“Seriously, though, what happened to your boobs?”
Twenty years after that day in the dressing room, my sister and I found ourselves in yet another dressing room, puzzling once again over my rebellious breasts. Prior to their postpartum disappearing act they had always been my most prominent feature. They were my “one beauty” akin to Jo’s hair in Little Woman. I didn’t have the prettiest face or curvy hips but at least I had a nice rack. As troublesome as they were, they were what made me desirable and feminine and now they were gone. And once again I was having trouble finding a bra that fit.
In many ways, my sister and I have always been marked and identified by our cup size in comparison to one another, as all women are. Growing up, I was the younger but more voluptuous sister, always in angst over my burden, while my sister had the ever-desirable C cups. She still does. Only now we’ve traded places. Now she is the more voluptuous sister and we have both grappled with how we identify ourselves next to one another in this new way.
But having B cup breasts opened up a world of lingerie that had always before been off-limits to me. I discovered lingerie whose primary function was not support. Rather than holding up my heavy haul, this new lingerie existed to do the opposite. This new lingerie was meant to make my breasts look bigger. Perkier. Prettier and pushed-up. Filling out D cups by the time I was a teenager meant that I had passed right over the push-up phase and headed straight for the women’s support section.
Now, suddenly, in my thirties, I discovered a whole new world opening up to me and the choices seemed endless. There were gel push-ups, basic push-ups, molded or non-molded, demi cups, plunge styles to help you show some scanty cleavage and even bras that bragged about their ability to “increase” your bust size by a full cup. I stepped into this world with wide eyes and furtive glances around the store. Maybe I had been too hasty as I had tossed my old clothes in the donation bin. With one of these bras, maybe I could still fill out some of my pre-pregnancy shirts and be my old self again. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be my old self but it still seemed worth a shot.
In season 9 of the ever-popular T.V. sitcom Friends, there is an episode where Monica sings at a piano bar. Setting aside the problematic sexism / racism / homophobia of America’s favorite friends, what happens in this episode unmasks a important question; a question that nearly every American woman will ask sooner or later.
At first, Monica doesn’t want to sing at all. But eventually Phoebe convinces her to give it a go and something surprising happens. Despite the fact that her voice is decidedly off-key and her singing mediocre at best, she’s a hit. The mostly male crowd cheers and whistles and expresses great disappointment when her song ends.
“I can’t believe I sang in front of people and they liked me!” she exclaims afterwards, beaming at Phoebe. What Monica doesn’t realize is that her sheer shirt is see-through. And she’s not wearing a bra. The men weren’t cheering for her singing. They were cheering for her breasts.
Her husband, Chandler, arrives later and Monica eagerly prepares to sing again. When she takes the stage and the lights come on, Chandler sees what everyone else sees and his eyes bug out. He immediately comes on stage to tell her the truth and block her from the audience. At first Monica doesn’t believe him. She brushes him off and steps back into the lights. Then she looks down and realizes its true. Everyone can see her breasts.
For a moment she looks horrified. Chandler steps in again to shield her from view and Monica’s eyes dart back and forth as she considers her options. She looks like she is about to leave the stage. But then she brushes Chandler aside, steps back into the spotlight and says “Eh, who cares?! They still love me!”
Monica’s dilemma is every woman’s dilemma. If we don’t want to be seen simply for our breasts, what’s the alternative? Because without them, we won’t be seen at all. So conditioned are we to desire the gaze and approval of men, so long have we lived in the confines of that catch-22 that we aren’t sure which would be worse? Being loved for our breasts or not being loved at all?
Like every conservative church-going child of the eighties I knew Amy Grant’s ever popular cover of El Shaddai as well I knew my ABCs. My mom practically wore out the tape deck in her Toyota Camry playing Grant’s Age to Age as she drove us around town to school, church, gymnastics practice and piano lessons. I could sing El Shaddai in my sleep. I still can.
But nobody ever told me what El Shaddai means. It was only this year, by way of a friend, that I discovered one of the most likely translations of the phrase. As a child I knew only that it was a Hebrew name for the God of Israel. Beyond that I figured it was anyone’s guess.
El is translated as “god” or “lord” but the translation of Shaddai is debatable because the origin and meaning of Shaddai is rather obscure. Most English translations of the Hebrew scriptures will translate El Shaddai to mean “God Almighty” but many in the translation community hold that this is inaccurate. One of the more likely renderings is something much more scandalous to our Western ears. The Hebrew word shad or shadiyim means “breast” or “breasts” which could thus render El Shaddai as “God of Breasts” or, more palatably, “God who Nourishes.”
