August 2, 2011 / Sexism, Unity, Women's History

Women and Breast Identity


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

Amazon preparing for a battle (Queen Antiop or Armed Venus), by Pierre-Eugène-Emile Hébert 1860 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Similar to China’s bound feet, American society has chosen the female breast as the core of feminine beauty. The rounder, fuller, and more pert the breast, the greater the appreciation, the lovelier the woman. The female body has taken on the requirements of society’s ideals, and women run to surgeons to be sliced open and have extraneous and unnatural “padding” implanted. The Breast Site, which does not condone breast augmentation, makes the following claim:

According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) statistics, nearly 250,000 breast augmentation procedures were performed last year, an increase of 147 percent since 1997.

The numbers have tripled among women and teenagers since 1997, and I wonder why women, and their daughters, think it’s OK to be cut into for the sake of vanity. Of course, there are women who have these surgeries as a result of cancer, but I am not talking about them. I am talking about women who allow the dictates of men and society to define what it is that makes them beautiful, unique, and wonderful to begin with.

The average cost of cosmetic surgery for breast augmentation is anywhere from $4 – 10,000. But think what one can do with this money other than forsake it for vanity, for the perfect body image that really does not exist. Taking courses at a local college could raise low self-esteem with a degree, a job, a career, and a hefty pay check. Investing in a hobby, a love of something that feeds the insides makes anyone feel good about herself and who she is. The possession of big breasts only makes one group of people happy: men who have been conditioned to define the value of a woman based on her cleavage.

Was it always this way? No.

Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Breast chronicles the historical context and socially prescribed definitions of the female breast that we presently subscribe to. Once revered not for its sexual appeal but for its lactating powers, the breast signified a woman’s natural ability to save humanity. Breasts nurtured babies; they only thrived because they were fed by the breast. The Greek Amazons, who lived among women and only met with neighboring men to mate, cut off one breast to accommodate the extension of the bow while in battle and  used the only available one to feed their female infants. These were times when the female breast was centered on female power in battle, in sustenance and survival.

But today’s breast is the focal point of masculine desire, and women go along with it. We dress the breast up, padding it so that it sticks out and pops up. We wear low V-neck shirts so that the depth and sight of the two mounds that meet and rub against one another are seen by foreign eyes. We use ornaments like diamond necklaces to drop into the middle of the cleavage drawing even more attention to the big-sized twins. We do everything in our power to show them off, whether they are real or fake, and we do it for attention, for self-gratification. We feel good when others appreciate the grandeur of our breasts, as if they are pieces of fine art assembled for a public exhibit at the Museum of “Unnatural” Identity.

But this is not power. When we adhere to preconceived notions of what it means to be a woman — when we allow society to define us as soft and nurturing and sexual and “breast-ial” — when we go into surgery to change ourselves, have objects placed inside of us in the name of beauty —  we are not powerful. We are not strong or even important. We are not valued as anything other than the hosts of masculine desire. We exist for them — for their sexual gratification. Our breasts, big, glorious, exposed, and full, exist to please them — and this should not please us.

The Amazon warriors cut off their breast so that they could be stronger and faster warriors in battle. Feminists in the 70s ripped off their bras and symbolically burned them to show their independence and liberation from patriarchal labels and laws that singled them out as “feminine” and thus, the weaker sex, the softer sex, the sexualized and domesticated sex. Like these fierce and empowered women before us, we need to stand up for ourselves and our daughters. We need to bankrupt the businesses, medical industries, and doctors that get rich by telling us we are not perfect: our noses are too big; our breasts are too small or they sag; our muffin tops are unacceptable; and our wrinkles are showing.

Say whatever you want about the Amazons and the feminists in our past: they hated men, they were angry, they were butch, they had penis envy. But one thing is true about every single one of them — they lived by their own rules and they sacrificed to give us the rights that we have today — this includes the right to our own bodies and to define ourselves and our body parts as we would have fit.

We can be warriors once again.

Join Our Email List

Be the first to know the latest initiatives from The New Agenda to improve the lives of women and girls.

Thank you for joining our list! Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.

  • Kathleen Wynne


    The best thing about your article is it shows how wonderful it is for a woman not to be afraid to express her anger at how she is defined and controlled by men and that it’s “OK” to be angry.

    Women are taught to go along and not express anger — “unladylike”…every definition men have placed upon what it is to be a woman is tantamount to what the Japanese did physically with the binding of the women’s feet…instead, it’s even more pervasive because they have “bound our souls and spirit as human beings” to be subjected to their needs and wants at the expense of our own.

