Breasts and Self-Image: Adolescence

In the previous article we looked at how America’s current obsession with the female breast shapes women’s perceptions of themselves. In this article we’ll examine how that cultural obsession affects young women during their formative years of adolescence.

“Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. I just did an exercise to help me grow. Have you thought about it God? About my growing, I mean. I’ve got a bra now. It would be nice if I had something to put in it” (Judy Blume. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret [N.Y.: Bradbury Press, 1970], p. 50).

In Judy Blume’s well-known novel, we first meet Margaret Ann Simon, age almost 12, just after her family has moved from an apartment in New York City to a house in a New Jersey suburb. Margaret worries about fitting in with the other kids in her new neighborhood. Most of all she wants to be normal, to be like everyone else. For American girls like Margaret, being “like everyone else” usually means fitting the conventional media-projected image:

By age thirteen, 53 percent of American girls are unhappy with their bodies; by age seventeen, 78 percent are dissatisfied…talk about the body and learning how to improve it is a central motif in publications and media aimed at adolescent girls.
(Brumberg, p. xxiv)

It’s the image of well-developed, womanly breasts that Margaret tries to fulfill when she gets her first bra:

When I got home I carried my package straight to my room. I took off my dress and put on the bra. I fastened it first around my waist, then wiggled it up to where it belonged. I threw my shoulders back and stood sideways. I didn’t look any different. I took out a pair of socks and stuffed one sock into each side of the bra, to see if it really grew with me. It was too tight that way, but I liked the way it looked.
(Blume, p. 44)

“Clearly it is difficult to feel good about one’s breasts if they do not correspond to the body ideal of one’s time and place,” writes Marilyn Yolom (p. 7). Adolescence is the time that young people begin to develop an individual identity. For girls, that individual identity is inextricably tied up with their developing bodies:

Love them or hate them, we construct our self-image in response to our breasts. And puberty is where it all begins…Not only are our bodies changing faster than we can come to terms with, this public change attracts more attention than we may be able to handle.
(Spadola, p. 18)

Carolyn Latteier describes her own adolescence this way:

But for me, at least, body consciousness remained dormant during childhood. My body troubled me when it fell down and got scabs on its knees, but otherwise, it was invisible. Body consciousness came about the same time as this girl’s small nipples began to swell. Breast consciousness arrived, at adolescence, feeling like a small fall from grace.
(p. 14)

Latteier’s description of adolescence as a “fall from grace” may be more than a clever metaphor. At adolescence, girls begin to lose the developmental advantages they’ve previously enjoyed over the opposite sex:

Until puberty, girls really are the stronger sex in terms of standard measures of physical and mental health: they are hardier, less likely to injure themselves, and more competent in social relations. But as soon as the body begins to change, a girl’s advantage starts to evaporate. At that point, more and more girls begin to suffer bouts of clinical depression. The explanation of this sex difference lies in the frustrations girls feel about the divergence between their dreams for the future and the conventional sex roles implied by their emerging breasts and hips.
(Brumberg, p. xxiii)

Because of the physical changes taking place in both boys and girls, adolescence is the time when their search for individual identity becomes enmeshed with their physical appearance:

Adolescent boys are often perceived (and perceive themselves) in terms of their growing physical power and their potential for useful work or for physical violence. More often, girls are assessed (and judge themselves) in terms of their new sexual allure…Messages about how their breasts should look, and about what kind of girl their breasts make them, find fertile ground in the adolescent psyche.
(Latteier, p. 24)

The adolescent girl’s search for identity can lead to ambivalence toward her developing breasts. One large-breasted woman told Ayalah and Weinstock about receiving an award for having the best figure in junior high school:

My self-image was very tied up in my body, and yet I was terribly ambivalent about it. I liked my body but I didn’t like other people liking it. See, I didn’t know if I liked anything else about me, but I knew my body was good! I sort of felt that at least I have this to hold on to.
(p. 74)

Adolescent girls have no control over when and how their breasts develop. Yet American society tends to stereotype girls by their breasts. There’s a stereotype of “early-maturing girls, as promiscuous” (Latteier, p. 17). Latteier writes about interviewing “Beth, who spent her adolescence believing her large breasts were her fault. ‘My breasts were too big,’ she said. ‘I thought maybe I was to blame. Maybe I should be ashamed’” (p. 20).

Judy Blume’s fictional Margaret learns about this stereotyping and the pain it can cause in the person of classmate Laura Danker, a tall, well-developed girl who has worn a bra since fourth grade. Margaret’s new friends tell her that Laura has a bad reputation, that she goes behind the A&P and does bad things with boys. They warn Margaret that, because reputations are catching, she’d better not be friendly with Laura. But when Margaret takes the time to talk to Laura, she learns that Laura is miserable because of both her lack of friends and the untrue stories the other girls spread about her. Margaret also learns that having breasts that are too large can be just as bad as having breasts that are too small.

…psychologists find girls who develop medium-sized breasts and whose development coincides with the herd are less traumatized than the early or late developers; they suffer less than the big-breasted and small-breasted girls. [footnote in original omitted]
(Latteier, p. 23)

And the relationship between breasts and a woman’s self-image doesn’t end once she’s made it through the physical and emotional turmoil of adolescence. In the next article we’ll look at how breasts continue to shape a woman’s sense of self through adulthood.