Breasts and Self-Image: Introduction

Although women have always had breasts, only in America over the last half of the twentieth century have breasts become a consuming passion of the culture, invoked and visible everywhere. This twentieth-century fascination with the breast has led to a media image of the ideal breast—or perhaps the media’s push to create the image has led to society’s fixation. But whichever came first, the cultural fixation and the ideal image are undeniable. They shape the way women evaluate themselves and complicate the adolescent girl’s passage into womanhood.

It hasn’t always been this way, of course. In earlier civilizations, and even today in many non-Western cultures, women’s breasts are accepted as natural, normal, and therefore unremarkable. But in the U.S., the cult of the breast began to develop during the period of prosperity after World War II:

…breasts were the particular preoccupation of Americans in the years after World War II, when voluptuous stars, such as Jayne Mansfield, Jane Russell, and Marilyn Monroe, were popular box-office attractions. The mammary fixation of the 1950s extended beyond movie stars and shaped the experience of adolescents of both genders. In that era, boys seemed to prefer girls who were “busty,” and American girls began to worry about breast size as well as about weight.
(Brumberg, p. 108)

Writer Carolyn Latteier describes her experience of coming of age during this era like this:

I grew up in the late 1950’s, the era of “mammary madness.” Breasts were practically the definition of femininity during those years. They had to, above all, be big. Brassieres of that era were highly engineered structures, with two conical cups stitched in precise spirals and carefully labeled from small to large: A, B, C, and D. The goal was to get as deep into the alphabet as possible. Size was everything.
(Latteier, p. 4)

This fascination with breasts—and particularly breast size—has deeply influenced all females who have grown up during the last half century. As Ayalah and Weinstock discovered while compiling their ground-breaking study in the late 1970s:

In one interview after another, as we observed the numerous and varied instances of causality which linked a woman’s breasts to her personality or lifestyle, we were amazed at how basic and profoundly fundamental the experience of having breasts actually was in women’s lives.
(Ayalah and Weinstock, p. 23)

A generation later, Meema Spadola found that this attitude had not changed:

…every time I did an interview or gathered together a group of women to discuss breasts, what always amazed me was just how much our breasts shape our lives, and, more than that, how eager so many women are to talk about what breasts mean to them.
(Spadola, p. 239)

Another factor that perhaps reinforces society’s focus on breasts is that they’re just so darned obvious:

Breasts are public—visible. They exist “out there,” as a sign, a password. They define and determine other people’s perceptions of a girl’s femininity. They express what kind of person she is without her will or consent.
(Latteier, p. 19)

The media have capitalized on this high visibility:

The tremendous anxiety and self-consciousness that women exhibited while being photographed, another factor we hadn’t anticipated, confirmed our notion that women were negatively affected by the ever-present media images of “ideal” breasts.
(Ayalah and Weinstock, p. 13)

When Ayalah and Weinstock undertook to counter the media-created image of the ideal breast, they initially envisioned simply a book of photographs showing breasts as they really are. But they soon found that women wanted to talk about their breasts as well as allow them to be photographed. We’d like young girls today to be aware of the discovery made by Ayalah and Weinstock’s subjects more than 20 years ago:

The one observation that most women made during their brief exposure to the photographs was about the variety of breasts. “I always thought breasts looked pretty much the same. How amazingly different they all are. They seem to have different characters—like individual faces.”
(Ayalah and Weinstock, p. 15)

But, unfortunately, most young girls today don’t think of their bodies as personally unique. They’re caught up in cultural expectations about what they and their bodies should be—a situation that underlies and molds their development from girls into young women. As Joan Jacobs Brumberg concludes in the preface to her eye-opening cultural study:

…although young women today enjoy greater freedom and more options than their counterparts of a century ago, they are also under more pressure, and at greater risk, because of a unique combination of biological and cultural forces that have made the adolescent female body into a template for much of the social change of the twentieth century.
(Brumberg, p. xxv)

Comments are closed.