Having breasts while living in a patriarchy

This post continues from For the Love of the Female Body. It discusses breasts with information from Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier, and it also gets into body dysphoria and sexual objectification related to breasts.

There are two chapters in Woman: An Intimate Geography that focus on breasts. One chapter focuses on milk and milk production, which is a very finely-tuned and brilliant process. The other chapter surprised me, because it mostly talked about the fact that human breasts are biologically unnecessary. That is, they could be much smaller, more like a mammary gland attached to a nipple, and they would still be functional. The extra fat that gives human breasts their large size and roundness doesn’t actually need to be there in order to feed a baby, which is why women with small breasts can produce as much milk as anyone else. Of course, humans, particularly male ones, have plenty of philosophical ideas about the existence of the extra flesh.

The female body is very smart about milk production. It only produces as long as the baby is suckling. It’s amazing that the mechanical sensation on the nipple can stimulate milk production within. Also, the female body is smart enough to find ways to produce good quality milk even if the mother’s diet is unsatisfactory.

“If a woman is not eating what she needs to maintain that perfect formula, the mammary gland borrows from her body stores, the 7-Eleven that never closes. At the same time, the woman does not sacrifice quite as much as might be expected, for breast milk has evolved through compromise. The mother gives, but she does not give to the point of risking her future health and fertility. Breast milk is designed to be maximally exploited without maximally exploiting. A nursing woman does not need to lose her teeth or watch her spine shrink so that her baby can get enough calcium; the lactose in the milk ensures that every ion of calcium will be used instead of just peed away, as is much of the calcium you get from drinking, say, fortified orange juice. The baby digests the proteins in the milk down to the last amino acid, which is why a suckling infant’s used diapers hardly smell: there’s very little waste matter, very little excreted protein, to lend a stench. A nursing woman does not have to become anemic to give her baby iron. Human milk has very little iron in it, but it has lactoferrin, a protein that allows the iron to be thoroughly absorbed.”(Angier, p151)

Absolutely brilliant. Although I will never be pregnant, I still appreciate the amazing nature of the female body. Somewhere in my DNA is the knowledge of how to properly gestate, birth, and feed a baby, a very complicated process that my brain will never fully understand. It’s always surprising when daft internet commenters claim that if we say that women can gestate and give birth to young, that means that women who never become pregnant aren’t women. I have a female reproductive system, and whether or not I ever use it to make a baby, it’s still a female system.

Natalie Angier calls the human breasts “aesthetic breasts,” because as far as we can guess they are there to look appealing. The other mammals do not have breasts that swell as ours do, even when lactating. Ours swell at puberty and stay large all the time, even though we are not usually lactating. Tons of cultural meanings and metaphors get attached to breasts, and the fascination with them knows no limits. That fascination is not usually based on a respect for the creation of life, it’s usually based on the erotic appeal of the breasts and in particular, the way they appeal to men.

This leads me into a rather depressing realization—despite the mammary gland’s brilliance in the task of milk production, I find that I understand why some women hate their breasts and want to cut them off. As soon as our breasts develop, which can be as young as 9 or 10, the sexual harassment begins. Men believe that simply presenting in public while owning a pair of breasts makes a girl or woman sexually available—even if she’s only a child. Girls have no control over when their breasts grow or how large—our DNA decides that for us, and then men interpret what they want from the evidence they see in our shirts. Large-breasted women are considered slutty, regardless of their actual sexual feelings, and treated accordingly. Small-breasted women are considered less feminine and less attractive, and treated accordingly. Women can’t win in a patriarchy—we are punished either way.

In her post, “Transition as Self-Harm,” blogger Destroy Your Binder (DYB) writes about how she felt like her body was a siren announcing her femaleness to the world, and she wanted it to shut up. The breasts certainly announce one’s femaleness, no matter what one is wearing. A woman can look almost like a man by shaving her head and wearing men’s clothes, but one of the main reason her femaleness is still visible is because of her breasts. And to think the protruding flesh is not even biologically necessary! For girls with gender dysphoria, growing breasts must feel like a terrifying betrayal of her body, a loud announcement of a message she doesn’t want to express.

If women were in control over our culture, we’d tell a different story about our breasts. The story we’d tell is that breasts are there to feed babies, and that they don’t communicate anything about a woman’s sexual feelings or fertility. Breasts could be a regular feature of people we take seriously as authority figures and professionals, a feature that is just there, and doesn’t warrant the focus of our attention. In a woman-centered culture, the breasts wouldn’t need to be propped up in underwire bras, they could hang freely and look natural. As Natalie Angier observes, naked breasts don’t touch each other, they in fact turn away from each other. How often do we ever see breasts that are hanging down and not touching? All women are expected to present uplifted breasts when in public. The lifting and bringing together of breasts for the male gaze is mandatory, despite our discomfort with it. In a culture created by women, it wouldn’t be.

