Time we reclaimed what is rightfully ours

Our breasts belong to us, not to babies, partners or doctors, says Suzanne Moore
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So this is National Breast Awareness Week. Looking around me I wonder if it is possible to be more aware of breasts than we already are. Breasts are everywhere: on billboards, on the front of magazines, inside newspapers.

I am more than aware of Pamela Anderson's breasts. Helena Christiansen's follow me around. You can see Demi Moore's breasts flying towards you as she rips off her shirts at a cinema near you. Eva Herzigova's have become entities in their own right.

Caprice Bourret, the new Wonderbra woman, has had hers on show recently. For this is also National Wonderbra Week and, for every bra sold, pounds 1 goes towards the breast cancer research charity Breakthrough. All this breast- baring is in a good cause, then. This newspaper has even had its own Breast Awareness supplement, with its guide to the risks, symptoms and treatment of breast cancer.

Yet we are terribly muddled about breasts. Perhaps we always have been. The breast, as Freud once said, is the place where hunger and desire meet. Yet the source of our anxiety at the moment is that we know that breasts link those two taboos - sex and death - in a way that makes us more than uncomfortable. Breasts may have their fun sides but they also have their downsides, cancer being one of them. Trying to merge these two languages is very difficult. The Cancer Research Campaign does it with an ad that reads: "Do more for your breasts than any bra can. Examine them."

Women's reluctance to examine their own breasts stems from the feeling that somehow their breasts do not belong to them, that they have little right to this part of their bodies, that they are somehow separate from them. Increasingly this appears not as a peculiarly female neurosis but a cultural one. The free-floating cleavages on view in every street are implicitly connected with a medical discourse that also claims some sort of ownership over the diseased breast.

One can see the Wonderbra years as a source for celebration and I am as fond of them as the next man. Fashion writers tell us beguilingly that breasts were becoming more apparent in the Eighties but they really made a comeback in the early Nineties. (Where had they been before, one might ask?)

Some of this was down to Italian dress designers. Some of it was down to Vivienne Westwood's bras worn over clothes and some of it was down to Madonna's ferociously pointy breasts designed by Gaultier. These were aggressive breasts, breasts as weapons, as culture rather than nature, thrust out by women who knew exactly whose property they were. It was a "look but don't touch" look, and Gossard, which had to lay people off in the Eighties, was able to go into the Nineties with the workforce busy seven days a week.

Now the launch of a new bra is a national event; the models in the ads become instant celebrities. Who last week had heard of Caprice Bourret? Now she is on television presenting awards clad in a Versace net curtain, breasts pushed onwards and upwards.

Yet as Brigid McConville says in her book on the subject - appropriately titled Mixed Messages - there are still many women who are not so at ease with all this imagery. "My mother wouldn't call a breast a breast. She called it her 'chest'." Actually, most of us rarely call a breast a breast unless we are trying to be grown-up. Most of us settle on the slang word of our choice.

The tabloid choice is "boob", which of course also means a mistake. The Page 3 girl, a relic from the days when breasts were not freely available, struggles on forever caught in her back-to-front swimsuit in some Seventies time-warp.

Whereas once upon a time Page 3 guaranteed a path to a "glamorous" world full of boxers, B-list pop stars and opening supermarkets, it now looks more and more like a dead-end job. Those who have got it become supermodels, those who haven't just flaunt it more mundanely than ever before.

As Page 3 girl Ruth Gordan says in that seminal work, Storm in a D-Cup, "some of the girls become prima donnas. They get a bit starry-eyed and think they're superstars overnight - when all you're really doing is standing there with your breasts exposed."

The current prevalence of exposed breasts can be put down to a post-feminist, laddish culture that thinks it's all a bit of a laugh. Men will be men, which means in other words it is the women's job "to get their tits out".

Yet at a time when women are encroaching on male power in several vital areas it is hardly surprising that there is a move to keep them in their properly decorative and passive place. Hence the boom in lap dancing alongside the familiar, but sad, "topless beauty" on the card behind the pub peanuts.

If women can do the things that men do, their exposed breasts serve to remind us continuously that we are different from men. A nice pair of secondary sexual characteristics is still the way to measure a woman's worth. Women, it appears, can enjoy this, too, if they are the right shape. Indeed breast envy rather than penis envy seems to be the order of the day.

Male fear erupts oddly and humorously in jokes and put-downs, in movies like Russ Meyer's Chesty Morgan and her Deadly Weapons, in which our heroine suffocates men with her breasts, in our obsession with freaks such as Pandora Peaks, whose massive breasts appear more painful than pleasurable.

Pain, however, is something that women keep to themselves. We breastfeed our babies in toilets, for God's sake. While it seems to matter little whether Pamela Anderson's breasts are real or not, breast implants have been found to be dangerous. The carcinogenic effects of silicone in rats are well documented. It has been claimed that implants can continuously leak silicone into the body yet the demand for breast implants grows.

We live in a country that has one of the highest rates of mortality for breast cancer in the world. Some doctors have said than one is likely to receive better treatment in Bombay than we do in Britain. Early detection is vital, but the practice and language of the medical establishment leave a lot to be desired. Mammograms, needles inserted without anaesthetic, diagrams drawn on breasts that are to be removed - all of this feels punitive. Many cancer patients report that they feel that the doctors owned their breasts and that they are silly to mourn their loss.

Both the titillation of popular imagery and the depersonalised jargon of medicine fuel the same fallacy - that someone else has rights over this part of our anatomies. If National Breast Awareness Week is to achieve anything it is the simple message that our breasts belong to us, not our babies, not our partners, not our doctors. They are part of us, not all of us, they give us pleasure as well as giving others pleasure. The task is to put breasts back into our own hands - literally, as well as metaphorically, if we want to save lives.