It is worthwhile to note, first of all, that this book is American, though you don’t have to read far to discover that. To the British eye, interview questions such as ‘How do you relate to the term “flat-chested”?’ or ‘How have men related to your breasts?’ seem slightly comical, and even unnatural, as normal speech. And you would have to travel far in this country, and be rather unlucky, to come across a woman who dropped into conversation, as one does here, the sentence: ‘I’m still not entirely deculturated in terms of my aesthetic values.’ But then it is also American to have, alongside this half-educated, pseudo-scientific academe-speech – with the two languages often used in alternate sentences by the same speaker – a parallel tradition of tough, direct, demotic bar-talk: ‘All I need is some asshole to make a comment like “Geez, you don’t have any tits at all!” and I promise you, they would carry the bastard off on a stretcher!!’
But the most American thing about Breasts is that it is produced in a country which seems, at least by comparison with Britain, obsessionally bosom-conscious. There, the evidence suggests, breasts are no longer correctly identified as secondary sexual characteristics. They have become almost the only sexual characteristic – the primary target of male attention, aggression, fantasy and gratification, as of female preoccupation, defensiveness, embarrassment and self-awareness. Not only does the real North American man show himself as a tit-man but the real woman is a tit-woman. In the pop annals of the transatlantic sex war, we have often heard the male denounce the archetypal woman as a ‘ball-breaker’. It now appears from this book that the American female has good reason to regard her archetypal man as what can be dubbed a ‘tit-puncturer’.
Quite why the Atlantic should divide masculine womanisers into those on that side who generally prefer the female body above the navel, and those on this side who incline largely to the area below, is a conundrum worthy of a book in itself. I suspect the domination of a Southern European image of womanhood there, with its emphasis on the faithful, early-maturing earth mother, the home-bound suckler of broods of children, and here a continuing élitist, aristocratic preference for the elegant, decorative mumsy, with her undemanding two offspring, who keeps her figure, and her opportunities for discreet adultery, into middle age. I also see the American imprisonment in the Fifties, the age of the busty pin-up and the Jane Russell bra, and the British nostalgia for the Twenties, the age of the flat-fronted flapper and bob-haired pal, which made ‘boyish’ a compliment exclusively applied to girls, as divergent, twin reactions to a fear of homosexuality. To prove that men do not really yearn to spend all night, as well as all day, with other men, women have had to be moulded into impossible, idealised dolls, either with endless, decorative, impractical legs stretching up to the armpits, or boundless, decorative, impractical breasts sticking out to here.
Fascinating as these speculations are, at least to me, they may appear to stray beyond the limits of a review of this book. (I also regard oral sex, made fashionably respectable in the Sixties by Updike and Roth, as a compromise with unadmitted homosexual drives – remember Mordecai Richler’s hero, dreaming on his bed of being serviced by an obedient girl slave, and realising with a start of fear that there is no way of determining the gender of a mouth with your eyes closed? Would it be as wonderful with the boy-next-door? Only a pair of unmistakable breasts can assure you that you haven’t gone gay.)
In the event, this lengthy testimony, from some thirty-five women, about living with their breasts becomes, as they talk, a funny, disturbing, provocative, probably unique eavesdrop on what they think and feel about sex, marriage, courtship, love, motherhood and the Final Solution to the Man Problem. There are scores of pictures, too, of every kind of breast, including all ages and types – indeed, they were the original purpose of the anthology. The authors wished to free women from the stereotypes imposed on them in advertising, pornography, fashion, popular fiction, in the cinema and on television, by men. Even though the idea of what breasts are too large or too small, ugly or pretty, acceptable or unbearable, is often passed on by mothers as well as fathers, girlfriends as well as boyfriends, it is also culturally-determined.
Glancing through these photographs, mostly taken by Daphne Ayalah, without any of the air-brushing or cunning angles of commercial glamour, women can be reassured they are seeing ‘the real thing’, and know they are not alone. But in the course of collecting them, the compilers discovered, somewhat to their surprise, that such metaphors as ‘breast-baring’ and ‘making a clean breast of it’ were not dead but only sleeping. The experience of being photographed awoke in their subjects a desire to explain, apologise, boast, confess. And it is the text of these interviews which makes the book an invaluable source-book for both sexes.
Men come out of the experience appallingly badly. Whatever sort of breasts the women have, the male seems to find them at once ludicrous, threatening, unsatisfactory and somehow their, the women’s fault. Even when they are large, and the men are still small, one woman recalls:
In class, boys would pass around notes saying things like: ‘There’s so much milk in Brenda T. you could almost hear her moooo.’ There was a lot of joking and snickering and pointing which made me very uncomfortable and self-conscious about my breasts. I was nicknamed ‘B.T.’, my initials. Boys would always say, ‘Hey, B.T. – how are you doing?’ Later on I realised that what they really meant was ‘Big Tits’ and that was awful.
Fathers are not much more understanding: even a sympathetic father’s idea of cheering up a flat-chested daughter, reports another woman, was
to come over and go, ‘What’s that?’ (imitates father laughing) ‘Hey, you’re getting knockers!’ (Cringes) Now, not only do I not have knockers, but I’m 24 and I’m not married and don’t have children ... and he’s trying to figure out whether he’s the father of an android or what.
