March 24 2004 12:00 AM

Men, women, the media, American culture - we just can't stop talking about THEM boobs


    Mine are what society deems small.

    “Flat-chested,” “pancake” and “boy.” Those were the most common names associated with my breasts growing up. Girls were into wearing tight, knit, button-down sweaters to show off the outline of their brand new, white JC Penny training bras. If you were really cool, your mother would buy Underoos' silky slipover bras. My mother got me a training bra at the same time everyone else got one, even though I didn't need one. Sitting at lunch among the got-'ems and the don't-got-'ems, I remember praying that by the end of the day my breasts would protrude just enough that I could see their profile from the side.

    In the eighth grade I was the founder of my class' chapter of the “Itty Bitty Titty Committee.” I'm still a card-carrying member. Back then, in my “mosquito bite” phase, I had no clue that “itty bitty” was perceived by a large percentage of media-fed people as a negative asset.

    The 1950s and '60s presented little girls with the gift that continues to give-Barbie. Her perfectly upright, protruding breasts make girls want to be like her. Interestingly, Barbie came into being around the same time as the birth of Playboy.

    I have never seen an “I have small breasts but love myself anyway” Barbie.

    Obviously, I didn't feel good about my breasts. I wasn't alone in thinking that my breasts were inferior or I wouldn't fit into society's tightly knitted fabric-of-our-lives way of thinking.

    This infatuation with what is, essentially, fatty tissue has come to be acceptable. Alluring renditions of Barbie-cleavage overpopulate billboards, and breast augmentation, natural enhancers, implants and high-tech tissue-paper stuffing are the rage. Janet Jackson's mammary gland exposé isn't just a CNN discussion; women and men have definite opinions about chi-chis and ta-tas, but breasts haven't always been at the very heart of socio-eroticism.

    Silbury Hill in England is the largest man-made mound of earth in Europe. Built in 2900 B.C., the structure resembles a single, huge breast, and though it's assumed to be the burial ground of “King Sil,” it's also been connected with ancient goddess rituals, depicted as a “fertile breast full of milk to feed her people.” In ancient times, fertility was looked upon as a sacred thing and women were honored for bringing forth life and then single-handedly sustaining it. Breasts, back then, were seen as a seed and source for life-not a source of catcalls or so-called shocking soft-primetime-porn football footage.

    Throughout the world, sacred murals etched in cathedrals and holy places depict semi-nude women, minus the emphasis on breasts or sexuality. According to Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, women's breasts were sacred and real-honored in ancient times rather than viewed as objects separate from the woman they were attached to.

    It was during the Renaissance that breasts first became a fashion accessory-women, in fact, padded their bust line in order to create a more alluring profile. Corsets, the precursor to bras, literally rearranged women's insides in order to give them a tiny waist that in turn accentuated their breasts. But when it came to utility purposes, the act of breastfeeding, while admired and discussed among elite circles of women, was also seen as a submissive act. According to a 1788 French manifesto, “The nursing function is to strengthen the bond of families, be responsible for the duties of the woman, force them to be indoors to avoid shameful behavior....”

    In other words, breasts were great, but you had to keep those mysterious, angelic milk cartons covered. Any public display was illegal. The first bra, was, in fact, invented to flatten breasts.

    Over time, the concept of breastfeeding has become, at least in American culture, a red, white and blue oxymoron. On one hand, society subliminally and publicly broadcasts messages that tell consumers to enjoy ogling breasts-particularly big ones. They strategically appear in car commercials, teen movies and Internet porn pop-ups. But, by all means, don't you dare let an actual mama display them with a baby's mouth attached to the nipple in the mall lobby.

    It's hard to believe that while American technology is fantabulous-what with Rover checkin' out the scenery on Mars and all-women are still deliberately getting the stink eye from public onlookers when they take a moment to pass disease-fighting antigens on to their offspring.

    Co-Motion, a work-in-progress video documentary by San Diego filmmaker Zeinabu Davis, primarily features women of color who choose to breastfeed. As an African-American woman who decided to breastfeed her daughter, Davis made the film to raise awareness of breastfeeding and its complications and joys. “Some women, especially young mothers are not encouraged to breastfeed their children,” she said. “[They're told] their breasts will get messed up-translation: sag-if they breastfeed their children.”

    Davis points out that the workplace tends to be anti-breastfeeding as well. “Breastfeeding is a very personal choice that needs to be respected no matter what decision the woman takes,” she said. “It is my hope that Co-Motion will offer women another way to think and look at themselves, their breasts and breastfeeding.”

