Boys groped her, men shouted at her on the street, and girls and women reacted with hostility. Samara Ginsberg reports on growing up with large breasts
I was saddened to read Hannah Whittaker’s article about her eating disorder a while back. I did, however, want to share the experiences of someone from the other side of the fence. I have what, for many women, is an extremely enviable figure. If I open a copy of FHM, the models don’t look like unattainable visions of tiny-waisted pneumatic perfection. They look like me. With my size 6, 30E frame I could easily be a glamour model if I wanted – although of course I am probably over the hill at 25. And if I had a pound for every time I’ve heard a female acquaintance tell me I have ‘the perfect figure’, whatever that is, I’d probably have enough money for a breast reduction.
I must say straight away that I am happy with the way I look. There are things that I would change if it were easy to do so. I would like to have longer limbs and yes, smaller breasts. But I quite like my body. It’s mine and it’s familiar. It’s good at martial arts and playing the cello and giving hugs. This happiness and acceptance however has been hard-won.
I liked my breasts when they first appeared. I was a 28A for a long time and, while I felt a little self-conscious about these new additions to my physique simply by virtue of the fact that most other 12-year-olds didn’t yet have any at all, I liked them. They were small and perky, in proportion with the rest of me and didn’t get me any unwanted attention. All of this changed virtually overnight when I was 14. In the space of about three months, I went from an A to an E cup. The way I was treated by both people I knew and by strangers completely changed. My peers began to see me as ‘slutty’, despite the fact that I had never even kissed a boy. The bitchy, popular clique of girls at school tried to recruit me, not seeming to understand why I had little interest in wearing a truly hideous amount of make-up to school and making other girls’ lives hell. Teachers began to see me as troublesome, giving me detention for minor things. And overnight, I went from being able to walk down the street without even being looked at, to having strangers lean out of car windows to inform me that they would like to fuck my brains out.
Groping my breasts became almost a sport among the boys at school. It would happen in class, during break times, while I passed them in the corridor – any time that I was within groping distance. Typically, a boy would grab my breasts while his friends whooped and hollered. Occasionally the friends would be holding me down. I would scream and hit them, but this seemed only to increase their enjoyment. Nobody ever came to my rescue: not the girls, not the other boys whose opinions these male chauvinist piglets probably would have respected the most, and not the teachers whose job it was to intervene. It simply was not regarded as important. It was seen as an inevitability of my figure, and if I had the temerity to walk down the corridors looking like I did, what did I expect? A boy once told me about a specific sexual fantasy he had, involving tying me up, beating me and raping me. He apparently used to crack one out while imagining this every night. Another boy once asked me, “Hasn’t anybody ever told you a handful is enough?” as if I’d deliberately inflated them myself.
It wasn’t just the boys. A campaign of complete lechery from one of my teachers distressed me sufficiently for me to bunk off lessons. He stared at my tits in class, made lewd comments about me in front of everybody and, when I lost weight as a result of being so anxious and upset, chided me because he “liked his women with curves”. When I finally plucked up the courage to complain to my (female) head of year I was simply told: “Don’t worry dear, I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”
As I spent many break times hiding in the toilets, the girls would try to say helpful, supportive things. The general consensus was that I should be glad of having big breasts, that I should be happy with them because boys liked them, that perhaps I ought to chill out and enjoy the attention, and that putting up with groping was just the price I had to pay for being hot. I don’t lack respect for these girls (they were after all only between 14 and 16 at the time), but it’s hugely worrying that their kind words didn’t consist instead of: “You shouldn’t have to put up with this”, “It’s not your fault” or, “Let’s talk to the headmaster and make sure the governors hear about this because that teacher ought to be fired immediately.” My male friends trivialised the situation, possibly simply fearing the scorn of their classmates, but, for whatever reason, they were disinterested in sticking up for me and generally adopted the same “chill out and enjoy the attention” attitude as the girls. As for the teachers, they turned a blind eye whenever possible, pretended they hadn’t noticed when I was assaulted in their classes and did as little as possible when I specifically asked for their support.
Of course, it wasn’t just at school that my mammary tissue provoked so much humiliation. As soon as my large breasts appeared, I had to deal with grown men leering at me, propositioning me and telling me what they wanted to do to me. I don’t honestly know if I looked much older than I really was, but as a general rule, I’d say that inviting a girl in school uniform to provide you with a “tit wank” isn’t really appropriate. And no, this was not an isolated incident.
My youth orchestra held an annual awards ceremony, one of the awards being the “Mammoth Melons Award”, for which the girl with the biggest breasts would be presented with two enormous watermelons and everybody would have a good laugh about it. Every year I would spend the morning of the awards ceremony hiding in the bathroom hyperventilating at the prospect of being so humiliated (I never got the award – either I wasn’t popular enough or one of my friends tipped off the organisers about how upset I’d be). When I look back on this now, I’m completely appalled that it was allowed to happen. Making fun of a teenage girl’s breasts in an official awards ceremony approved by the teachers is just not cool.
