The Breast Uncovered—Her Life With Boobs
By Jessica Aldridge and Bridgett Jensen
The beauty of the breast is socially constructed. Fashion and media tend to influence how society views breasts. The natural breast is stigmatized for its imperfections while millions of women struggle with body image in pursuit of unnatural perfection. The breast is also influenced by culture in that in the United States, boobs are considered to be a taboo sex organ. In other nations, such as France, boobs are commonly shown in soap commercials and on beaches. Our society has transformed an organ designed to feed offspring into a sexual object through media and religion.
The social construction of our view of boobs
From a biological standpoint, boobs are intended to feed infant humans. The social view of boobs changes almost simultaneously with the current fashion trend of the time once the corset emerged. The history of boobs and binding dates back to 2500 B.C.E..
The Minoan women were already sporting garments that resemble a brassiere . These are worn to lift their breasts out from their clothes. After many years, the women from ancient Greece and Rome used another approach of wearing brassiere support. They strapped their chest with a band in order to lessen the size of their bust (Carnival 2008).
So for the Minoan women, big boobs were not favorable. Then in the3rd Century when the first form of breast binding emerges in athletic women in ancient Greece (National Geographic Society 2007). McDonald (2008) stated that during the Middle Ages any form of breast binding was banned by the Holy Roman Empire. Tight laced bodices and high collared shirts are worn for function, not fashion. By the time of the Renaissance upper class women favor firm breasts and wet nurses are used to keep the breasts from changing form as breastfeeding causes the elasticity of the breast to sag and become less firm. In the 1500’s, the first corsets emerge. The breasts are supposed be pushed up and look full above a tight corset. At this time in history, voluptuous breasts are fashionable.
French fashion was more to the fore towards the end of the 17th century, and corsets became more elaborate, and an essential part of the ‘look’ of voluminous richly fabriced skirts, lots of petticoats, and a slender waist held in by a corset which also pushed up the breasts to give an enticing, strapless decolletage to any woman attending a social occasion (McDonald 2008).
It would have been socially unpleasing to have very small boobs during the 1600’\s because society found the fuller breast to be beautiful. The corset remained the staple accessory to maintaining the perfect set of boobs until the French Revolution. In 1789 corsets were shunned in France because they represented the aristocracy who prospered while the common person starved. The corset would remain out of fashion until 1814 when they return to court in France (National Geographic Society 2007). Another hundred years would pass until the corset fell out of fashion. In 1859, the earliest patent on the modern brassiere was filed under U.S. Patent 24,033, but production was still a few years away (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office 2009). During the time period of the corset, small breasts were unfashionable.
In 1913, Mary Phelps Jacobs, a socialite, created the first brassiere after becoming frustrated with the corset. Women had lamented the discomfort of the corset for centuries by this time. She used 2 pink ribbons and a handkerchief to make the first brassiere. Her friends and family began to ask her for more until one day, a stranger commissioned her to make one. At this time Mary decided she could create a business out of her invention and began to create as many as possible (National Geographic Society 2007). It seemed that the corset was falling out of fashion quickly. Mary Phelps Jacobs was about to get another reason that her new invention was going to be popular: World War I.
The corset would end its historical rule over American women when the United States became heavily involved in World War I. Women happily donated their corsets to the military during this war due to the severe shortage of steel. Corsets contributed 28,000 tons of steel to the war effort and women were relieved to be rid of them. (National Geographic 2007). Once again, small breasts became fashionable with the exit of the corset.
“When women sought power — the ’20s suffragettes, the ’80s corporate climbers — breasts were bandaged flat or masked with big shoulders and broad lapels” (Horn 1994). So when the 1920s rolled around, it is not surprising that a boyish look called the “flapper” came into style. It was considered unattractive to have a womanly full figure. Instead a flat-chested look was made popular with the assistance of a brassiere bandeau. Women in modern times would know the brassiere bandeau better as a tube top (Wikipedia 2009). By 1924, a dress making company named Maidenform decided to improvise on the brassiere bandeau to make their dresses fit women better and look more feminine. This new version of the brassiere lifted the breasts and made them look more appealing in a Maidenform dress (Maidenform 2009). Just four years later, William Rosenthal invented the modern brassiere sizing system that is still used today (National Geographic 2007).
