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Women's Bodies

Real Breasts


I have always theorized that male supremacist representations of the "ideal woman" look as they do in the West, in general, in the United States more specifically, in large part because throughout history, neither men nor women had any idea what women's bodies actually looked like in their amazing diversity.   I think it was circular: having snuck a peek at  a woman or possibly a few women, in some stage of undress, out of the impulse to objectification, men and boys, beginning ages and ages ago and continuing on through the generations, created images of "ideal women" based on the very few models they had snuck a peek at and consistent with the images of women they had inherited, in so doing constructing both patriarchal beauty standards and male desire.  There's no other reason which makes sense to me for the Barbie-doll-like uniformity which American culture pronounces "beautiful," and especially, "sexy." 

It's always struck me as so odd:  asked what they find attractive, individual heterosexual boys and men often describe women who diverge from the ideal, sometimes widely, and a quick look around evidences that most men do not partner with Barbie-doll types.  But the success of the pornography industry and the pervasiveness of its imagery demonstrate that Barbie-doll types nevertheless are the gold standard for "hot," and therefore the standard by which traditional women measure their own and other women's attractiveness, and by which men also measure women's attractiveness– even though they may partner with women, and be attracted to women, who do not meet the prevailing American standard!  And of course this disconnect reflects the way men construct their multiple sexual universes: these women are the good women whom I marry; those women are the bad women whom I fuck. It's the latter group, the fuckable group, which is the standard by which all women's appearances are measured, including the "good" women. I've never put much or any stock in studies which purport to demonstrate some genetic or biological basis for what men find attractive in women; I think those studies simply evidence how successfully the standard itself has been constructed by men and imposed on women over millennia. 

The result for women and girls, though, is (1) shame about their bodies, which are 99 percent of the time nothing like the ideal, and their either (2) covering their non-ideal body parts, or (3) altering them via constricting or padded undergarments,  surgeries, dieting, working out, or a combination of all of the above.  This, in turn, continues to reify the ideal as ideal, to make it real.  

In American culture only those women who match or somewhat match the ideal, or who have some body parts which match the ideal, are generally willing to display their bodies or their best parts, meaning the only real bodies anyone in American culture ever really sees are (more or less) ideal bodies, with the lion's share of the population so painfully and shamefully aware how much they do not measure up that they make sure nobody knows how much their bodies really deviate from the ideal. 

Then, in our culture, it is permissible for breasts to be revealed for men's objectifying or fetishizing pleasure, but it isn't  permissible to display lactating breasts which are nursing infants.  For one thing, this kind of revealing gets in the way of the prevailing belief and insistence that boobs exist for men's sexual pleasure.  For another thing, women's body fluids, including breast milk, are considered repulsive and offensive under American male supremacy, a real "ick" factor, something to be sanitized, deodorized, absorbed, wrapped in tissue and disposed of discreetly, and that's certainly not what's ever going on with breastmilk.  There is something proud and arrogant and defiant about public breastfeeding, it has nothing at all to do with men, let alone sex with men, and so patriarchy must punish it, must insist that those who practice it hide themselves.  It's just not consistent with the male supremacist plan.

What's sad is, it's not only women's perceptions of their  attractiveness or desirability which are affected, it's also their perceptions of the functionality of their bodies.  If all a girl has ever seen is Barbie-doll boobs, including in the way the size and shape of the breasts are suggested in breastfeeding imagery (because even in that imagery, in general, traditional beauty standards prevail), they may, and often do, conclude they will not be able to breastfeed because their breasts are substandard and not like other women's breasts.  I have heard woman after woman explain to me that she felt she couldn't breastfeed because her breasts were too flat or too small or too large or for some other reason related to their appearance.

I think one way of fucking patriarchy's fascist beauty  standards might be simply publishing photos of real breasts– the real breasts of real women, breasts which began to grow when they were 8 or 9 or 13 or 15 and which continued to grow or to diminish, or both or neither, throughout their lives, breasts which nursed infants or not, which grew throughout pregnancy or not, endured biopsies and mastectomies or not.  Real breasts are not symmetrical, are every size, are  not  round or oval or any predictable shape, might be soft, firm and everything in between.   The shape of real breasts does not in any way resemble the packets of saline or other substances which surgeons, after having cut a woman open, insert into her chest, usually destroying the sensation in, and hence the sexual pleasure of, her nipples and greatly reducing the likelihood she will ever be able to nurse an infant.  Implants are part and parcel of male fantasies about breasts; they both perpetuate the fantasy and impose it and reimpose it on women, and all in the course of a certain kind of torture: cutting, mutilation, the letting of blood, lasting scars. 

