Monday, October 02, 2006

Disciplining the Breast, Disciplining the Woman

(Cross-posted at BlogHer in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.)


How many clothes you have to take off
before you can make love.
This I think is important:
the undoing of buttons, the gradual shedding
of one color after another. It leads
to the belief that what you see is not
what you get.

--Margaret Atwood, excerpted from "How to Tell One Country from Another"

How many clothes do you have to take off before you can reveal your breasts?
To whom do you (would you) reveal your breasts, and why?
Who has commented on your breasts? In what contexts?
In what ways do you discipline your breasts? Bras? Surgery? Pads to soak up breastmilk?
In what ways have your breasts disciplined you? Cancer? Low self-esteem? Popping out of your clothes? Hindering exercise?
In what ways have your culture's views on breasts limited or empowered you?


Having been raised in the U.S., I don't think much about breasts. I'm puritanical that way. My breasts are my business, not yours.

Having been raised in the U.S., I think a lot about breasts. I'm puritanical that way. I worry about the message my women students are sending when they wear low-cut shirts that accidentally bare a nipple. At the same time, I worry about people sending my women students the message that they need to dress with someone else in mind.

The poet John Keats came up with the idea of "negative capability." Brilliant people, he wrote, are "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." In the U.S., we have negative capability of the breast.

After all, aren't breasts in American culture all about uncertainty, mystery, and doubt? And don't we think about them without resorting to fact or reason?


I will someday be a breast cancer survivor.

I'm pretty certain of that. It's what women in my family do: survive breast cancer and then heart disease and heartbreak and whatever else fate throws at our chests.

My grandmother has been a survivor for more than twenty years. A few years back, when she was in her late seventies, she was having some heart trouble, and I rushed her to the emergency room.

They admitted her immediately, and as the nurses were applying the EKG sensors, one noticed one of the tiny blue dots my grandmother bears on her chest. They're the souvenirs of her radiation treatment, those tattoos.

"Are you a breast cancer survivor?" the nurse asked.

"Yes," Grandma said, trying to smile despite her anxiety about her chest pain. "They removed quite a lump."

"Did you have reconstruction?"

"Yes." Grandma looked at me nervously.

The nurse peered back down Grandma's hospital shirt and then turned to me.

"Have you seen these? They did a great job. They're fantastic!"

I smiled.

"No, seriously--have you seen these?"

Grandma laughed.


We've all heard straight men say it: They can't help but stare at breasts. It's a testosterone thing, they swear.

Perhaps hormones are partly to blame, but cultural attitudes about the breast are also very much in play.

Nili Sachs, the author of Booby-Trapped, How to Feel Normal in a Breast-Obsessed World, explains that the obsession with disciplining and manipulating breasts is but a recent manifestation of the human desire to mark or otherwise discipline our bodies:
In the big picture there is certain logic to our need to manipulate or modify the shape of our breasts. The human body has continually been put to use as a medium for the expression of cultural, tribal, or genealogical needs. There is a tendency for nations, tribes, and other groups to demand that their members reflect a uniformity—a sameness, an ideal—in their physical appearance. Extreme exceptions in individual appearances are looked down upon; the “different one” can be forced to alter his or her appearance or even be expelled from the group. Many civilizations had attempted, at one time or another, to force some form of body manipulation or shape alteration on some of its members, often at a heavy price. There are health and psychological consequences to using our bodies to express fashion trends or project cultural messages. Using the breasts of the human female to express a fashion and a cultural statement is a new twist—not even a hundred years old—to an ancient ritual.

In an fascinating essay published in the book American Artifacts, Shannon Miller deconstructs the corset's discipline and punishment:
No matter what else a woman wore, the basic fact remained that the corset's shape was always meant to be seen and interpreted by others. This implies the presence of others, a viewing audience, at every stage in her life. Further, the biological roles suggested by a formal analysis of the corset--virgin, harlot, mother--are all defined by a woman's relationship with others.

After the corset came the bra. Miriam Forman-Brunell of the University of Missouri, Kansas City, has written about how bras shape not just breasts, but our beliefs about breasts:
The new technology of constrictive undergarments reshaped the feminine form, such that breasts like Barbie's became symbols of postwar abundance, motherhood, and sexual appeal.


If we have a culture of the breast, we also have developed a culture of breast cancer. Barbara Ehrenreich criticized this culture in a speech to Breast Cancer Action. An excerpt:
Is there any other disease that has been so warmly embraced by its victims? (And yes, I use the word “victim”—that’s another part of the perkiness—the failure to acknowledge that some of us are in fact victims of a hideous disease.) No one thinks TB, AIDS, or heart disease is supposed to be a “growth opportunity” and make you into a better person. No one is thankful for colon cancer, diabetes or gonorrhea. Why, I began to wonder, is a disease that primarily attacks women supposed to be something they should be grateful for?

