Breasts: Women Speak About Their Breasts

Book Review:
Breasts: Women Speak about Their Breasts and Their Lives, by Daphna Ayalah and Isaac J. Weinstock (N.Y.: Summit Books, 1979)

This book was born on a “day in the spring of International Women’s Year” when its authors realized that “images of women’s bodies pervade our visual environment. They are everywhere—at newsstands, at checkout counters of grocery stores, in drugstores, in countless ads in every magazine, and even on television. In effect, it is the female body that is being sold—the product is secondary.” Furthermore, the authors “also realized that these images served up to the public in the media are unreal—they are airbrushed, photo-retouched fantasies.”

Ayalah and Weinstock “were struck by the irony that although women’s breasts are displayed everywhere in the media, images of real breasts, as they actually are in all stages of a woman’s life, are almost never seen.” They therefore set out to produce “a photographic catalog of the breasts of women of all ages, without makeup or special lighting effects, unretouched, and without bias toward the preconceived cultural ideal of ‘beautiful breasts.’”

But although Ayalah and Weinstock originally intended the book to be a catalog of photographs, they soon found out that the women who agreed to be photographed also wanted to talk about their breasts, about how having their particular breasts had shaped their lives. The book therefore grew into a series of vignettes about the significance of breasts and of growing up female.

This book is similar in both intent and content to Breasts: Our Most Public Private Parts (1998) by Meema Spadola. Although Spadola’s book contains no photographs, it came into being as a follow-up to her documentary film, Breasts. The major difference between Ayalah and Weinstock’s book and Spadola’s is that the earlier book, published in 1979, is full of the jargon of its time: consciousness raising, go-go dancing, bra burning, stories of sexual liberation and the shedding of inhibitions. But aside from this difference, both books tell stories of women of all ages whose lives have been shaped and whose identities have been determined by the fact that, as women, they have breasts. Both books contain remarkably similar stories of how the American cultural obsession with breasts has affected these women’s lives.

Here are two passages from the epilogue of Ayalah and Weinstock’s book, now out of print:

The women who revealed themselves in the book have opened the doors to a serious dialogue on the issues that surround women’s experience with their breasts. Their collective voices have initiated and legitimized an area of consciousness raising that we hope will benefit all women. Though the book’s publication marks the end of one phase, it is really the beginning of a larger ongoing process.
Beyond the many facets of a woman’s experience of having breasts, it is obvious from the sampling presented in the book that all too many women have been oppressed by our cultural attitudes toward breasts, and are often damaged psychologically and even physically. Because of this unhealthy circumstance, clearly there is a need to study the subject in greater depth and provide some analysis which can help women by furthering the consciousness-raising process which this book hopefully has begun.

Although Spadola published her book almost 20 years after Ayalah and Weinstock published theirs, these passages (except for the 1970s jargon) could apply to her book as well. Sadly, this is an area in which American culture has apparently made little progress over the last generation.

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