During the 1930s, young college women began to call the brassiere, the bra. It was also during this time period where homemade bras were no longer necessary to make as the bra went into mass production. The bra really began to take a more modern shape and was made out of different materials and colors (Gyno Gab 2009). “When they [women] were pushed home to have babies after World War II, the bosomy sweater girl reigned. That’s when Howard Hughes’s aircraft engineers built a brassiere to give Jane Russell a lift” (Dow 2003). It was also during the 1940s that an increase boom of babies meant an increased need for maternity and nursing bras (Gyno Gab 2009). Big boobs were advertised as a sign of fertility and health.
The fifties saw the application of the strapless bra and many strapless gowns. Fuller breasts were socially attractive as can be seen in top sex symbols of this decade. Stars like Brigitte Bardot and Jayne Mansfield more than fill out their strapless gowns (Little 2006). “Sixties brassiere burners rebelled precisely against the ideal of woman as object of desire and nourishing mother” (Horn 1994). Obviously without a bra, the fuller breasted woman was no longer socially attractive. Smaller boobs were in again. Few women wore bras in response to public outcries for female liberation. The famous bra burning incident occurs during this time (Dow 2004). “Sixties bra burners rebelled precisely against the ideal of woman as object of desire and nourishing mother” (Horn 1994).
In some ways though, it seems as if the sixties were only liberating the women who looked good without a bra on. By the 1970’s a poor economy led women back to work and into bras. And while young men might have been drooling over a running Farrah Fawcett in their dreams, the social norm for boobs was still small-chested. After all, this was also an era of scanty tops of the Disco era and the explosion of the tube top (Bukisa 2009), both of which look more attractive on women with small boobs.
As Horn (1994) stated, the 1980s was a time of female corporate climbers who ironically were hidden beneath large lapels and shoulder pads. Then the 1990s came and big boobs were again popular with a hit television show called Baywatch also known as “Babewatch”. Only by this time, the artificial breast implant was available to average women, and women with small boobs could pay to get big boobs (Surgical Artistry 2007). Modern technology has afforded this generation the option to fix most of their body through plastic surgery. But what if we just accepted ourselves, and our boobs, as nature intended us to look?
The view of how women and their boobs should be is diffused throughout the public via media messages. Whether it be images and diet tricks in popular women’s magazines or the latest Victoria Secret Model encouraging women to buy he latest push-up bra, we are bombarded by constant reminders of the perfect female. Young girls all across this nation strive to look like the airbrushed models who themselves don’t even look as good as their magazine photos in real life (Knight-Ridder 1996). When girls, and boys for that matter, cannot discern between reality and fantasy images and expectations of women, then we are left with a lot disappointed women with severe body image issues and men with unrealistic expectations.
It is clear that we let fashion and societal expectations construct how a natural body part should look. From the flat-chested flapper girls who tried to look as boyish as possible to the 1950’s busty pin-up girl, it is clear that the beauty of boobs is indeed relative and socially constructed. Were women in the 1920s naturally flat-chested or did they come in all shapes and sizes? Did women in the 1990s all have big boobs like the lifeguards on Baywatch?
A System of Oppression
In order to fully understand the impact cultural constructs have on the ways women view their own breasts it is helpful to look at the breast in other cultures—European cultures especially as they are closest to the culture in the United States and will provide us with a better idea of how culturally conceived notions about the breast, as well as the breast uncovered, might impact a woman’s sexuality and her level of comfort with that sexuality. It is helpful to take a quick look at how this oppression might work.
In Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Susan Bordo describes how images of the female body, images of “normalcy,” (In the case of breasts, “normalcy” would be airbrushed images of enhanced and augmented breasts) tend to oppress women in two significant ways. She explains that cultural representations “homogenize,” meaning that they smooth out all racial, ethnic, and sexual ‘differences’ that disturb Anglo-Saxon, heterosexual expectations and identifications” (Bordo, 2003). Bordo goes on to explain that cultural representations not only homogenize but that the “homogenized images normalize—that is they function as models against which the self continually measures, judges, “disciplines,” and “corrects” itself.” This definition of oppression, which Bordo explains is an answer to the worry that earlier feminist discourse couldn’t account for the myriad of ways that women “policed” themselves, is based on Foucault’s theory that “modern power is non-authoritarian, non-conspiratorial, and indeed non-orchestrated; yet it nonetheless produces and normalizes bodies to serve prevailing relations of dominance and subordination” (Bordo, 2003).
Bordo explains that:
“where power works “from below,” prevailing forms of selfhood and subjectivity (gender among them) are maintained, not chiefly through physical restraint and coercion although social relations may certainly contain such elements), but through individual self-surveillance and self-correction to norms.” (Bordo, 2003)
These theories of power and oppression are helpful to keep in mind when discussing the minor (but perhaps major) differences in the way Europeans view sexuality, and in particular, the breast.
Toplessness on Europe’s Beaches and Prevailing Attitudes on Female Sexuality
Sitges, Spain is a small coastal town about 35 kilometers southwest of Barcelona. It is a beautiful Catalonian city with 17 sand beaches, old beachfront resorts, seafood restaurants that sit only meters away from the blue waters of the Mediterranean, even an old monastery that overlooks the main city beaches. And Sitges, Spain has bare breasts—tons of them. Take a walk along one of the 17 beaches in Sitges or almost anywhere else in Europe or Australia, and you will see a wide variety of bare-breasts. What is toplessness and why is it acceptable in Europe but not in the United States?
Interestingly enough, the word “topless” almost uniformly applies to women. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines “topless” as “having no top” or “designating or pertaining to a (woman’s) garment that does not cover the breasts and upper body” (2002). Wikipedia defines “toplessness” as “the state in which a female has her breasts uncovered, with her areolae and nipples visible, usually in public space.” That “toplessness” refers to women and women only is one example of how society has accepted and assimilated the idea that barechestedness in men is a norm and thus socially acceptable but in women it is indecent or sexually immodest.
In the United States, sexual modesty is valued for several reasons, according to Anita L Allen. Allen contends that discomfort with nudity is “a function of fear and distrust.” She explains that
“Ours is in many ways an emotionally immature society that needs a sexual morality that includes sexual modesty. One doubts that fellow citizens have sufficient self-control to handle a regime of permissible nudity . . . We fear others will turn what is supposed to be non-obscene and natural into something obscene and perverse. We fear shame objectification and victimization” (Allen, 2006).
Furthermore, Allen explains that “another source of discomfort is aesthetic. We are not used to looking at a broad range of naked bodies . . . In many parts of the world people are accepting of naked bodies of all shapes and sizes. They don’t need sexual modesty laws like ours.” And finally that “a third consideration is that sexual modesty is related to general modesty in our society. . . Going nude in public is a way to show off; it is over-publicizing one’s sex appeal” (Allen, 2006).
In Europe, on the other hand, US standards of modesty are seen as silly as well as counterproductive. In a column for the BBC, Washington Correspondent Justin Webb explains, while discussing the Janet Jackson breast outrage (during the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show, Justin Timberlake inadvertently pulled at Janet Jackson’s costume and exposed her right breast), that “relaxed Europeans would tell the Americans if only they would listen, the effort to desexualise all of public life, results not only in very dull television, but in an underbelly of seediness – which is the only place left for it to go” (Webb, 2004).