As a teenager in Sunday School I knew without the words ever being spoken what my breasts were for. They were for my future husband. They were a gift for him, to be proffered on our wedding night. And I was lucky. I had a sizable gift to offer. I had terrible acne and a burgeoning overbite but I sure was stacked. The thought that my breasts might be more than just a gift for my future spouse did not ever cross my mind. And that my breasts made me God-like; El-Shaddai-like; that my breasts, specifically, were an Imago Dei, or image of God, was certainly never preached from the pulpit on a Sunday morning.
It is estimated that, on average, an American is exposed to as many as five thousand advertisements on any given day, up from five hundred per day in the 1970s. This means that by the time a child is eight, before they are able to cognitively or psychologically comprehend the nuances of advertising, they have seen (conservatively) more than five million advertisements, one million of which will have been sexual in nature.
One might reasonably assume that the use of breasts has decreased in advertising since the second wave of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 70s. We’d like to believe that we’re more enlightened now. But the reality is that the numbers don’t bear this out. The sexualized content of advertising has increased steadily since 1960 and breasts are the most prominent and likely feature in sexualized ad content.
Advertisers rely heavily on what is known as the repetition principle. The repetition principle tells us that if something is repeated often enough, even if we know it intellectually to be false, we will eventually be persuaded by it. No one, regardless of education or so-called intellectual superiority, is immune to the repetition principle. So while we might despise that ridiculous gecko, we still wonder if we should look into Geico the next time we need to renew our car insurance. By sheer repetition over the past nineteen years, that company has seared into the American mind the possibility that we, too, could save 15% or more by switching to Geico.
So while using a little cleavage to foist the latest perfume or hawk the newest gadget might seem harmless enough — a “victimless crime,” it could even be argued — it’s the repetition of such content that is the most deleterious. Because when we endlessly exalt breasts as something that can sell, something that can soothe the rough edges off a man’s hard day, something that can entertain him while he eats or make his morning commute just a little more scintillating as he stares banally at the buxom woman emblazoned on the bus, we repeat ad infinitum a very specific message; a message that reveals our collective understanding of breasts and women’s bodies.
It’s the message that breasts don’t actually belong to women at all. They don’t belong to the women who have them. They belong to the men who look at them. They belong to the men who appraise them and have been given the power to name what is desirable. They belong to the men who feel titillated by seeing them spread across the ceiling of the subway and in the creases of every magazine. They belong to men for their pleasure, their joy, their boredom, their masturbatory needs, their depression, their anger, their excitement, their fatigue. And it’s possible that it is this message, repeated in every conceivable space and place in our country – on our TVs and in our books, on our billboards and in our art, in our classrooms and in our bedrooms, in our movies and in our music – that has lead this past year to the unraveling and undoing of so many of our nation’s most powerful men.
As a cisgendered white woman my relationship with my breasts and what they have meant as I’ve walked through the world with them both big and small differs from the experiences of other women. But when I bemoaned their seemingly unstoppable growth as a teenager and as I’ve come to grips with their more recent vanishing act, I’ve joined my voice with women the world over. I join the transgender woman considering implants, the cancer patient staring down a double mastectomy, and the gender non-conforming person binding their breasts. I join them as together we ask what, and who, are these things for?
Last year I decided I was done with underwire bras. I was done with push-up bras. I was done with the digging discomfort and the unrelenting desire to free myself from the bonds of my bra all day every day. I fretted over my decision, pouring over the websites that promised a revolutionary experience with the purchase of a wireless bra. I wondered just how flat I would look and if the comfort would be worth the price I would inevitably pay. Because without the underwire and the padding and all the extra bells and whistles, everyone would know my true size. I knew, intellectually at least, that I no longer wished to collude in my own disempowerment, but I also knew that I would be saying goodbye to whatever final vestiges of attention my breasts still conferred upon me.
It was not without considerable effort but I eventually decided to do it. I bought the bras and I haven’t looked back. I bought the bras because I discovered something I wish I had known when I was eleven. I bought the bras because I finally figured out the answer to the question. Who are these things for?
They are for me. They are portals of pleasure, imbued with innumerable nerve endings that bring me sexual pleasure. They are conduits of nourishment that I used to feed both of my children. They are soft and smooth and lovely, and they are an Imago Dei, an image of God, both when they were big and now that they are small. Most importantly, they are mine. And I get to decide what to do with them.