We Second Wavers discarded  our bras not only for comfort, but also because we really did view patriarchal beauty standards as an important site of our resistance.  Our rejection of bras was our collective fist in the face of a surrounding culture which insisted we force our breasts, of whatever size or shape, into unyielding, constricting, tight, boned, padded undergarments which sometimes caused us physical injury:  permanent grooves in the shoulders, back and neck and shoulder injuries, and ongoing pain.  Over the past forty years there has been an incremental return to these and other constricting garments — including boning, even corsets — not to mention an explosion in the numbers of women who have sought out costly and painful breast implants, some of which have left them with permanent, debilitating health problems.  Free and unencumbered breasts rarely fit neatly or comfortably into clothes designed for women (or for men), and that is by design.  It's the way male supremacy ensures we will continue to accommodate its requirements; if your boobs don't work with our clothes, it says, it's because you are defective, and the evidence of that is all around you, in all of the many images you see — just look how well those women fit our clothes! — but if you are defective, we can help you out with bras, padded or boned, with diet plans and exercises for the pecs, we'll even cut you open and will happily repair your defect.

The best place for women to be relieved of their fears and illusions about women's bodies might be the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival where women gather each year in safety and freedom and in a spirit which celebrates the beautiful diversity of women's real bodies.  This isn't possible for many women (and no men are allowed at Michfest), so second best might just be visiting this great pro-real-boobs site featuring photos of the real breasts of real women– women of all ages, women who have been pregnant and not, have breastfed and not.  I think these photos might be a revelation to those who have never seen real boobs in all of their beauty and amazing difference.

Then do yourself a favor and visit Victoria Nahum's blog and follow the  blogger's navigating all of the many health problems resulting from her implants of seven years, implants she has finally had surgically removed. 



24 thoughts on “Real Breasts

  1. Just testing. πŸ™‚

    Posted by Heart | March 28, 2006, 5:04 am
  2. This is a great post. I once went to a male doctor about some bleeding from my nipple. He spent more time gazing at them than anything else. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was checking to see if they were symetrical. Later I wondered if it was a medical condition or not to have symetrical or asymetircal breasts. It was as if his gaze could discern a cancerous lump. Needless to say, I have had alot of bad experiences with doctors. I don’t just say male doctors either, as alot of the female ones have exactly the same
    attitudes. I think they learn it in their elite schools. Certainly, medical language treats the body as full of disease and other disgusting things. Their mental detachment from the reality of the situation is more than disconcerting. No wonder more and more people are turning to alternatives and peer support groups.

    Posted by rhondda | March 28, 2006, 7:48 pm
  3. Hey, Rhondda, so true about male doctors. I went to one once — years ago, geez, I haven’t been to a male doctor in almost 20 years — for a regular physical and he basically removed the nightgown thingie from my shoulders, felt for lumps and whatever, asked me to put my arms over my head and then looked for a split second too long. And I could have sworn he smirked. To this day I kick myself for not saying something to him, like, “What are you doing?” Or, “why do I have to have the nightgown off,” or “Wipe that smirk off of your face!”


    Posted by womensspace | March 28, 2006, 8:46 pm
  4. Thank you so much for this. This post really means a lot to me, and I feel compelled to share my story with my own breasts.

    When I was in junior high, I thought wearing a bra was the ultimate in femininity. I was so lusty for one, and for all the rites of passages of puberty, unapologetically so. I was ecstatic when I began menstruating, and I was even happier to start using the assorted menstrual products. When I first started sprouting hair under my arms, I let it stay there for maybe a week before I started, excitedly, shaving it — and my leg hair — with joy. I felt such, such joy at being a Real Woman that I can vividly remember that happiness with such clarity.

    Now, about ten years later I realize my happiness in becoming a woman would have been just the same if bras and shaving and menstrual products had not been apart of it. That is, my joy was about the joy of my changing body, but because of society’s lessons about being a “true woman” it became translated into the joy of consumer products FOR my changing body. In fact, my joy would’ve been seen as perverse if otherwise! I was not allowed to revel in my own breast development, I had to revel in bra-dom. I didn’t revel in my own wondrous hair, I had to revel in the act of shaving. I didn’t revel in my blood, I had to revel in pads and tampons.