Something else that made me feel very uncomfortable about my new assets was the extent to which I was stared at, not just by sleazy men, but by other women. My breasts were given disparaging stares, envious stares, and stares whose motivation I couldn’t work out at all. I was also given some very unpleasant verbal abuse by other women. I very rarely received compliments about my breasts from anyone other than close friends – whenever anyone made a comment, it was nasty. Unsolicited comments I’ve received from other women include “That’s SO not attractive,” “You do realise they’ll be down to your ankles by the time you’re 30,” and, “You think you’re something really special, don’t you?” And, of course, apart from the unpleasant comments themselves, a lengthy disparaging stare speaks a thousand vitriolic words.
I believe that the reason that so many women feel that it’s acceptable to mock large breasts is that there is an underlying assumption that all women want larger breasts. Women’s magazines are full of tips on how to “make the most of your assets”. In trashy chick-lit novels, the protagonist with whom we are supposed to identify always has small ones. Because there is an assumption that all women want bigger breasts, women who actually do have big breasts are assumed to be in a state of extreme smugness. And because it’s entirely unacceptable for a woman to be happy with her appearance, anyone with big tits needs taking down a peg or two, the conceited bitch.
Therein lies the sting in the tail. As the girl with the oh-so-envious figure, you will receive no sympathy. If you ever, ever express any discontent with the unwanted attention and discrimination you receive as a result of looking like the “ideal woman”, or if you ever express a dislike of the aesthetic appearance of that part of your anatomy, you will be shot down with cries of, “You BITCH” (this is a compliment – confusing, I know). You will be cheerfully informed that you ought to be glad of the attention. And people will say charming things like: “It’s a good thing you’ve got big boobs, because otherwise nobody would like you.”
It’s as if women’s breasts are public property – the bigger they are, the less they belong to the person to whom they are attached, and the more it is seen as acceptable to stare, make comments and to de-humanise their owner. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I finally started coming round to the idea that my breasts were my own, not just unwanted appendages attached to my body. Until then I hadn’t seen them as a part of me at all. I had thought of them almost as a deformity. They didn’t seem like mine. I fantasised that one day I would wake up and they would be gone, and I’d go back to being treated as a human being.
Nowadays things are much better. I’ve got better at dressing to make my breasts look smaller (not that I should have to, although I would choose to anyway), and looking older means that I get less unwanted attention (not that I should have received unwanted attention when I was younger either, and not that I am exactly geriatric at 25). I no longer feel like a sex object every waking moment. I no longer hate my breasts and I no longer feel that they’re unwanted appendages. I would definitely like them to be smaller and I won’t pretend otherwise, but they feel like part of me, rather than the disembodied udders that they used to feel like. I’m still not happy though. Why should I ever have felt that way? Why should I have had to have struggled so hard to be respected and taken seriously?
It’s incredible to me that any woman would want large breasts when they examine what the media at large seems to think of women so afflicted. Just take a look at FHM. They’re all “hot and ready” bimbos presented as receptacles existing solely for male entertainment. Even women in high-powered positions aren’t immune – witness the treatment of Harriet Harman after being photographed a few months ago from an angle that grossly exaggerated the amount of cleavage she was showing. Poor Harman. I know from bitter personal experience just how difficult it is to dress ‘modestly’ when you have large breasts. Dressing ‘modestly’ means wearing something that conceals the size of your large breasts – the actual size of them, not just the amount of flesh on show, otherwise you risk looking as if you’re actually dressing to make them look bigger. It’s a Catch-22 situation that reaches whole new dimensions if, like me, you are only 5’2″ and have to consider that most people will be able to see down your top.
Because there are such limited representations of women in the media, and so many stereotypes associated with particular looks, this creates unfortunate associations for women who happen to resemble any one of these particular looks. Tall, slim, young women for example are stereotyped as bitchy fashionistas. Women above a size 10 who – gasp! – don’t hate themselves are ‘confident, real women’. Overweight, middle-aged women are regarded as barely deserving of existence until they give up carbs and get Botox. And young, petite women with big breasts are regarded as ‘easy’.
My classmate’s “a handful is enough” comment succinctly demonstrates the phenomenon of people thinking that women choose the size of their breasts, or at least treating them as if they do. Sometimes I feel as if I have the words ARROGANT SLUT tattooed across my forehead. Given what men seem to think about my sexual availability and the judgements that women seem to make about my ‘morals’ and self-image, it really does seem that having big breasts is equivalent to this.
I think that the crux of all of my breast-related problems was very well summarised by a perceptive comment made by a friend of mine when I was sixteen: “The problem is, your breasts just don’t suit your personality.” She was right: people had gone from seeing me as I really was – just another shy, geeky teenager who spent entirely too much time in the library – to seeing me as a bimbo who would definitely want to suck their dick. My breasts were a mask that seemed to prevent people from actually bothering to get to know me.
