Facebook’s “community standards” are a conundrum — from misogyny to mammaries, it’s often unclear what is and isn’t acceptable. Campaigns like “Free the Nipple,” which demands the online platform “allow topless photos of women like it does photos of men,” would have us believe that Facebook hates breasts. But Facebook doesn’t really hate breasts. At least not all breasts. The social media behemoth is perfectly comfortable with bits of breasts — especially those shown as part of a sexy selfie. But the breasts of cancer survivors, Aboriginal women performing in public ceremonies, and breastfeeding mothers? Not so much.
Breasts are a source of confusion and angst on social media, and in popular culture more generally, because they deviate from the standard norm of a male body, which often still signifies, in a generic sense, being human. We saw this illustrated well when the internet blew up about an anatomy app showing milk ducts on a human body. Turns out the viral image wasn’t particularly accurate, but who knew either way? Most people had never seen an attempt to represent a female chest in full.
But this is more than an issue of representation and symbolism. The notion of the default male body as standing in for all of humanity has resulted in a whole range of real world problems. From the fact that women suffer greater injuries in car crashes because safety testing and features are designed for the “average man,” to the historical exclusion of women from clinical trials and biomedical research, often resulting in inappropriate or inadequate care and treatment down the line, women are harmed by the “man as default human” model.
There are also cultural consequences to this conceptualization. Anything that differs from what is supposed to be the off-the-shelf male (usually white and heterosexual) norm is “othered.” Breasts are a great example. Men, of course, have breast tissue too — but culturally this isn’t what we mean when we talk about breasts. We mean something that signifies “woman” — something that marks out difference. Some sociologists might even say, “deviance.”
The way in which the deviance of breasts is treated varies in patriarchal cultures around the world, from historical breast binding in China, and contemporary breast ironing in Cameroon and the UK, to the near compulsory wearing of bras, and widespread breast augmentation and implant procedures in places like North America, Australia, and Brazil.
Whatever happens, women’s breasts cannot be left to their own devices.
They are either too big or too small. Too visible or not visible enough. Too saggy or too perky. There is no perfect breast, because breasts are always a problem under patriarchy.
The fact that breasts are often visible markers of difference means that they are also sites of significant cultural anxiety. The feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young went so far as to say we fetishize breasts. And, if you’re unsure about what she meant by that, just type “breasts” into a Google image search.
The most prominent framing is clearly the sexualized breast: big, round, in lacy lingerie, a swimsuit, or another sexualized context — often borrowing from pornographic conventions. In our day-to-day lives, these are the kinds of breasts that we see most in pop culture.
These are also the kinds of breasts that are allowed to be shown in public, in the West. Or, at least the upper or under part of them is allowed to be shown — everything except the nipple. Because, as we all know, nipples are evil and might cause the downfall of civilization. Only female nipples have this power, of course, because the exposure of women’s nipples is considered to be unavoidably sexual.
The female breast in pop culture is also commodified. We see it in advertising, selling something that may or may not be related to breasts — used as a prop. And, in this context, breasts are always, always set up to be viewed through the male gaze.
Because that is something else women’s breasts are under patriarchy: for men.
Girls learn this very young: that developing breasts single them out — for attention, for ridicule, and often for sexual harassment. Too many girls know the experience of unwanted comments or evaluations of their adolescent bodies — all filtered through the prism of whether or not they are deemed to be sexually attractive to men and boys.
The social meaning of the breast is one of hypersexualized heterosexuality — breasts are sexual objects to be evaluated and judged by men, measured in cup sizes and handfuls. Whether this fits our own experiences or not, that is the dominant narrative.
And this is why Iris Marion Young also argued that “breasts are a scandal for patriarchy” — because the lived experience of breasts disrupts the preferred patriarchal narrative, especially the border between motherhood and sexuality.
A Google image search shows this, too. Snapshots of women breastfeeding sit uncomfortably next to pumped up cleavage and women pouting into the camera. It does seem rather extraordinary that, in this day and age — where women’s sexualized and commodified breasts are plastered on billboards, in magazines, and on electronic screens — people are still offended by women breastfeeding in public.
In order to try and fight this stupidity, some retreat to notions of biological determinism (which are flawed, too), positing that the “real” function of breasts is to breastfeed children, relegating the breasts of the childless women to supposed uselessness. Culturally, we try and shield ourselves from the complex and sometimes contradictory meanings and experiences of breasts, to say they are only meant for one thing. Breasts are for sex over here, and for breastfeeding over there. Almost as if they are not the same breasts.
But the cultural anxiety around breasts — and the purpose of breasts — doesn’t just make women uncomfortable. Our cultural obsession with the breast can be deadly. There is a long history of medical experimentation on women’s breasts, from the direct injection of paraffin and silicone in the early 1900s and 1950s, to today, with more than 1.5 million breast augmentations performed around the world, each year.
Living in a culture that tells us breasts are a problem fuels cosmetic — and often harmful — interventions. We have come to regard it as acceptable, if not fairly run of the mill, to think that if a woman doesn’t like her breasts, the logical thing for her to do is pay money to have them cut up.
Indeed, let us not forget that in 1991 the FDA panel assessing data about the safety of Dow Corning’s silicone breast implants deemed them to be a “public health necessity.” And therefore that they should continue to be made available, despite the known risks, which were already considerable at that time.
In some contexts, we call this kind of body modification a harmful cultural practice. But with cosmetic surgery, narratives of self-esteem, personal choice, and individual empowerment are invoked to justify these mostly medically unnecessary interventions, which are conducted on mass, for profit.
Why do so many women feel their breasts are not good enough as they are? Why do so many feel that how their breasts look is so important to their sense of self? Why is there now a whole industry set up around the surgical modification of breasts?
Because breasts are a problem under patriarchy.
It’s not a matter of individual failing or insecurity for a woman to think there is something wrong with her breasts in a culture that tells her there is always something wrong with her breasts.
It’s not a matter of vanity for a woman who has undergone mastectomy after cancer to request a breast reconstruction. It’s not a matter of decency that many women feel uncomfortable breastfeeding in public. And it’s not a rite of passage when young girls experience shame and harassment as they develop breasts during adolescence.
These are issues of social and political inequality.
And, even though it is a fiction that women burned their bras when protesting the Miss America pageant in 1968, there is a reason why “burn your bra” took off as a slogan of feminist resistance: a sense of connection between freeing women’s breasts from patriarchal surveillance and restriction, and women’s liberation more generally.
In this way, “burn your bra” will always be a useful reminder that, while breasts are a problem under patriarchy, it needn’t be that way, and another experience is possible.
As Iris Marion Young’s words remind us:
“However alienated male-dominated culture makes us from our bodies, however much it gives us instruments of self-hatred and oppression, still our bodies are ourselves. We move and act in this flesh and these sinews, and live our pleasures and pains in our bodies… However much the patriarchy may wish us to, we do not live our breasts only as the objects of male desire but as our own…”