Husbands are worse, especially those with a lovable sense of humour which the existence of a bust seems to arouse. ‘My husband used to joke constantly about me getting breast implants.’ ‘He doesn’t seem to mind me being small, although when we were dating and planning to get married, one of his pet comments was “You know I always wanted to marry a blonde with big tits.” Of course he married a little brunette with small ones ... So it has been a joke over the years.’ ‘His mother had very large breasts and I like to think he’s never been weaned because he’s so hooked on breasts – it’s an obsession. I’ve asked him if he was breast-fed and he’s afraid to ask his mother.’ ‘On my wedding night, when my husband saw my breasts for the first time, he exclaimed “They’re incredible!” as if my breasts were completely detachable. He didn’t say I’m incredible. I often wished I could cut off my boobs painlessly, and hand them to him on a silver platter with a sarcastic remark like, “If they do so much for you, here they are.” ’
But the woman isn’t often sarcastic, or resentful. Usually she shows gratitude when a man displays even the most grudging acceptance of her breasts as they actually are: ‘A man once said that I had the second nicest pair he’d ever come in contact with. He didn’t tell me who the first was! It really made me feel good.’ And most of them are incredibly understanding: ‘I realise that to many men all that matters is boobs but I don’t think it’s entirely their fault. I think it’s because our breasts are covered up and people usually crave the things that are hidden from them.’ ‘Luckily for me my husband turned out not to be the average beast of the Fifties. He never mentioned my breasts one way or another in the two and half years we were married.’ The women, almost without exception, seem to feel that they are their breasts, though they may disagree as to which comes first, their figure or their personality. Most of them are certain that there is no escape from the breast as destiny by dodging marriage and opting for a career:
I worked in an employment agency and honest to God, some companies call up and ask for ‘someone with big knockers’. It really happens even now! Often women with bigger breasts get preference in secretarial jobs – receptionists, for instance. I know for a fact that female bank tellers are sometimes hired because of their ‘vital statistics’.
With my large breasts I’ve never had trouble getting a job. The trouble begins once I have the job. Always ... always! Flirting, leering comments, and even jokes, you name it.
It is reassuring to know that some women whose breast size does not fit the current male preference (usually large, but, for a brief period in the Seventies, small) can operate this oppressive force, by a kind of judo, to their own advantage:
Being flat-chested had a tremendous effect on every aspect of my life. I put myself out of the sexual running entirely. I concentrated strictly on intellectual development. I automatically assumed I would go to college and earn my own living ... I had better things to do.
I recently attended the 25-year reunion of my high-school graduating class. I saw what happened to those girls who had beautiful breasts ... and what their breasts, and the emphasis placed on their breasts, did to them. It made them small-minded, small-town housewives for a lifetime ... it was like a sentence to prison.
The male reader must grasp what comfort he can. The typical woman is as dissatisfied with her breasts as any man in her life. ‘My breasts are one of my best features, but if I could wave my wand and change them, maybe I’d make them just a little bigger.’ It’s not easy to discover here any consensus on how the female breast should be approached. ‘Reports one: ‘I’ve also begged him millions of times: “Will you please pay more attention to my breasts during sex because I really like it” ... and the next time, he just touches ’em for a couple of seconds and that’s it.’ Reports another: ‘My husband just grabs my breasts all the time and he pisses the hell out of me ... I’ll say to him, “Stroke my back, touch my head, do anything, but leave them alone.” ’
Even feeding babies, women in a man-less world refuse to agree. ‘Of course, nursing is pleasurable and sexual,’ asserts one. ‘Oh, nursing was very sensual,’ adds a second. But a third chimes in: ‘There is nothing at all sexual about nursing a baby! That is one of the ugliest myths, one of the biggest lies, one of the things that makes me want to throw up it makes me so angry.’ Afterwards, when the child is home, ‘I knew that there were some men who are just dying to suck the breast of a nursing woman and I thought that was horrible. It was my bad luck my husband turned out to be one of these.’ But also: ‘My husband didn’t want to suck on my breasts, I was disappointed. I thought, Isn’t he even curious?’
Is it perverted, exploitative, degrading that so many men regard a woman’s breasts as a pair of combination safes which, rightly manipulated, will unlock a treasure for both the owner and the locksmith? Many women think so. But then what about the woman who announces: ‘Any intense stimulation of my nipples immediately triggers that sensation, it’s like pushing a button. It can only be described as wanting to laugh, cry, scream, shout, eat and be fucked all at the same time?’
Eventually, there is too much here. The stories, supplemented by hundreds of short quotes, can be linked in a myriad different patterns. What is common to all is the overwhelming realisation, until now overlooked by most men and unknown even to lots of women, that breasts are ever-present, continually noticeable, intimate signals that we all ignore at our peril. But we can all unite in voting that the worst culprit is not the ill-informed male, but the over-confident male doctor. There is a separate section on mastectomy – distressing reading in some ways, but with a few cheery dispatches for all of us, as when one lady emerges to register: ‘It never made anybody shy away. I have had many lovers since then, and I mean lots! It’s made no difference. If anything it has caused men to love me more and with more tenderness.’
So let us end by sending a healthy hate message to Dr Karlis Adamson, identified here as chief of obstetrics and gynaecology at the Women and Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, who is quoted as insisting that the uterus ‘is just a piece of muscle’, and ‘a liability after the children are born because it’s a cancer site. If there were no risks, and the costs weren’t so high, then, ideally, it would be best to remove the uterus.’ After which he adds that, ‘ideally’, his prescription would apply to breasts as well, though he accepts that this would be ‘a hard concept to sell in this society’. It is the best thing I’ve heard recently about this society, and, ‘ideally’, I know what liability I would volunteer to remove from Dr Adamson.