It seems that often women have the biggest problems with their breasts when this happens, and when the treatment that they receive from other people is related to their tits rather than to who they actually are as a person. All people are to some extent judged on their looks; this is unfair. Women are judged on their looks much more than men; this is even more unfair and makes looks-based discrimination very much a feminist issue. Women with big breasts are in my opinion subjected to many more negative snap judgements than most, perhaps even on a par with fat women and women who explicitly fail to comply with society’s standards of beauty by doing horrific things like failing to remove their armpit hair. This is horrendously unfair, not to mention bloody stupid.
I’m not saying: “Boo hoo, look how difficult life is for gorgeous women, don’t hate me because I’m beautiful!” Being regarded as attractive generally makes life much easier and puts one in a position of privilege, an unfair and wholly undeserved privilege that I am aware of having. But being seen as extremely sexually attractive is massively problematic for the individual in question. In such a deeply sexist and heteronormative culture, looking like the personification of “sluttiness” is seen as an invitation for sexual harassment. It’s bad enough when people think you are inviting sexual harassment because of how you happen to be dressed that day, but at least mini skirts and high heels come off. Breasts do not. The size of a woman’s breasts, surgery notwithstanding, is not a personal choice. Forget “This is what a feminist looks like” – I think I need a t-shirt that says, “These came with my body”.
For any girls or women who think that they would like to look like a glamour model, I would like to say that you are fortunate not to. Not because there is anything at all wrong with being petite with big breasts in itself, but because a woman who looks like a Nuts pin-up is constantly assumed by most people to be an airhead. Your life will be much easier if you have a more average figure. Consider how healthy your self image would be by now if you had endured being groped, being automatically regarded as unintelligent, being seen by other women as the enemy, being regarded as nothing more than your body, every day of your life. You can’t take the breasts off. They’re not like accessories that you can choose to put on when you feel like having lots of attention and take off when you feel like being respected or just simply able to run around without having to wear a sports bra made of reinforced concrete. For the love of God, why would you wish that upon yourself?
I have always thought, even as a child, that small and medium-sized breasts were more attractive than large ones. But were it not for the judgements, the harassment, the objectification and the pure hatred that my breasts have caused me, they’d be no different from my short legs or my frizzy hair – something that I’d change if it were easy to do so, but which doesn’t really bother me. Things are much better for me now because I have a good academic career behind me and a high-status job that explicitly requires intelligence. I have proved myself as not an airhead. But why should I have to do so? Why should the underlying assumption be that I am? It’s stupid and unfair and I am angry about it.
It’s not my problem that my breasts “don’t suit my personality”. The problem is that there is a personality type associated with having big breasts in the first place. We don’t need implants and breast reductions. What we need is to cure our society’s complete obsession with breasts. We need somehow to do away with the idea that breast size is directly proportional to sexual attractiveness, and that a sexually attractive woman is somehow deserving of harassment and contempt. Surely breasts aren’t the only beautiful thing about an attractive woman? As a heterosexual female I appreciate that it’s difficult for me to comment meaningfully on what makes a woman sexually attractive, but really, it’s the equivalent of a man’s attractiveness being judged solely by the size of the bulge in his pants, which is surely not an attitude that anybody with any aesthetic taste or basic respect for their fellow humans would take.
I do still have some residual shame about my body. I know this because I cringed when writing the opening paragraph of this piece, describing my appearance. I was shocked at just how much I cringed. After all, I happily walk down the street every day looking like I do. But nevertheless, admitting that I have a 23-inch waist and E-cup breasts (look, I just wrote it again, how brazen!) gave me visions of lots of angry women scowling at their monitors and fuming, “The stuck-up bitch! Who does she think she is? I mean, it’s as if she’s actually PROUD of her goddamn ‘perfect figure’. Who’d have thought it, Barbie writing for The F-Word…” I know that this is irrational, but I share my paranoia to illustrate that, despite the fact that I don’t usually think about my body much and never diet, I do still have quite a complicated relationship with my figure and what I think people’s reactions to it might be. I have cringed at every point at which I have stated or implied that I am generally regarded as attractive from the neck down. It feels like an extraordinarily arrogant thing to admit. I feel as if I ought to be simultaneously raving about having an ugly face or bad hair just to balance things out. It’s stupid and irrational, but it’s the way I feel. It’s the way that mainstream, female, male and even feminist culture seems to conspire to make me feel.
We cannot win. Whatever size our breasts are, there is something wrong with them. Whatever body type we have, even the most conventionally-attractive kind, we are encouraged to be unhappy with it somehow. So quit worrying. Stick two fingers up at society rather than down your throat. And if you think I’m an airhead, please let it be simply because you think I’ve been talking complete bollocks for the last 3,000 words.