Ehrenreich was also disturbed by all the breast cancer paraphernalia, especially the many teddy bears created in remembrance or in support of a cure:
Now I don’t own a teddy bear—haven’t had much use for one in 50 years. Why would anyone assume that, faced with the most serious medical challenge of my life, I would need one now? And that wasn’t all: The Libby Ross tote bag that I just mentioned also contained a package of crayons—something else I haven’t needed in many a decade. I began to get the feeling that this breast cancer culture is not only about being pretty and femme—it’s also about regressing back to being a little girl—a very good little girl in fact.

(Ehrenreich writes more about her experience with breast cancer and its culture in "Welcome to Cancerland: A Mammogram Leads to a Cult of Pink Kitsch.")

In a culture obsessed with breasts, sometimes breast culture and breast cancer culture collide. Shelley Batts considers whether Hooters should get involved in the fight against breast cancer.


I decided long ago that my personal brand of feminism didn't require me to obsess about my breasts or others' reactions to them. My breasts taught me otherwise, and today I have a changed (and changing) relationship with my own breasts.

I recently weaned my first child, and my breasts are in the process of returning to, in our culture's view, their purely ornamental state.

I can't say I miss breastfeeding. In the early months, my breasts and their ducts seemed to have lives of their own, swelling and leaking or getting blocked and lumpy. I'd go to campus to teach, and by the end of the three-hour class, it would be painful to swing my arms by my sides as I walked. Plus, I had thrush, so I knew there was no relief to be had at home: as soon as the little guy latched on, I'd feel pain shooting all the way down to my toes.

Breastfeeding also swelled my breasts one band size and two cup sizes. If my new endowment earned me any extra attention, however, I didn't notice. I was more interested in my pain than in others' stares. I was anxious about my breasts' function, or more specifically about their repeated malfunctions.

Despite this drama, breastfeeding has prepared me for future breast battles, cultural and physical. For example, when my breasts begin to sag considerably, I know there's nothing I can do about it: my beasts have their own will, and if they must collaborate with gravity, so be it. I'll wear a comfortable bra.

More importantly, the trauma of breastfeeding has prepared me a little bit--if one can ever be prepared for such a diagnosis--for my future likely battle with breast cancer. I know I can survive pain and fatigue. I know I can outlast my misbehaving breasts. After years of their disciplining me and limiting my autonomy with their biological functions and cultural baggage, I'll put them in their place with whatever tools I and my doctors have at hand.

Just please, if that day comes, kindly forgo the pink beribboned teddy bears and Hooters fundraisers. Your support of me, of breast cancer research organizations, and of cures for all diseases that afflict women is enough.


ScienceWoman said...


Anonymous said...

Wow. Gorgeous and powerful.

grumpyABDadjunct said...

"my beasts have their own will" - I know this is a typo but so, so apt!

I applaud your rejection of what I call The Parade of Pink Crap. It is infantalizing, men with prostate cancer aren't given baby blue teddy bears!

This is a beautiful post, so much food for thought for me as I contemplate whether or not breastfeeding in front of students is acceptable or not, among other breast/beast issues.

Jeff Mather said...

The artful non-breast picture you used had me rushing to put it out of view just now at work. My employer and I are puritanical that way. :-)

betty said...

This is an amazingly wonderful post. I really loved it - and I really want to read Welcome to Cancerland, too. Thanks for writing this.

Heather Clisby said...

I applaud your rejection of the pink crap. For some reason, I find myself running away from that stuff even though I lost a step-sister to breast cancer and my step-mother has had a double masectomy. I always feel like it screams at me: "It's a Girl! With boobs!" whenever I come upon it.

Your beasts, thankfully, are attached to a very tough lady.

Anonymous said...

Yikes! I didn't understand this post at all except the part about your family history of breast cancer, which as your husband, I am definitely not in favor of. For the record.

Plus, there's a reason they're called Fun Bags, you know, and this post didn't touch on that at all.

A missed opportunity?

~Mr. Dr. T

Queen of West Procrastination said...

Bravo, Trillwing. This is awesome.

Bardiac said...

Wow, such an incredible post.

I hate the pink infantilization crap.

You hit the disciplining and being disciplined by issue so well, just perfectly articulated.

Anonymous said...

wondeful, trillwing.