There’s a fundamental question about womanhood and how we feel about being a woman that calls to be answered. Why are young girls so anxious about becoming a woman and eager to avoid it or hide the signs of that transition? What happens to our relationship with our breasts as we experience being a woman, as we mature?
In her book The History of Breasts, Marilyn Yalom writes about how our breasts have been the object of intense interest from many others through the ages. In ancient times the breasts were considered sacred, enter religion and the breasts were eroticised and vilified and so made subject to moral constraints, and since then they have been politicised, commercialised as tools to market a myriad of products (largely to men), liberated during the women’s movement in the symbolic burning of the bras, and medicalised, therefore reduced to a biological fact of womanhood, albeit a dangerous part of us for the breasts can kill, with rates of breast cancer continuing to increase.
As a woman and a researcher with a long interest in women’s health I found reading about the breast from this perspective fascinating and it raised quite a few questions, particularly about how women themselves feel about their breasts.
How do we as women relate to our breasts? How do we feel about them? How do we talk about our breasts? Do we even talk about them? What were we liberated from when rates of breast cancer, stress, anxiety, depression and heart disease continue to rise amongst women?
I asked these questions of myself first and the answers revealed a rather dismissive attitude towards my own breasts. While I had always been somewhat aware of how much attention women’s breasts received from others, I had to admit I barely gave any thought or attention to my own breasts. I saw them as a part of my physical body, but considered them somewhat of a nuisance – they got sore and tender before my period, I had to buy bras to support them and this was not always easy, and they seemed to get a fair bit of attention from other people, mostly unwanted. As I grew older I viewed and treated my breasts mostly as sexual objects for attracting and satisfying men, and later as providers of nourishment for my son. I don’t recall ever really talking to other women about my breasts, perhaps when I was breastfeeding, or perhaps commiserating about their size and the challenge buying a good bra, but certainly not in the same way as when we compliment another’s appearance where we tend to focus on hair and our figure. An interesting observation was that I never applied moisturiser to my breasts although I did to my arms and chest. Why did I avoid my breasts and when did this start? Do other women share this experience?
As a researcher I was interested to know what if any answers might be provided in the research literature assuming that women and breasts would have been a popular research topic. It turns out there is very little research focused on how women feel about their breasts outside of the context of breast cancer. I found only a handful of studies that explored women’s experiences of their breasts at the time of menarche, most framed by reference to patriarchy and the sexualisation of the female body. There were common themes in all of these studies, fear and anxiety about becoming a woman, the anxiety over when breasts would develop and if they would be the ‘right’ size, shame if they were too small, embarrassment and self-loathing if they were too big (Lee, 1994, 1997; Millstead & Frith, 2003). Larger breasted women also describe experiencing their breasts as a source of pleasure, pride and confidence, noting their breasts make them feel feminine (Millstead & Frith, 2003). There is some evidence that young girls who perceive their breasts develop too early or are too large have lower self-esteem and more depressive symptoms (Vogt Yuan, 2012). It seems that our breasts are experienced as problematic for us right from the moment they appear, as we experience the transition to womanhood.
I found a number of blogs published on a community blog site (Women in Livingness) written by women about their experience of Esoteric Breast Massage and in these women talked about their relationship to their breasts over time. Nearly all of the 30 women who shared their stories described the transition to womanhood as marked by menarche and the appearance of breasts as an unpleasant experience. Women described despising their breasts because they did not feel ready to become a woman, being dissatisfied with their size and either stuffing their bras or trying to hide larger breasts. Breasts were seen as a source of frustration and discomfort and sexual objects. It seems I was not alone in my dismissive approach to my breasts.
Piecing together these different strands of evidence has led me to conclude that most women don’t actually like their breasts, indeed they may loathe them or be ashamed of them, or are indeed scared of them for they come with the risk of breast cancer. At the very least women pay little attention to their breasts except at certain phases of their life – at menarche, in intimate relationships, and during breastfeeding. The statistics on breast enlargement or reduction surgeries show an alarming increase in the number of surgeries, and in particular an increase in the number of young teenage girls having these types of surgeries for cosmetic reasons. Another hint that all is not well with women and their breasts. It is almost like unless there is a problem with the breasts they are largely ignored, by us as women but also by the scientific community. So are our breasts a part of us we don’t want to talk about it, are they indeed a part of us that we ignore unless there is a problem, or is there something else going on?
I feel this raises a fundamental question about womanhood and how we feel about being a woman.
Why are young girls so anxious about becoming a woman and eager to avoid it or hide the signs of that transition? What happens to our relationship with our breasts as we experience being a woman, as we mature?
My own experience would suggest that these initial feelings of anxiety, shame or ambivalence persist. There was no published research on how women beyond menarche feel about their breasts. Returning to the blogs on women’s experience of EBM, many of the women described how through the EBMs they came to realise that their feelings about their breasts reflected their feelings about themselves as women, characterised by rejection of self, self-loathing and low self-worth. Women talked about how they had discovered a hardness and tension in their bodies and in the way they had been living, pushing and striving to meet the demands of being a woman. Women also talked about the disconnection to their breasts, sharing in many cases that they couldn’t feel them at all, they were numb. Through the process of having EBMs, women described rediscovering a natural tenderness, delicateness, stillness, beauty and joy that they had been missing for so long. This reminds me of the way we are as young girls, delighting in ourselves and the world. Women described coming to know what it truly means to be a woman so implying that our current experience of being a woman is not true.
As both a woman and a social scientist researcher finding out that most if not all women feel no connection to their breasts, dislike them and largely ignore them, leaves me with a deep sadness and unease. The question I asked myself was ‘why is this so?
What has happened that women cannot celebrate their breasts, which undeniably are a key part of being a woman? Why can we not celebrate being a woman?
I’ve come to understand that as women we are presented with a complex and confusing range of beliefs and ideals about our breasts and what it means to be a woman. These beliefs and ideals have developed over a long period of time, and are imposed on us by others, predominantly men. From the moment breasts appear they are both sexualised by the male gaze and then desexualised in relation to motherhood (Lee, 1997). As women seem to have accepted the beliefs and ideals of others about who we are to be and what our breasts signify. Why have we accepted this? There is always a choice so why have we as women chosen to give our power away to others? Why have we chosen to disconnect from our breasts? Could it be that in this choice what we have really chosen is to reject the very essence of what it means to be a woman? It is time to deeply consider our choice here, and give ourselves the time and space to reconnect with our breasts and ourselves.
Social Science Researcher