Disclaimer: this article is cis-centric, and focuses on the debate around the breasts of those who have been assigned female at birth. I acknowledge that not all those who have breasts identify as women, and not all who identify as women have breasts.
When I was five, I remember playing outside with my older brother and our neighbour. They had their shirts off, so I decided to take mine off too. They stopped, scrunched up their noses, and my brother quickly said: “Girls can’t take their shirts off – only boys!” Me, being a little ball of fire, stomped my feet and demanded that I be allowed to do whatever the boys were doing.
Fifteen years later and I’m still stomping my feet.
It’s safe to say that I view my boobs as a curse. No matter how many “love yourself” campaigns filter through my newsfeed, I still don’t feel comfortable with what are essentially my large sacks of fat. However, when you look at my past experiences with them, and how society views breasts, it’s understandable as to why.
In adolescence I realised I was not blessed by my genetic pool, and did not inheriting my mother’s slim figure. Instead, I took after the Greeks and obtained a bit too much baby fat and a flat chest. From 12 to 14, petite and perky bodies surrounded me everywhere – from in the media to in the change room. The message was clear: I was different and should be ashamed.
Then something strange happened: I became an E cup. To me, my boobs were just fat. To other people, they signalled femininity and attractiveness. Men started looking at me, my fellow peers told me how lucky I was, and every Tom, Dick and Harry thought that I needed reminding about how big my boobs were. As if I hadn’t already noticed that I had an extra six kilos of fat on my chest!
As I now find myself reflecting on my last five years with my tatas, the only thing that I am certain about is that you can’t rely on society to tell you what to do with your breasts. If you did, you’d be as confused as I have been the last five years.
The sad fact of the matter is that boobs play a crucial role in how society perceives women. In the past, larger breasts have been viewed as more attractive. They are regarded as ‘womanly’ and help achieve the sought-after hourglass figure. According to the Herald Sun, the number of women undertaking breast implant surgery per year has risen since 2005 from approximately 4,000 to over 40,000.
I remember being told by friends to “show off the girls more”. And I won’t even bother getting into the ‘creative’ lines eager 16-year-old boys would yell at me.
You’d think something so highly in demand, talked about and ‘desirable’ wouldn’t be shunned and scrutinised. Yet, for every time I was encouraged to show off my knockers, there were equal amounts of times that I was told I looked “slutty”.
In more professional, formal locations – like the classroom or the workplace – an accidental pop of the top button would often cause a cleavage slip and some awkward looks from peers or co-workers. This has happened too many times, likely as a result of mainstream clothing brands’ failure to cater for those with larger busts.
Significantly, however, women have also reported using their cleavage to help them deal with tough work situations. In 2016, Wonderbra UK surveyed women, asking them how they use their breasts to their own benefit; one in seven reported that their boobs have helped them excel in their workplace. Even British journalist Liz Jones once admitted: “There was a time when I owed my career to my cleavage … I made terrible mistakes, and got away with them, because I had a giant cleavage.”
This then begs the question, is it ever okay to use your bongos to get ahead? In work environments that are still male dominated and dictated by unequal pay and mansplaining, are women justified in using this feature of their bodies to make their way to the front of the pack?
Interestingly, one entire industry which uses boobs to get ahead – in this case for monetary gain – is the media. They are medium to large in size, perky and plastered all over the place to help create a sultry image and grab the attention of consumers.
We see so many breasts.
What we don’t see though, are areolas or nipples.
Although exposing nipples is considered by many to be indecent exposure, the law actually doesn’t state anything against this. Section 5 of the Summary Offences Act 1998 (NSW), which discusses “obscene exposure”, states that “a person shall not, in or within view from a public place or a school, willfully and obscenely expose his or her person.”
Essentially, “his or her person” is based on what constitutes society’s standards at that time, and although it is rare to go to jail for being topless, you can still be fined and would most likely be asked to cover up.
So, while our ‘fruits of independence’ (an actual name for boobs I found online) are in, areolas or nipples are out. This may explain why public breastfeeding is often rejected, which is one of the more perplexing issues surrounding these body parts.
The ability to feed our young from our breasts is something that humans share with other mammals. Even the Church regarded it as sacred, with Medieval and Renaissance era portraits of the Virgin Mary depict her breastfeeding baby Jesus Christ. These are referred to as Virgo Lactans, or the Nursing Madonna.
However, women who breastfeed in public today still encounter their fair share of criticism. Just this year at the National Gallery of Australia, a mother was asked to move to the parents’ room to continue breastfeeding – the irony was that, in the same room, was a sculpture of a mother breastfeeding her child.
For too many people, breasts are purely objects of sexual desire. Boobs on TV (without nipples of course) are okay, but breastfeeding is not. So, while society continues to pick and choose how they perceive our boobs/samosas/shoulder boulders/funbags/jugs/whatever you want to call them, I’m going to keep doing what five-year-old me did: take my shirt off and stomp my feet!