    This continued and overwhelmingly oppresive male behavior towards women is not an example of their being more superior than women, but, rather, being more selfish.

  • Jen Z

    “they lived by their own rules and they sacrificed to give us the rights that we have today — this includes the right to our own bodies and to define ourselves and our body parts as we would have fit.”

    The last paragraph negated the entire article. And why leave out cancer survivors? Theirs is also vanity and a sense of loss of body parts that make them feel attractive.

    We have not come so far from the cave dwellers that we were. The breast, in all cultures has been revered. It is a symbol of giving life, as stated in the article. On a biological level, we are programmed to be attracted to mates who can propagate our species, just like any other animal. Women are attracted by a certain body type in men, just as men are in women. Men don’t even know why they like breasts, but full round breasts, along with an hourglass figure, are physical signs that a woman would be a good choice for having children. It’s biological and sub-conscious, just as wanting full round breasts to attract a mate.

    I truly don’t know, personally, any men who find women with implants attractive on a base level, or on a conscious one. They may say “wow she’s hot”, then find out she had her boobs done, and they then say, “that’s too bad, I thought she was hot. Why do women do that?” And they think this, on a subconscious level, because they have been duped into thinking that woman was suitable for bearing children, when, in fact, even though she might have been without augmentation, she no longer is to them because they don’t want to be fooled, or played.

    We compete with each other for the best mates, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Men do, too, and if you think about it, we are as judgmental of their physical male characteristics as they are of ours. I am not going to be attracted to some big fat slob with dirt caught in his rolls, and a tiny penis. Does that make me – what ever the word is for a woman who is misogynist toward men? Uh-uh. It makes me biologically “normal”.

    When I first met my husband, my initial reaction to seeing him for the first time wasn’t “I wonder what he’s thinking”. It was “wow that dude’s got a nice ass!”. Does that make me sexist, or biologically programmed to be attracted to a certain male body type?

    I think that women are worse than men when it comes to setting fashion and body trends. Every guy I have talked to about, say, the models in the Victoria’s Secret catalogs think that those women are too skinny. So if men think they are too skinny, who is controlling the trend? We are. Guys attracted to really skinny women tend to be shallow, self absorbed, insecure egoists who marry “trophy wives”, because what they have has to be the best that “society” dictates. They then put pressure on these women to continue to look skinny and 20 for the rest of their lives, while they are out cheating on them with skinny 20 year olds.

    Scrawny women with big fake breasts are a recent phenomenon, and men really don’t even find them attractive; at least the ones I know. As recently as the 60’s, the “sexiest” women were 10’s and 12’s. Somewhere along the way, we decided that we wanted to be 0’s and 2’s, and this is where it got us, and there is a billion dollar industry built around it, as well as a growing problem with eating disorders.

    There will always be differences between the sexes. Men will always appreciate breasts. We can’t deprogram them any more than we can deprogram women out of wanting to be attractive.

  • marille

    Marina, another great article unraveling cultural givens.
    I think the male focus on women’s breasts is in great need of deprograming if men want to get to a level where human relationships between the sexes are possible.

  • Bes

    Don’t blame the fashion industry’s unnatural specs for women, or Victoria’s Secret entire load of crap ads on women. The fashion industry is run by men and the advertising industry is run by men. If they want to sell me underwear they need to tell me how comfortable I will feel in it not what men think of it. The thing is men will basically bang anything that is female human and not dead and some aren’t that picky so why devote your time and money to trying to conform to their standards? What part of watching some tart prance around in stilettos and lingerie is supposed to make me want to buy underwear? I change the channel every time this offensive crap comes on. If they want to use sex to sell me something they need to use sex from my perspective and I am not gay. Victoria’s Secret ads are all about male definition of female sexuality. In their brains women act sexy by prancing around like a bunch of idiots in their underwear, of course men act sexy by sitting on their fat sweat panted ass and ogling women. But in their brains women never ogle men because this is a part of female sexuality that doesn’t directly benefit most men.

    Fashion magazines are advertising venues for the fashion beauty industry which is run by men and they are also published by men. They have nothing to do with women or what women want.

  • marille

    well Bess, there are certainly men who buy such offensive presents to their women, but there is also an influence on women. the very existence of these men pleasing norms, be it breast appearance or general fashion industry influence some women into accepting these norms. market forces don’t work well, when the consumer has no self respect.