DYB talks brilliantly about how women use self-harm to say “no.”

“Self-injury is a protest against the cultural shackling and strangling of girls, using the body as a site of resistance. According to patriarchal society, a girl or woman’s own body is the singular valuable thing that she has. Destroying it is a perverse way to give those that have violated her autonomy a huge “fuck you.”

Girls often have no voice or say over how their bodies are treated. When saying “no” doesn’t work, we have to resort to something else. We don’t have the option of saying “no” to men sexualizing our breasts, so some of us decide to remove the damn things, in an attempt to make it clear that we are not the sex objects they are looking for.

DYB also quotes Sarah Shah, and this is an important note:

Sarah Shaw, in a 2002 paper on historical psychiatric perspectives on women’s self injury, notes that “women may self-injure not only because they feel unable to articulate their experiences, but also when ‘language fails’… [it] is a last attempt to have others take them seriously… [it] may be the only form of communication that adequately speaks to the experience.”

A girl may not have been directly sexually abused to feel trauma over having breasts. She is taught her whole life through her culture that her breasts advertise her availability, that her body belongs to men, that submitting her body to men is sexy, and that her worth is based on how well her body attracts men. She may not have the words to describe her terror or revulsion at being treated this way, she may just have an overwhelming feeling of fear over the thought of anyone knowing she has a female body. A teenager doesn’t usually have the critical thinking skills to analyze her culture, and feminism is not usually taught to her—in fact, it’s usually hidden from her or condemned as “man-hating” or “bigoted.” With no language to describe her situation, self-harm becomes her vocabulary.

Natalie Angier mentions Amazon women in her chapter on breasts. “The Amazons are most famed for their self-inflicted mastectomies, their willingness to cut off one breast to improve their archery skills and thus to resist conquest by the male hordes surrounding them” (p133). Amazons are some of the “Strong Female Characters” from our cultural history, and are still the heroines of many lesbians and feminists. Their story begs the question: is it a legitimate strategy for women to cut off their breasts to make themselves stronger and better able to resist conquest by men? Maybe these women have it all figured out. They know what their breasts mean, in a cultural sense, and cutting them off is saying, emphatically, “fuck you, I will not be your sex toy.”

But ultimately, cutting off our own flesh is the strategy of people who have been defeated. Like I said earlier, women do this because simply saying “no” to objectification isn’t enough. We are like a fox in a trap who has to chew off its own leg to free itself, otherwise it will face death. We shouldn’t be put into this position in the first place.

I object to mastectomies for teenagers, because I think these girls are too young to fully realize why they feel the discomfort they’re feeling, and I know how often teens change their minds. Any of these young women who feel uncomfortable about their breasts during adolescence might grow to appreciate them later in life. They might end up having children and wanting to breastfeed, or they might find they enjoy sharing their breasts with a loving partner, even if they object to being sexualized by the wider world. Lots of the teen girls who are transitioning are lesbians who are too young to have ever had a lesbian relationship. They deserve the opportunity to have lesbian sex before deciding to cut off some of the parts they might share with a lover. Maybe I’m a dodgy person for thinking about that, but it’s a relevant consideration.

As long as we live in a patriarchy that systematically sexualizes and objectifies women, some of us will use mastectomy, breast reduction, and other body modifications as a strategy to cope. No matter how many times feminists shout, “Change the culture, not your body,” some women are going to find it necessary to change their bodies, because they live in the real world, not in the feminist utopia. But I’m not going to promote coping strategies, I’m going to promote fighting back. The long-term solution is not more access to surgery, it’s making surgery unnecessary by ending objectification and abuse of females.

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17 thoughts on “Having breasts while living in a patriarchy

  1. So glad you’re writing about this. I’ve been seeing a lot of “in praise of” type articles about women’s breasts and vaginas lately that just don’t sit well with me. While I’m all for body acceptance, I can’t help feeling like it’s just more objectification. Talking about how awesome women’s body parts are without addressing the women themselves feels a bit empty to me.
    I wish there was a way for me to deprogram myself from all the porn and abuse I’ve been exposed to throughout my life. I still struggle to have what feels like a healthy relationship with my body.

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  2. I believe it was Barbara Walker’s research that showed Amazons didn’t cut off their breast, although patriarchal Greeks were more than happy to repeat the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s my impression too. I’ve heard other womyn mention that this was a fabrication. You don’t really need to cut a breast off to excel at archery. The other question would be how. The chances of surviving that kind of amputation at the time would have been minute. It just does not ring true when viewed in that light.

