Boobs- America's weirdest obsession
Updated: Aug 9, 2020
What's the deal with America's obsession with boobs? Why have mammary glands become such an important part of fashion, culture, commerce, and sexuality when their main biological purpose is in the nursing of newborns?
We now have hundreds of nicknames for mammary glands, including things like bangers, Danny Devitos, the twins, funbags, nunga nungas, cans, bongos, cha cha bingos, honkerbergers, lady bubbles, tater tots, and shoulder boulders. There is no other piece of the human anatomy, male or female, that arouses such attention and discussion.
Though boobs are popular around the world, the United States is the home of the biggest breast fetishists anywhere, and women's bra measurements here are bigger than anywhere else in the world. (It's true- google it) And it's getting worse. The average cup size has increased since 1983 from 32B to 34DD in 2013, and both men and women conveniently use boobs as a shortcut to quickly evaluate half of the population.
How has this happened? Part of the blame for the rise in boob size is obviously that all Americans are heavier than they were a generation ago. Fatter people mean bigger breasts. (Even men have seen a rise in man-boobs). But much of the blame has to go to the obsession we have with breasts that connects size with attractiveness. The most popular cosmetic surgery in the US is breast augmentation, and some 300,000 women a year go under the knife to raise their profile. Some 70% of women in polls say they personally dislike how their own breasts look, with 50% thinking they're too small and 20% thinking they're too big.
Is it natural selection that is making boobs bigger? Larger-breasted women are more likely to attract men, though oversized breasts only attract a devoted minority of boob-lovers. Some think that hormones in our foods are making breasts grow bigger and girls go through puberty sooner. There could be many reasons, but all those bigger boobs aren't making many people happier.
When you stop to think about it, the obsession makes little sense. Breast size has no proven correlation with fertility, milk production, maternal instincts, general health, or superior character. If anything, larger breasts can be a health liability, as there is a correlation between larger breasts and increased risk of breast cancer. Yet women with larger breasts (up to a point) are more likely to be chosen as mates, movie stars, employees, and celebrities than their flat-chested sisters.
As a straight male who's always appreciated breasts, I'm always struggling with my creepy biological self who can't help but stare, and my sensible cognitive self who knows better. From puberty on I can recall what wonder and awe I had whenever I caught a glimpse of a naked female breast. Perhaps its a deep-seated maternal thing that we men fall far, and it is strong. I felt like Woody Allen in the picture above, a tiny object dwarfed by incredible beauty. As I've grown older, I still feel the pull, and my brain has to constantly keep my hormones at bay. The obsession never quite dies, as any nursing home nurse can attest to.
As much as we pretend to be obsessed with boobs, Americans are surprisingly squeamish when they are brought out into the open. While in many European countries topless beaches aren't that big a thing, here any public display of female breasts causes a stir. When breasts are used for their biological purpose, nursing babies, people often freak out if the act is done in public. Men are comfortable with looking at large breasted women as sex objects, but in the business world, women have to bend over backward to conceal themselves lest they trigger the men they work with. Once triggered by cleavage, some men feel like they have the right to act like idiots, which is something they just have to get over.
The male equivalent of boobs is height. As with bra size, tallness is a genetically derived trait that has nothing to do with a mans' intelligence, strength, or abilities. Yet men who are below the average are forever judged negatively, both as potential mates and potential business partners, by their lack of height. Judging a book by its cover hurts both sexes and destroys many potential relationships before they ever get off the ground. We have better tools available to evaluate others than the instant shorthand of outward appearance.
I have a theory as to why the USA became boob central and it starts 100 years ago. Back in the 1920's the female ideal was Clara Bow, a pretty woman with normal-sized breasts. Women's fashions had high necklines. During the depression and World War II, times got very tough, and women dressed conservatively. There was a war to be won and women were seen as important in the fight against poverty and fascism. Idols of that period were Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Katherine Hepburn and Vivian Leigh- all smart, talented women with average chests.
After the end of World War II, things changed dramatically between the sexes. Women, who had been working in the factories during the war, were sent back home to be housewives and more feminine, less threatening. American men, who felt on top of the world after surviving Hitler, Hirohito, and the depression, wanted to assert their masculinity like never before and changed the rules. Three huge developments in the 1950's were reactions to this reassertion and hugely changed how society saw women. Consider:
Marilyn Monroe emerged as the most perfect actress, woman, and sex symbol, and women wanted to copy her busty looks, followed by people like Raquel Welch, Charro, and Brigitte Bardot. Big boobs were in and flat chests were out from the 1950's onward.
In 1953 Hugh Hefner introduced the first issue of Playboy, a magazine for men that printed full color centerfolds with bare naked breasts. Playboy became a huge influence in popular culture, idealizing thin women with large breasts, often retouching the photos to make their models impossibly attractive.
And in 1959, Mattel introduced the Barbie doll, a girls' fashion doll that greatly influenced the body image of baby boomers and those that came later. Barbie's measurements were terribly unrealistic, with a bust size equivalent to 39" and an 18" waist, proportions that would signify seriously deformed adults.
These three events set women back centuries, and breasts were the centerpiece of the changes that made women sex objects first, mothers second, and not much else after that.
The advent of women's liberation in the 1970's did a bit to challenge the objectification of women, but the breast obsession was impossible to stop. Madison Avenue discovered that women's breasts helped sell cars, beer, and all sorts of unrelated products. Hollywood and television discovered that cleavage got more attention than good writing. Later on, silicon valley discovered that women's breasts got people to click more often on articles and ads, becoming a key cog in the attention economy.
So what can we do now? The first step in any problem is realizing what the problem is. We're putting way too much emphasis on a lot of things that don't really matter. Like boobs. Or what car you drive. Or how nice your lawn looks.
Perhaps that's why relationships are suffering these days. According to the HRSA, we are in the midst of a "loneliness epidemic," with over 25% of Americans living alone and nearly half of us reporting that we feel alone, left out, or isolated. We need to focus more on things that matter- like friendship, empathy, community, sense of humor, meaning, and spiritual growth. A busting bosom or rock hard abs are not what make a person valuable, and we need to take that to heart.
If you want to better understand a woman's or (man's) essence, there are much better ways to do it. We need to rediscover how to use the skill that makes humans unique- emotional intelligence. The human face has thousands of different muscle combinations that signify different emotions. Our superpower as primates is that we can recognize so many of those emotions and add language to create intricate and meaningful relationships.
So guys, remember the next time you're tempted to gaze downward, all the good and helpful stuff is up on the face, where a fake smile or a genuine smile are easy to spot. And ladies, we know you check each other out as well, so that goes for you too.
We make the choice of what to pay attention to in life and what to give meaning. We have the power to change our minds and pay attention to something else whenever we choose to. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Boobs are perfect for infants, but the rest of us need to put them in context.
Ladies: You are not your boobs. