I used to have big boobs.
We’re not talking double J’s or even large enough to cause back pain. But still. They were sizable. The envy of my smaller breasted friends and noticeable enough that men and boys were remarking on them before I had reached my eleventh birthday.
When I was ten, perched on the back of our brown-striped sofa with a book, my mother walked out of the laundry room with a determined look on her face. She hesitated briefly before gently but resolutely informing me that she and my father had decided it was time for me to start wearing a bra. I remember two things from that conversation. First, I was mortified. In part because my parents had apparently been talking in hushed tones behind closed doors about my breasts. But more so because we were talking about them at all.
Second, I remember what I said when I finally found my voice. “Fine! But I won’t wear one to practice!” I was a competitive gymnast and since none of my teammates wore bras yet, I would not be wearing one either, thank you very much. Instead of arguing that gymnastics practice was probably the one place that I actually needed a bra, my mother merely handed me a small bag with a few hand-me-down bras that had belonged to my also-early-to-blossom sister and walked away
That conversation by the couch was a watershed moment in my childhood but it was hardly unique. While it was significant in my life and I remember every detail, I know now that it is a waypost past which every woman must walk. It is the moment of discovery. Whether delivered by the groping hand of a grown man or the kind voice of an insistent mother, it is the moment women learn something crucial about their bodies: that something we thought was private is in fact quite public. Something we thought belonged only to us evidently belongs to everyone.
In 2013 Angelina Jolie opted to have a preventative double mastectomy after learning that she was a carrier of the genetic mutation known as BRCA1, which predisposed her to breast cancer. She had both of her breasts removed, saving her nipples, which were used during the reconstruction of her breasts with implants. At the time Jolie claimed that the removal of her breasts did not make her feel any less a woman than before. In her New York Times Op Ed piece she wrote that she felt “empowered that [she] made a strong choice that in no way diminished [her] femininity.”
Yet if removing her breasts in no way diminished her femininity, why would she opt to reconstruct them? Why undergo multiple subsequent operations that were potentially risky and medically unnecessary if it didn’t impact her female-ness in some way? It seems the choice, one made by more and more bilateral mastectomy patients in the United States, must stem, at least in part, from an underlying sense of feminine diminishment despite all protest to the contrary.
After weaning my youngest child six years ago I eagerly awaited the return of my “pre-pregnancy body.” That is, after all, what all the magazines promise. At that point I was more than a year postpartum and after birthing and nursing two babies back to back in less than two and a half years, I was more than ready to put my nursing bras in the donation bin. I assumed, as most women do when they wean, that my breasts were about to “go back to normal.”
What I didn’t know was that my breasts would indeed return to their pre-pregnancy size but then… keep shrinking. I didn’t know that I would pull my old bras out from the back of my underwear drawer only to discover they no longer fit. My breasts, which had once filled the DD cups to the point of overflowing, now didn’t fill the cups at all. It was puzzling and I admit that I re-tried each bra more than once over the next few weeks in disbelief.
What happened to my breasts, I wondered? Was this normal? Maybe this happens to every woman after weaning but nobody talks about it? I discreetly questioned a few close friends only to discover that no, it didn’t happen to everybody. It wasn’t normal. It was just me.
Eventually I rallied. I was still an abundant C cup. I bought some smaller bras and went on my merry way. But a few years later, after making some dietary changes, I lost yet another cup size. Things were getting out of hand. It was time to take action. I brought it up with my doctor at my yearly appointment the next month, eager to unearth the source of my shrinkage. She listened attentively, examined me and asked some questions, but in the end she shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. All told I had gone from a DD to a B cup in less than three years. The chart note from my annual check up that year reads: “Breast atrophy. Cause unknown.”
America has what appears to be a love / hate relationship with breasts. Mostly we love them but sometimes we pretend to hate them. We have our “breastaurants” and “bikini barista” joints with clever names like Mugs & Jugs and Natte Latte because apparently sipping espresso and downing some fries is best done with some décolletage. Breasts are everywhere in America: billboards and magazine covers, park benches and the backs of city buses. We use busty breasts to sell literally anything from laundry detergent and beer to cars and cockroach spray. We love breasts.
But we also love to hate them. When women breastfeed in public, for example, all bets are off. Every few years the subject resurfaces and the country calls a family meeting to discuss whether it’s “appropriate.” We kick nursing women off of airplanes, out of restaurants and even churches. Talk show hosts offer opinions about whether or not folks “need to see that,” and our elected representatives debate at length over bills that would charge women with a misdemeanor for exposing her breasts in public while feeding a child.
When Janet Jackson accidentally slipped a nip (or, rather, Justin Timberlake slipped it for her) for 9/16th of a second during the live 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, the nation all but lost its mind. In the wake of the debacle, Jackson’s invitation to the Grammy’s the following week, where she had been slated to perform, was rescinded. Timberlake, on the other hand, the one who actually pulled Jackson’s costume off in the first place, was allowed to both attend and perform without incident. Jackson endured a seemingly endless media backlash and public shaming after the halftime fiasco and her music was blacklisted by Clear Channel Communications which owned both Infinity Broadcasting and Viacom, home to CBS and MTV. This significantly impacted sales for her new album Damita Jo, which ended up being her lowest-selling album in twenty years.
Yet what’s particularly interesting is that while the nation was in hysterics over the split second exposure of Jackson’s breast on live television, something else was also going on. The halftime “wardrobe malfunction’ resulted in over 540,000 complaints filed with the FCC, more than any other event in television history, and permanently changed the way we watch live television with a censorship ruling that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2012, but at the very same time “Janet Jackson Superbowl” was on its way to becoming the most Googled search term in history. The exposure of her breast in front of 143 million viewers may have caused her personal popularity to plummet but it was still the video everyone had to have. We may have hated Janet Jackson. But we still wanted to see her boob.
It’s also important to note that it wasn’t simply that we saw Janet Jackson’s breast. It’s that we saw her black breast. Viewing this merely as an unfortunate example of a woman being scapegoated while the man walks away unscathed misses a much larger point. The half time hullabaloo wasn’t simply something that happened between a man and a woman; it was something that happened between a white man and a black woman and those distinctions are important. When Timberlake pulled off Jackson’s costume he also pulled out the Jezebel trope about black female sexuality that dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. It’s a trope that Black women still shoulder today so while the fallout would likely have been similar for a white female artist, it’s essential to acknowledge that it’s highly doubtful it would have been anywhere near as harsh or as hateful as it was for Jackson.
The Super Bowl fiasco and the public nursing debates reveal that our love / hate relationship with breasts is a facade. The simultaneous and confusing juxtaposition in our culture of breasts glorified and breasts vilified signifies something else. It signifies something simmering just below the surface of our cultural psyche and the stories we like to tell ourselves. Wanting to see breasts emblazoned on anything and everything from coffee mugs to mud flaps yet at the same time crucifying the bearers of such beautiful breasts tells us that this notion of love / hate is actually false. That the exposure of her breast is one of the most viewed videos in internet history, while Jackson herself was burned at the stake for it, tells us perhaps the truest story. It tells us that we don’t actually hate breasts at all. We just hate women.
Read Part Two here