectations, many women hope to see the day when their chests do not have to bear such a burden,”
- Marilyn Yalom, author of “A History of the Breast”
National Gallery, London, September 2020
If all of these bare-breasted paintings were photographs, I would think I’ve landed in Amsterdam’s Sex Museum.
Breasts and Art
In 1989, the Guerilla Girls asked, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”
At the time, 5% of the artists exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York were female, as were 85% of the nudes.
In 2020, London’s National Gallery states: of the 2,300 paintings on show, 21 of them were created by female artists.
Presumably, the minority of female museum trustees want to keep an eye on gender politics in the arts.
However, free-entry and entry-fee museums alike rely on exhibition profits in the face of dwindling public arts funding. “Great” male artists sell more than relatively unknown female artists.
As The Guardian reported in 2019, London’s Tate Modern saw over 500,000 visitors pay for a Picasso temporary exhibition, while, in the same timeframe, just shy of 50,000 paid to see contemporary artist Joan Jonas’ exhibition.
What does this have to do with mammary glands?
Sometimes, they’re in your face as you stroll through high-culture venues. The reason:
Other times, they’re denied entry — when embedded into a creator’s body, or an activist’s social media. The reason:
“It’s not art.”
A bar in London, circa 2018
Man says, “You know, I don’t usually go for small breasts. But yours are an exception.”
‘Decoy compliment to make me feel grateful for his attention,’ I think to myself.
Breasts and Power
In 1975, talk-show host Michael Parkinson asked a 30-year-old Helen Mirren whether she thought her buxom figure may detract audiences from her performance.
Decades later, Mirren said that she “got the s**t” for refusing to indulge his sexist remarks. Meanwhile, Parkinson walked off with a good TV rating.
As the saying goes, sex is rarely about sex. It’s about power.
When people eroticize the female breast, they don’t necessarily want to sexually engage with any one particular person.
It establishes a less-than/ more-than relationship.
The breast is but one organ of the human body. Equally, its cultural fetishization is but one symptom in an organism that violates women’s rights.
We need to look at the power dynamic between global decision-makers and the women they influence. Making a U-turn in this imbalance is crucial to ensuring equality for future generations.
From judiciary representatives to tech CEOs to heads of state, most social structures around the world are predominantly male governed.
Men without mammary glands find it difficult to understand the psychological, sexual, and economic implications of physical objectification. Donald Trump. Boris Johnson. Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom.
Some of the world’s most influential figures uphold the notion that female breasts are indecent. Unless they are profitable.
Women owning the cultural meaning of breasts, whether it’s through showing, hiding, enlarging, or feeding with them, can produce large ripple effects.
It can make it easier to fight for further game-changing shifts, such as the right to holistic family planning, equal pay, and safety from sexual and domestic abuse.
As a gender equality activist, I know that big changes don’t always happen overnight. Which is why it’s a great first step to look inside our bras.
Breasts and Me (Part II)
The “ideal” breasts have been shaped by the sexual and political preferences of men throughout history. Growing into my womanhood, it seemed to me that what my chest was brewing wasn’t good enough.
Now is the time for their shape to be chosen by their bearer. A shape which has no agenda, no intimation, no shame. Aiming not to gratify, but to exist.