    I stopped wearing a bra for no political reasons whatsoever. I just stopped wearing them because my breasts grew so large that I found bras to be uncomfortable and I found the attention I got from having such large breasts to be intensified with I wore a bra that also lifted them up so they literally looked detached from my body. But when I stopped wearing a bra, I also had to stop wearing any kind of clothing that was too tight or thin or cut to be “sexy” because then the fact that I was NOT wearing a bra made my breasts more noticeable than when I WAS. The whole point, besides comfort, was that I was sick of getting noticed just for my breasts.

    Nowadays I can’t imagine what it was like when I wore thin little blouses and camis and tight, “cute” shirts. That kind of clothing is so restrictive to me now. I love wearing the loose tops I wear now. I feel so free. And I finally feel as happy as I was when I was in puberty, but this time I’m happy because I selfishly enjoy my OWN body, my OWN woman self, not what I put on it or do to it in the name of supposed womanhood!

    Posted by Edith | April 2, 2006, 5:49 am
  5. In fact, my joy would’ve been seen as perverse if otherwise! I was not allowed to revel in my own breast development, I had to revel in bra-dom. I didn’t revel in my own wondrous hair, I had to revel in the act of shaving. I didn’t revel in my blood, I had to revel in pads and tampons.

    Exactly! As girls, it's less about the breasts than about how much we "need" a bra, "need" being a function of how noticeable our breasts are in clothes and how poorly clothes fit us without bras to point our noticeable breasts in the right direction! :/ It's not about any of the stages of development, it's about finally "needing" all of the cultural and consumer rituals imposed on us because we've developed.

    I have always so admired women who went braless regardless the way their clothes looked because of it. It takes a lot of guts and self-confidence to do that. But you're so right, once you stop wearing restrictive clothes, it feels like torture to go back. I remember learning to sew as a teenager and putting darts into tops and blouses and thinking, okay, this dart is here to make a place for the boob to fit in smoothly, but what if that's not where the boob actually is? The answer for that didn't seem to be to move the dart or eliminate the dart, the answer was to find a way to get the boob where it belonged, via some level of boning, elastic, padding or whatever. We consider ourselves to be so free as women in the West and yet we so aren't– it wouldn't occur to most women to do what you've done, they would just keep trying to find the perfect bra, the perfect "minimizer", padded straps. I've even seen bras with straps that contained packets of gel to protect the shoulders! Packets of gel to protect the shoulders, plus shoulder pads sewn on top, too! It just won't do for the shape of real women's bodies to be evident, we've got to be trussed up in these various ways, really it's such a metaphor for the way women's lives are regulated, just in general.


    Posted by womensspace | April 2, 2006, 5:04 pm
  6. Excellent post, although I have to add that I actually *like* my bra – the bouncing and chafing gets too painful without it. Sorry for the TMI, just thought it was worth mentioning.

    Posted by Vasu | April 5, 2006, 4:36 pm
  7. Hey – great post. You might be interested in checking this out :
    it’s an incredible art exhibit about exactly this. I saw it a few weeks ago and it was moving, and educational.
    It’s called The Beautiful Women Project.

    Posted by grapecat | April 5, 2006, 5:14 pm
  8. Hey, thanks for that link, grapecat– what a great site! I love this:

    Vasu, I hear you re comfort and sure wouldn’t argue with you! There are definitely times when some to most of us find we need support.


    Posted by womensspace | April 5, 2006, 5:21 pm
  9. For five years or so, it was part of my job to do breast exams on our research patients (I worked in psychiatry and the male MDs and DOs did not do breast exams on females — it’s difficult for the patients. So if a female MD was not available, I — a nurse — did them after getting training). It is important to look at symmetry, because if there is any puckering or lumpiness, it may signify breast cancer. Sometimes the only way you see it is to compare one side to another; and raising the arms can reveal more puckering or indentions than if you are at rest (you really have to do the visual exam both ways). And it’s hard to see if it’s in the early stages. I know I was not quick; I wanted to be sure before I signed off on the exam. I did find that in doing the manual exam it was helpful for the patient if I looked at the wall instead of at her. I also explained what I was doing as I went so that each woman would be able to do a similar, monthly exam at home.

    Of course, there are male MDs who are complete pigs. But most of them aren’t.

    Posted by Jodie | April 5, 2006, 10:15 pm
  10. It’s a shame that the pro-boobs site is marked “suspended” — I hope that’s not my fault!


    Posted by womensspace | April 5, 2006, 11:28 pm
  11. Awesome read, thank you very much for posting. I especially enjoyed your writing about breastfeeding in public. It takes some attitude to do the first time, but is totally doable. I’m still (!!) nursing a two year old boy child and the pressures to wean are getting very strong because people are afraid of sexual overtones. Would it be ok if he were a girl? How crazy is that? He nurses because he’s still a baby and that’s what the boobs are for!