    Davis herself experienced obvious disapproval while breastfeeding in public and thinks that the breast issue is unique to our culture. “I think that it may be more Western men, or men associated with American culture,” she said. “When I lived in Kenya, I don't think that men had the same obsession with breasts. Many women of various ages often went topless, especially when they were working.

    “That did not arouse men and they did not ogle the women,” Davis noted.

    Ashley Evers, a program director at the University of Missouri, also publicly breastfed both of her children. “People don't have that reaction to cleavage,” she said. “I think it is something about the nipple that gets people worked up.” Evers pointed out that humans are the only mammals that maintain breasts even after childbirth and nursing. “They are just there for our pleasure,” she said.

    Obviously, this functional duality of breasts being sex objects and milk for babies poses a problem when it comes to both men and the media. There is an enchantment with boobs and because media organizations are predominately run by men, phrases like, “I'm a breast man,” or “Damn, she's got a nice rack,” have come to be part of American lingo. Statistics show that men, when asked the question, “What's the first thing you notice about a woman?” practically obsess about the bust line-90 percent of them admit it's the first thing they look at. The face came in second.

    Beatrice Hall, one of the founding members of The Punany Poets, seen on HBO's Real Sex, has watched the media and corporate America subliminally unravel women's self-esteem: “Over-glamorizing women in an office environment, with their breasts exposed, with the men hovering and catering to them, sends a message that if you have big boobs, it can be an asset and give you certain luxuries. If you don't have a good sense of self and think big tits will make your life easier, wouldn't you be running the nearest surgeon for a saline hit in both tits?”

    Dr. Teresa Foley, a psychologist who specializes in gender and sexuality, experienced some of the same feelings of inadequacy. “As a result of seeing the media portray the image of breasts, I wanted big ones,” she said. “So, raised as a Catholic, white, middle-class girl, I prayed every night for big breasts while doing what I was told were ‘breast exercises.' The media totally influenced my desire for the size. Until I was in graduate school and learning how to be a critical thinker, I never liked my body. It was never good enough.”

    St. Louis-based graphic artist Darryl Swint, an admitted admirer of women's bodies and a member of the “M&M club,” (men in the media), readily admits his preoccupation with breasts. “I think men have always been fascinated by breasts because they are symbols of the duality of women's roles: sexual partner and mother,” he said. “Viewing women as sexual partners, men-more visually stimulated than women-see breasts as sexual objects and are thus aroused by them.”

    Swint says this is true because breasts are the most “visible” part of a woman's sexuality as well as being the most obvious indicator-to men-of female gender. “On the flip side,” said Swint, “the fascination with breasts also relates to the power of women as mothers and givers of life. Media often use this duality as a double standard, at times readily showing the bare breasts of women of color, while at the same time the printing of a fully exposed white breast is unconscionable. White women-as [are] all women-are objectified in media, but the titillation [from] a white female breast only goes as far as partial visibility. The fact that media are often run by men plays a role in the duality of women's breasts. While Janet Jackson's three-second exposed breast was over-hyped by the media and politicos, most men watching the game considered it a bonus.”

    I asked Swint if Janet Jackson had instead been Madonna or Britney Spears, would the reaction have been the same?

    “No,” he replied. “I think that the incident would have been treated as a genuine mistake if it happened to Britney and maybe even as a source of empowerment if Madonna had done it. Madonna has been known to challenge and reject society's views of what a woman is or what a woman should do. I think if the incident had happened to Britney, the whole joke would have been a ‘Did we luck out and really get a show?' reaction. I doubt either would have received the amount of criticism about indecency leveled at Jackson.”

    Editor's note: As he says in his comment below, Mr. Swint objects to the way he was introduced in this story, and he belives that the section characterizing his opinions, overall, is largely misrepresentative of his views. Writer Tolbert acknowledges that the story doesn't accurately reflect upon Mr. Swint.

    And would the same type of love-hate-bonus hoopla have existed had Justin Timberlake accidentally showed a slice of his butt cheeks? Perhaps he would have been the butt-pun intended-of late-night television jokes or, more realistically, adoring fans would have sent him mail sympathizing with him for having been so humiliated.

    Shay Picket, a San Diego make-up artist, said Timberlake would have been excused-labeled “a prankster [while] Janet is accused of being a slut.” After all, have you ever seen a man's bare bottom on a liquor, cigarette or car advertisement or sexy primetime lingerie commercial?

    Unlike Swint, Pickett believes it didn't matter whose breast was exposed. “The reaction would have been the same,” she said. “It isn't a race issue. It's a sex issue.”

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