Toplessness on European beaches became de rigueur during the 1960s when women, in reaction to movie stars in Cannes and St. Tropez, started going topless on the beaches of the French Riviera. This practice slowly spread to the other beaches in Europe and now the practice is mostly “uncontroversial” (Wikipedia, 2009). And while there seem to be a “complex set of symbols and rules [that] govern etiquette and behavior about covering and uncovering breasts” having to do with when the top is off or on in relation to the woman’s activity (ie. If she is walking to a food stand, the top is on; if she is lying on the towel, the top is off, etc) the European attitude does seem to foster a relative relaxation in the way both women and men respond to boobs (Bikini Science 2009).
In fact, it may be fair to say that toplessness on European beaches is both an example of and a positive factor in the more open attitudes toward sex and sexuality in general in European countries.
“The open attitude of Europeans seems to produce more cultural benefits than the puritanical view that is currently allowed the bulk of political power in the US. Besides being allowed to see humans in their pure form so that a breast becomes just a breast, experts find that many Europeans recognize the inevitability of their adolescents having sex, and have decided that the best strategy is to give them all the info they need to make socially responsible decisions.” (Martin 2009)
Barbara Huberman, director of outreach and education at Advocates for Youth, in Washington, D.C. explains that because Europeans are so comfortable with sexuality and the body they do not view teen sexuality as anything but normal (Qtd. in Martin 2009). And looking at the statistics, it seems that the Europeans do have something on those of us keeping our breasts under wraps in the United States. The average age of sex of teenagers in Europe is higher than US teenagers and the rate of teen births, teen abortions, and teen cases of HIV are lower! (Martin 2009).
So Where Do We Go From Here (or)
Her Life With Boobs—the Blog
We have decided to create a weblog titled, “Her Life with Boobs” in order to create a place for women to examine and confront both societal as well as internalized ways they are oppressed by their notions concerning boobs. It is our hope that by providing this weblog, we will foster an environment that promotes boob confidence in woman as well as confronts the deeply held assumptions we, as a society, have concerning boobs.
This weblog will incorporate personal testimony, statistical information concerning beauty and thus body trends, as well as interactive questionnaires so that readers can contribute to the discussion.
We are hopeful that this weblog will facilitate a new and enduring discussion of women’s lives with boobs.
To our Lives with Boobs!
Jessica and Bridgett
Allen, Anita L. 2006. “Symposium: Privacy Law in the New Millennium: A Tribute to Rihard C.Turkington: Article: Disrobed: The Constitution of Modesty.” Villanova Law Review (51 Vill.L. Rev. 841, 2006).
Bikini Science. 2009. “Topless (No Top).” Retrieved October 11, 2009 from http://bikiniscience.com/costumes/soutien-gorge_SS/topless/S/topless.html.
Bordo, Susan. 2003. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (10th AnniversaryEdition). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Bukisa. 2009. 1970’s fashion history. Retrieved October 9, 2009 from http://www.bukisa.com/articles/154185_1970s-fashion-history.
Dow, Bonnie J. Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology. Rhetoric & Public Affairs Volume 6,Number 1, Spring 2003, pp. 127–149.
Horn, Miriam. 1994. The bra facts. U.S. News & World Report, 00415537, 3/21/94, Vol. 116, Issue 11
Knight-Ridder. 1996. Barbie’s body may be perfect but critics remind us that it’s plastic. AlbanyTimes-Union 22 March, 1996.
Little, Jeff. 2006. Rewind the fifties. Retrieved October 11, 2009 from http://www.loti.com/hubba_hubba.htm.
Martin, James. 2009. “Janet Jackson’s Right Breast and European Sexual Attitudes.” RetrievedOctober 11, 2009 from http://goeurope.about.com/cs/sex/a/euro_sexuality.htm.
Topless. In The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (5th Edition, 2002. p. 3300). New YorkOxford University Press.
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. 2009. Retrieved October 10, 2009 from http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsrchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=0024033.PN.&OS=PN/0024033&RS=PN/0024033.
Webb, Justin. BBC News, 2004. “No Sex Please, We’re American.” Retrieved October 13, 2009 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/3492968.stm.
–. 2009. Toplessness. Retrieved October 12, 2009 from http//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toplessness.