These are confusing times for those of us with breasts. Breasts, boobs, tits, baps, norks, whatever you want to call them, these pillowy globes have been making the news, and all because those who don’t have them view them as a problem.
Following her appearance at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards, the actress Susan Sarandon found herself in the spotlight though not, you understand, for her nomination for her role in The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe. In fact it was her choice of outfit that caused a stir on account of it showing a bit of cleavage. Among her critics was Piers Morgan who tweeted that Sarandon was “flaunting [her] breasts on TV for publicity” and that it was “horribly inappropriate”.
Poor Piers. It must be a stressful life when you can have your day ruined by the décolletage of a hugely respected, awards-festooned actress. In an attempt to clarify matters, he later remarked that he’s not anti-cleavage per se, he’s just anti-cleavage during tributes to the dead (Sarandon was presenting the In Memoriam segment), seemingly labouring under that belief that women’s breasts are detachable and can be put in a drawer for life’s less jolly moments.
But Morgan, sadly. isn’t the only self-appointed arbiter of celebrity boobage. Plenty of other men took to Twitter to pass judgement on Sarandon, and not just on the quantity of visible flesh, but the quality. Too old, too big, too droopy, they complained, each of them unwavering in the conviction that their opinions about the body of a stranger are hugely important.
It was a similar story for singer Rita Ora whose bosomy outfit on BBC1’s The One Show prompted 400 complaints from viewers last month. Perhaps she was giving the finger to the moaners when she posed topless last week for the cover of the US magazine Lui. And how about Rowena Kincaid, a cancer patient who posted a picture of her nipple on Facebook to show what the early symptoms of the disease look like, only to have Facebook remove it from her page? [After a report in The Independent on Sunday, the picture was reinstated.] Breasts should be kept under wraps, goes the thinking, no matter what the cost to our health.
Putting aside for a moment the misogynistic culture that gives men carte blanche to make women feel crap about their bodies, these are curiously mixed messages being relayed about breasts, notably how they should look, how much we should show and how much we should hide.
A week ago the Free The Nipple picnic took place in Brisbane, where women of all ages and shapes had lunch topless and al fresco as part of a wider campaign about the sexualisation and censorship of breasts. The outcry that followed wasn’t because the women were semi-naked, it was that they hadn’t invited men to join the party.
This confusion over how we should manage our chest appendages is, of course, illustrated hourly on the Daily Mail website’s Sidebar of Shame, which praises female celebrities for “flaunting her curves” or “flashing her cleavage”, alongside leering tit shots. But woe betide those who show too much, or whose curves don’t measure up to the paper’s exacting standards. Then it’s all “Put it away, love”, usually followed by a close-up of said woman inhaling a bucket of KFC.
There seems to be disagreement, too, over what exactly breasts are for, a fact highlighted by YouTuber Joey Salads who last month filmed the differing responses from members of the public to the sight of a woman breastfeeding a baby, and a model wearing a low-cut top. While the model got appreciative stares and men sidling up to her for a chat, the breastfeeding mother was repeatedly told that she was disgusting.
Given the anger and outrage that they provoke, it’s no wonder that so many of us have an uncomfortable relationship with our breasts. This is a shame since, when you think about it, they are amazing – clothes hangers, shelves for resting tea on and mobile milk bars that can keep babies happy and, crucially, alive.
Yet, historically, culture tells us they are the principal signifiers of femininity and they exist largely for the entertainment of men.
My boobs and I have a good relationship but it wasn’t always so. After a year of breastfeeding, they became two deflated strangers that had, literally, been chewed up and spat out. Time and the healing powers of the human body means I have grown to love them once more but still, it’s this kind of insecurity that sustains plastic surgeons across the land.
A woman’s identity being reduced to body parts is nothing new – it affects most girls from the day they buy their first trainer bra. I don’t know a woman who hasn’t, at one time or another, embarked on a conversation with a man whose gaze has hovered 12 or so inches south of her face. How we choose to present them is also, to many, a marker of our sexual availability. A low neckline equals up for it, a high one means we are prudish and dull.
This fetishisation of our chests is met by most women with silent resignation, much in the same way that we put up with potholes in the roads. Far more serious are men’s efforts to control women’s bodies, whether interfering in our reproductive rights or sexual autonomy.
While these battles are being fought male carping about cleavage may seem trivial, but it is symptomatic of something darker. Guys, by all means quietly marvel at our breasts from afar and, if invited, come and take a closer look. But please remember that they’re ours, not yours.
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