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  3. I started developing a bust at all of eight years old, and was dragged kicking and screaming into wearing a bra in sixth grade, when my breasts were big enough to “require” one. My mother was very upset when I didn’t wear a bra, and even now that I’m an adult, she’s been horrified and scandalized when she realizes I’m not wearing a bra. A few times she demanded I put on some baggy shirt before going home, since she didn’t want me to walk around after dark in a clingy shirt without a bra. In spite of being a DD, I really don’t like bras and find I’m comfortable in most garments without them. At times, my eczema has kind of mandated I go braless, since I can’t bear the chafing against already irritated skin.

    If you believe in the aquatic apes theory (that our prehistoric ancestors spent a million or two million years in and around the water), the human female breast’s form can be explained by the fact that fat floats, and the nipple on a floating breast (composed mostly of fat) would’ve been more accessible to a baby on the water’s surface.

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  4. All women are expected to present uplifted breasts when in public. The lifting and bringing together of breasts for the male gaze is mandatory, despite our discomfort with it.

    Definitely not the case where I live. Yes, it’s the norm, but mandatory? Is this another cultural difference between Australia and the US? I’ve never had anyone suggest, let alone require, that I wear a bra. I’m pretty sure I’m far from alone in that.

    On the subject of breastfeeding, that’s the one thing that squicks me out. The thought of milk being sucked out of me (or even leaking out) almost makes my nipples hurt, it’s so repellent. Of course I don’t like babies one little bit, which no doubt contributes to that!

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    • I live in Europe, and while I get away with not wearing a bra since I really don’t need one, I have heard nasty comments on older women with larger breasts who went braless.
      Probably there is subtle discrimination against women who don’t wear bras in the workplace, but no one would say something aloud. Like with make up and high heels – every once in a while someone says something aloud and there’s a big scandal, but I don’t think that those who don’t say anything don’t discriminate.

      @Carrie-Anne: Have you ever made a habit out of wearing a bra? I know that most women feel they absolutely need a bra, and while I do not need one, I have never been able to tell whether that’s because my breasts are so small or because they were forced to develop their own support system.

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      • Interesting, isn’t it? If I’ve had discrimination on that account it’s been subtle enough I was oblivious to it. I’ve gone from C cup in my twenties and thirties to a D cup now (middle-age spread having one bonus, lol). I don’t find bras comfortable, not even the soft pull-on ones – I hate elastic around my ribs. If I wear one, it’s for when I’m getting a massage, or under a top that’s a bit too transparent for my liking, or as a boost when I do feel like Cleavage. 😉

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        • I think there must be a lot of subtle discrimination, and some you probably don’t notice at all because you don’t want to work in the place where they’d discriminate against you in the first place. I am pretty sure there are places that wouldn’t hire me – make-up less face, no bra, no high heels – but I have noticed that the jobs I genuinely like attract people like me, and the people who pay for those jobs couldn’t care less what you look like.

          It just so happens that the jobs I genuinely like are paid rather badly, and the jobs that I suspect I wouldn’t ever be hired for if I tried, are paid rather well in comparison.

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        • Me too, not that I have anything like a job I can imagine really wanting (as in, the type of work – work is just something to get money, not to pour heart and soul into). I’ve usually been in some variation of customer service, which has always meant unimpressive pay.

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      • For many years, I did have a habit of wearing a bra, since it had been drilled into me by society and my own mother that I was supposed to wear one, but I did leave it off sometimes. Now that I’m older and living on my own, I feel more freer to leave it off. It’s a decision I don’t regret, and I don’t miss the annoying rubbing against my skin. Some of the bras in my collection aren’t my size anyway, but were only bought under pressure from my ex (whom I realize in hindsight was very porn-sick). He wanted me to wear these “sexy” bras without a lot of material or support, and a size or two lower. I’m embarrassed I bought so many clothes that weren’t my comfortable size in that relationship, but I’ve realized my mistake and don’t do it anymore. He’s welcome to try to make his new girlfriend (14 years younger than he is) wear porn-style clothing two sizes too small, though if she’s smart, she won’t stand for it either.

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  5. Thank you so much for writing this. I struggle a lot with the size of my breasts. I’m a fairly petite woman in my early twenties and they have just been getting bigger and bigger since high school. I try to avoid men but my breasts kind of announce me to the world. They make me feel ridiculous. I want to accept them as a part of me but I just don’t want them there. I wish my body wasn’t sexualized just by existing.

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  6. This is great, PSF.

    And this:
    A teenager doesn’t usually have the critical thinking skills to analyze her culture, and feminism is not usually taught to her—in fact, it’s usually hidden from her or condemned as “man-hating” or “bigoted.” With no language to describe her situation, self-harm becomes her vocabulary.

    What a different world it would be if radical feminism were a requirement in high school for all teenaged girls. Ha ha ha ha that’ll be the day. Can you imagine the outcry against trying to teach girls to resist grooming? God almighty.

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