  • marille

    marina, the fact that amazons had a sense for defense so strong that they were willing to give up their bodily integrity is stunning. they accepted asymmetrical appearance and impairment in nursing for defense. it is so difficult to imagine, what was going on then.

  • Henrietta

    Marina is referring to the Amazon women as a myth, right?

    Jen Z, I can understand the desire not to want to throw out the baby with the bath water. Why deny our innate sexuality? But there is no equality between men and women, sexually speaking. Women are (by a great majority) the sex class and men are (by a great majority) the sexual consumers. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong for a woman to enjoy a nice bod or a man to do so as well. But the power dynamics are clearly different.

    That being said, I have no issue wearing a nice low cut dress at the appropriate occasions 🙂 But no, as Marina states, no woman should confuse sexual attention with power. Being the sex class is not a power position.

  • Optixmom

    I had heard that some doctors (probably the good ones) have the women go through counseling before they go under the knife to find the real reasons for the surgery. If they are married they make them go through marriage counseling so that the couple understand the risks both physically and mentally with a procedure like this. I believe that the divorce rate is higher with women who have had breast augmentation. I have tried to find statistics to support my claims above but wasn’t successful.

    The desire to change our physical beauty stem from some underlying insecurity. Many times the surgery to change a body part is not the medicine necessary to cure that insecurity.

  • marille

    Henrietta, there is plenty of archeologic evidence to suggest that they existed in many countries from around Old Europe (black sea area), North Africa to Spain.

  • Bes

    Still the vast majority of women’s underwear or even lingerie is purchased by women, however the vast majority of it is designed by men (gay men are not women), it is advertised by men and it is advertised in venues owned by men. Men don’t consider anyone but themselves in their design, advertising and ad venues probably because they consider the male opinion the normal and only opinion. There is no woman’s perspective in their world. The part of female sexuality where women sit on their average sweat panted bums and check out young hot men while NOT obsessing about their own appearance is completely taboo because it doesn’t benefit men and in fact threatens men. In media, if men can’t imagine it and don’t enjoy acting it out, it doesn’t exist. It is sort of like how they design and sell dog food. Dogs can’t purchase anything or be influenced by ads so they design dog food to appeal to people fortunately the male opinion on dog food is nearly the same as the female opinion. But in the case of Lingerie male and female opinions are not even on the same planet. It is true that all this male centric crap offensive advertising affects some women who see it on TV. That is why we need to destroy the current cable channel bundling system where all people who pay for basic cable are forced to subsidize the old men of medias view of the world. We need the consumer rights to reject and not pay for sexist content. Women need to switch to Roku and save money as well as let the world evolve away from man view as the only or normal view. After all they are the minority, they don’t need to dominate everything.

  • Henrietta

    Marille, I had no idea. I have to read about this!!!

  • Sandress

    Can we please not erase the existence of lesbians and bisexual women in these discussions? I get that we’re not the majority, but I think we have a uniquely salient viewpoint here, given that we both are women, and sexually pursue women.

    I can’t speak for all women who have sex with women, but I like breasts. I find them sexy, and it has nothing at all to do with lactation. It has to do with biology, and yes, my extensive cultural programming. Which I was subject to, you were subject to, women were subject to, and men were subject to. This cultural programming is hard to derail on the behavioral level, and exponentially harder to derail on the subconscious level, where our sexuality resides. We know that a sexual attraction to high heels and fishnets is a cultural phenomenon. And yes, we can try to address that process if we feel that it is inequitable. But it does us no good to complain about the system as though if men (and women) really cared to, they could simply switch these sexual impulses off like a light switch. Not only do we have no idea what an authentic sexuality developed out of the reach of culture would look like, we have no way of accessing it now. We can work to better understand the ways that our culture has subverted sexuality, and the ways that inequality exacerbates the situation. But it is not productive to talk about how we SHOULD feel about breasts. SHOULD has nothing to do with it.

  • Bes

    I think it does do good to complain about the system since possibly we can change the it. Right now all you get is “womens content” in magazines and media controlled by men filled with advertising devised by men. There is no female voice in media culture which many mistake for American culture and there is no requirement that women actually desire or consume media for it to be labeled “women’s content”. Women content is whatever men say it is. Most of the time men are trying to sell you, your place in their fantasy, (as in the entire Victoris secret schlock)being too stupid and threatened to figure out that you have your own fantasies. I don’t want to look at the world or women through men’s distorted vision but it is pretty much the only choice I have if I engage with media of any type.

    Also the other functions and powers of breasts need to be rediscovered. With men in power you need not worry that the sexualized view will prevail.