    Posted by Tina | April 7, 2006, 7:18 pm
  12. Hey, Tina, go you for nursing your toddler despite the pressures to stop. Very aggravating! If you don’t tell anybody πŸ˜‰ I’ll tell you that I breastfed my youngest until she was six-ish tp seven-ish! By that time she nursed really infrequently, mostly at bedtime, and she really wanted to wean herself, of course. But throughout the world mothers nurse their young children for years and years– it’s only our culture which relentlessly fetishizes breasts and punishes us as women for using them for their intended purpose!

    And I am going to add you to the blogroll! πŸ™‚


    Posted by womensspace | April 8, 2006, 1:01 pm
  13. I really enjoyed reading this so thank you!

    The double standard over breastfeeding/tit-culture baffles me as much as it angers me. It’s so pervasive too.

    A work colleague recently had a ‘boob job’ and when I found out what she’d done I just wanted to pick her up and shake her. I felt sick and sad.

    I will look forward to the pro-boobs site working again soon!

    Posted by girl, uninterrupted | April 8, 2006, 4:29 pm
  14. You are welcome, girl, uninterrupted! πŸ™‚

    And I checked and that real-boob-positive site is back up, yay, I didn’t break it.


    Posted by womensspace | April 11, 2006, 5:04 pm
  15. Someone translated this post into German. It can be read here


    Posted by womensspace | April 13, 2006, 4:14 pm
  16. I guess the translation doesn’t translate. Pah.

    Posted by womensspace | April 13, 2006, 4:45 pm
  17. I’m sure many of you have heard about the theory that bras cause breast cancer. But have any of you looked into it? There is some very compelling evidence out there that indicates that bras can cause breast cancer.

    There was a great website I read, by an actual doctor, but I didn’t bookmark it and I can’t find it now. 😦

    But here is some of the argument:

    -Toxins in the body, in general, can cause breast cancer. We are also probably more exposed to toxins in modern developed countries.
    -The body has a system to cleanse the toxins: the lymph system.
    -The lymph system does not have internal pressure, it relies on movement to keep things flowing. Think veins. The heart pumps blood through the arteries, but the blood is not pumped back through the veins. They rely on the movement of the body, such as constricting and release of the muscles to push the blood through.

    -Bras are quite tight and constrictive, even “fitting” bras are tight. The constriction prevents the body from moving the toxins out via the lymph system, since they don’t have their own pump, like veins.
    -Buildup of toxins = bad.
    -However, take away the bra, and the lymph system has a much better chance of working, especially considering breasts will naturally move without a bra.

    That’s the basic argument, here are some more reasons why bras are unhealthy:

    -Breasts are placed on the outside of a body for a reason: the temperature must be slightly cooler (for milk production I think?) Think testicles here. We all know that the testes are on the outside of the body because sperm can’t be produced at the core temperature of the body. Now think boxers vs. briefs. We’ve all heard that boxers are supposed to be healthier because they don’t constrict the testes and keep them too warm by holding them close to the body. Hmm….perhaps we can draw a parallel between briefs and bras?

    -Sagginess…probably one of the top reasons women are scared into wearing a bra constantly. There are ligaments in the breasts (Cooper’s ligaments?) Anyway, these provide some support for the breast. Many women (and men) believe that these ligaments get stretched out over time from the “huge” weight that is the breast, thus rendering them saggy. Maybe this has some truth, but let’s look at the other side. Body parts must be used in order for them to do their jobs properly. After six weeks of having a broken arm in a cast, the arm muscles are atrophied and are nearly unusable until they strengthen again. Same goes for the breast ligaments. They go unused due to bras. Then a woman takes off her bra, and she may feel a pulling sensation. The ligaments are simply out of shape! But now the woman feels dependent on the bra and keeps wearing it. You wouldn’t keep wearing a sling on your arm for the rest of your life, would you? No, you’d exercise it properly. In fact, allowing the ligaments to get back into shape by not wearing a bra may make the breasts slightly perkier.

    I could go on, but you get the point. I mean, since when does thousands of years of evolution screw up to the point where women must wear a very tight undergarment in order to function? The body is not meant to be heavily constricted…feet binding, corsets…we can all agree that these are bad ideas.

    I will keep looking for the site where I read all of this. In the meantime, here is another site with some statistics and anecdotal evidence that not wearing a bra made a woman’s cysts go away.

