Breasts and Self-Image: Women

Since we expect adolescence to be a difficult time as youngsters struggle to find their identities and become independent young adults, it’s not surprising that their physical development greatly affects their self-image at that time. However, we might think that girls would outgrow their body-related insecurities as they become young women. But, as Carolyn Latteier says, they don’t: “When grown women talk about their breasts, many of them are still gripped by strong memories from their adolescence” (p. 24).

In fact, the experience of breast development continues to shape the women that young girls become, as Ayalah and Weinstock discovered:

While putting the book together, we examined en masse all the material we had gathered. The cumulative insight gained from so many women discussing their lifelong experiences with their breasts in detail made us aware of a recurring pattern of cause and effect within each woman’s story. A woman’s current feelings about her breasts were often linked to or a result of particular attitudes and experiences—both positive and negative—she encountered in her life from earliest childhood, through puberty and adolescence, on into adulthood. (p. 22)

Many women continue to consider their breasts as symbolic representations of themselves, as one woman told Latteier: “My discomfort with small breasts was more than just cosmetic. I felt the lack as a poverty of being, as if my very nature were somehow stark and bony. A hollow chest equaled a hollow heart” (p. 4). The woman told Latteier that this feeling continued into adulthood. Here’s another woman’s evaluation of how her small breasts have influenced her life:

My breasts never developed as fully as I wanted them to…as fully as they were “supposed” to, so I think I am lacking in ego and in self-confidence somewhat. I think most men are attracted to breasts and sometimes judge women by their breasts. I suppose I’ve been judged many times because of my breasts and that I’ve been dismissed once or twice—or maybe even more—because my breasts are so small.” As an adult, I’ve been teased about my breasts by men and it’s probably had a bad effect on me. (Ayalah and Weinstock, p. 80)

But it’s not only small breasts that can have a profound affect on women. Remember Laura Danker, from Judy Blume’s novel Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret? Carolyn Latteier talked with Beth, who has had large breasts since adolescence. Beth feels that men respond to her not as a person, but as the possessor of those breasts. “She believes men’s admiration is false in the deepest sense because it is not centered on her as a person. She is playing second fiddle to her breasts” (p. 21). Another large-breasted woman told Ayalah and Weinstock, “Sometimes…I would just love to be built like the woman next door. She is totally flat! I’ve often wondered…if I had not had these large breasts, whether my life would have turned out completely differently” (p. 117).

As we saw in an earlier article, “Breasts are public—visible. They exist ‘out there,’ as a sign, a password” (Latteier, p. 19). A woman cannot leave her breasts at home when she goes to work. “Women who work in male-dominated fields often complain that their breasts—overt signs of their femininity—get in the way, and sometimes trivialize their status as responsible and thinking coworkers, employers, or employees” (Spadola, p. 85).

Women continue to be concerned about the appearance of their breasts as they age:

Despite the predominance of talk about size, I found that most women were more concerned with the appearance of stretch marks and sagging. I heard women from their twenties through their eighties express fears about the changes in their breasts. (Spadola, pp. 225-226)

After living through adolescence, American women face a similar experience once again as they enter midlife:

Today media imagery communicates quite clearly that the best breast—the breast as it should be—is the adolescent breast. It is a firm, milky white globe. The nipple is smooth, not the lumpy, bumpy nipple of women who have nursed a baby or outlived their youth. (Latteier, p. 6).

One way that women can reclaim their breasts is by overcoming their embarrassement, shame, and self-consciousness and simply talking with other women: “there’s no denying that talking openly and honestly with our women friends, sisters, and mothers, can promote a healthier attitude about our breasts” (Spadola, p. 90). One of the major roadblocks to such dialogue is the problem of vocabulary:

In the course of writing this book, I came to understand that, in talking about their bodies, women still struggle to find a vocabulary that does not rely on Victorian euphemisms, medical nomenclature, or misogynistic slang. Ironically, we live with a legacy of reticence even in this time of disclosure. (Brumberg, p. xxxi)

But, as Spadola points out, the search for terminology can in itself be part of the reclaiming process:

Something as simple as what we call our breasts can be important in shaping our sense of ourselves. We’re so used to hearing men use slang words for breasts—usually in a derogatory way or as a joke. It’s interesting to look at the names that we use for ourselves and with our friends. For some women, using words like “boobs” or “tits” can be a way of reclaiming these names. (p. 97)

Once we find the right words, perhaps we can rediscover the conclusion that Ayalah and Weinstock reached a generation ago:

Breasts are a part of each woman’s personal power. In accepting that very important part of your body, you develop a form of power that is not like, say, political power; it’s different. It’s an acceptance of yourself. That is real power! (p. 125)

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