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When it comes to mammaries, we'd really rather they were real

Jojo Moyes on bogus breasts
Fed up with life? Low self-esteem? Here's a foolproof remedy: take two half-pound bags of goo, slice open your chest, and insert them. Apparently, it will change your life.

Big, bogus breasts are everywhere, it seems, promising success, increased attractiveness and self-fulfilment. The Wonderbra started it, enhancing cleavages on every billboard. Now we are busting out with the pneumatic Melinda Messenger and an increasing list of celebrities - Demi Moore, Pamela Anderson, Paula Yates, Melanie Griffiths - not just bearing manufactured mammaries, but proud to admit it.

Inflated breasts have become the new symbol of self-reinvention. "My new breasts changed my life," blare the headlines, while magazine back pages swell with ads for cosmetic surgeons. But their role as objects of fascination stems not just from their obvious sexual properties: we want to know about the criminal who spent her haul on them ("Black Widow Busts out with pounds 6,000 Boob Job"), the clerk who begged to be made redundant so she could afford them ("From Bank Job to Boob Job"), lottery winners who spend their winnings on them ("National Whoppery").

Perhaps it is not surprising that in this breast-obsessed climate, demand for cosmetic surgery is said to have tripled in the last three years, with an estimated 65,000 people a year now venturing under the surgeon's knife, 55 per cent of them for breast enlargement. Banks and building societies report an increasing trade in personal loans to facilitate the operation. Hurrah! Now everyone can have big breasts! But who are they actually for?

The popular view is that it is men who drive the demand for huge breasts; they helped create the Page 3 girl, a creation generally unloved by the rest of womankind. It is they who, the large-chested complain, fail to converse with them at eye level.

But ask any man who has actually had contact with an implanted breast whether he liked it, and more often than not the words thrown back are along the lines of "weird", "offputting" and, indeed, "repellent". In July, even Sun readers voted to have silicone breasts removed from Page 3, that altar of mammary worship. Eighty two per cent of readers voted that models with breast enlargement should be barred, in favour of the unenhanced. The only men who can undeniably be said to profit are the plastic surgeons (and usually they are men).

These breasts are not for children - the nurturing of which, lest we forget, is their primary purpose. Although it is usually claimed that breast implants will not interfere with breastfeeding, this is not the case if (as is a risk with any breast surgery) glandular tissue or milk ducts are affected.

No, women who choose to submit themselves to the scalpel say the implants are for them, to make them feel more "confident", more "feminine", so they can hold their own against other women. Big breasts, they say, equal power. One woman interviewed last week ("My new breasts changed my life") said the only women who tried to deter her "were those with a full bust".

But women generally do not envy the inflated; more often they just feel a sense of awe that someone could go through with it. And who makes them feel inadequate? As a girl, I never witnessed locker-room scenes of "Mine are bigger than yours" taunting - indeed, most women with really large breasts spent their adolescence trying to disguise them, and now complain of the discomfort and excessive attention which they elicit.

Much of it is circular, to do with the prevalence of big-breasted images in our culture today. Would these women feel inadequate if they were living in the flapper-led Twenties, or the Sixties, when the ironing-board body of Twiggy was the height of fashion? And how will these women feel if flat-chestedness becomes the desirable outline of the future?

Professor David Sharpe, president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, acknowledged this last month when he said that his reservation about implants was not about silicone "but that women who have small breasts are somehow seen as less attractive. That is an indictment of society."

He performed the operation, he said, because women were desperately unhappy. "It is not about vanity, but self-consciousness ... An operation is a statement which proclaims that a woman feels inadequate about her appearance."

Reconstructive surgery aside, these women need to conform to a modern ideal; they look at Melinda, or Demi, and translate a difference in breast size into a difference in worthiness. But breast size does not denote attractiveness: Kate Moss is a beauty icon of our time, small-breasted and comfortable in her own skin. I once knew a former Playboy bunny with breasts - her own admission - like two fried eggs. Men genuflected in her presence.

Beauty has more to do with confidence than cup size. And in an age where we are increasingly aware of toxins, and monitor scrupulously what we put in our mouths and lungs, it seems bizarre that women are voluntarily cutting themselves open to insert foreign substances into their bodies, closing their eyes to the possibility of any long-term problems.

But perhaps that is the point. Because the silicone, oil-based, saline, or Hydrogel breast is the ultimate icon of our time. It is the ultimate in short-termism, the ultimate in style over content.

Women who have had implants don't want to hear about potential side-effects in the future; they want to feel better about themselves now. They don't care if it feels a bit different; they just care that it should look perfect. If they lose a bit of sensation, have trouble breastfeeding or suffer the odd sleepless night from fear, isn't that a small price to pay?

Strippers demonstrate perhaps the most honest application. They have breast implants to increase their worth as a commodity. They look better, therefore the rewards are greater. Everything else is unimportant. And that is the saddest thing. Where our deepest associations with the natural breast were those of comfort, pleasure and sensuality, the unnatural one has perverted all that: it is about nothing but appearance.

In the rush to meet a modern ideal, we are left with something closer to the stripper's art: look, don't touch. Perhaps it is time to adopt a slogan from the boys' tray. Size isn't everything, girls.