    On a slightly different note… when I think about how bras may cause cancer or other unhealthy conditions, I think of the tobacco industry. 50 years ago people didn’t know that smoking caused cancer and other lung conditions. Now we do, but of course, tobacco companies aren’t pleased. Now think about the lingerie industry. They have just as much to lose if we discover that bras cause breast cancer. I once read that Victoria’s Secret does about $4 billion a year, maybe? Something to think about.

    I have stopped wearing a bra daily. I probably wear one a couple times a month for certain occasions. I must say that it is actually painful to wear a “fitting” bra now. I can’t wear them for very long. The body shouldn’t be in pain. That right there is a strong indication that bras aren’t good.

    Sorry this is so long, but thanks for reading!

    Posted by Hannah | June 27, 2006, 3:57 am
  18. Hanna

    Very interesting post about bras! I never thought of it that way… hmmm… I will be sure to pass this along to my sisters.

    (ps I dont mind that it is long… I write like that too and actually I enjoyed reading every word.)

    Posted by Divine Purpose | March 10, 2007, 5:47 am
  19. I understand and agree with you, accept that i am not sure its men who are to blame. I have always thought it had more to do with marketing and capitalism. Think about it, if we feel badly about ourselves and a manufacturer promises their product will make us look like the 18 year old hottie who’s been airbrushed, made up and altered, we will most likely want it. Perhaps you are targeting our men for other reasons. The men in my life like real women. I have been noticing a trend in advertising lately to sucker in the men too. Even wrinkle cream for men…I thought they were supposed to become distinguished with age! Now apparently they need to be waxed, plucked, sucked, and prettied just as we do. Curious, don’t you think.

    Posted by Sara Paylor | March 14, 2007, 6:01 am
  20. When I was breastfeeding my daughter it really pissed me off the way some people behaved. My mother and stepfather (catholic!) would literally get flustered and leave the room or i would be sent upstairs during dinner when i should have been at the table eating. its quite easy when they are tiny to tuck them under you. They made me feel dirty about something that i felt stopped me seeing my own breasts as sex objects. My friend recently came over when they were visiting and blissfully unaware of herself got her breast and her hairy armpit out and fed her baby and they couldn’t say a thing! It was brilliant. if only people would stop being so weird about it. I was really pressured to give up when she was 1 but i carried on til she was nearly 2 but then even those who were supportive before started giving me the ‘oh are you still feeding her?’ and the ‘you’re not still doing that are you?’ Sadly i caved in. She was only 4 pounds at birth and she is a lovely big healthy girl, nearly 3 now. She still looks at them wistfully in the shower and says i love mummy milk its delicious! She saw a baby being bottle fed the other day and ran and asked the mum what she was doing. When the woman said feeding my baby she said ‘She won’t like that why don’t you give her your mummy milk instead?’ The poor woman didn’t have an answer!

    Posted by Earth angel | March 31, 2007, 5:58 am
  21. My Mother Breastfeed all her children and I breastfeed everywhere and anywhere. It didn’t really occur to me that it might makes some people uncomfortable when I first began. I have noticed that people who acted uncomfortable when they first experienced my open breastfeeding seem to relax and feel more comfy with time.I’ve had more positive feed back from family and strangers than negitive. Women have said ” he sounds like quite a happy baby or I miss breast feeding” ect.
    I have a friend who goes into the restroom to feed her baby in public, because she feels her breasts are too large and unattractive. WHAT AN INJUSTICE! It’s hard to kick our false ideals about our bodies. I am 23 and have two beautiful boys. I feel proud of my body and respect how wonderfully it works and yet all it takes is one image on a billboard or tv or magazine and I feel a rush of insecurity coming back. It is so good that women and men are beginning to open up about
    our unrealistic self images. I have Hope but am never the less a work in progress.

    Posted by Ashley Peterman | May 11, 2007, 2:57 am
  22. As a lesbian feminist I find the whole world of women’s conformity in this area mind boggling.

    We just need to stop all this non-sense. Men are pornographic by nature, and I always feel sorry for straight women who must live with this.

    There is way to much social conformity in women that I see every day. And the entertainment (mainstream porn in my opinion) industry is making it even worse.

    Where once we had the beauty industry on the run, now we are returning to the land of Stepford.

    Now you have lesbian magazines filled with pornographic images of women, and clueless lipstick T.V. shows like the L-Word.

    When will it all end?

    Posted by Satsuma | October 30, 2007, 7:41 pm


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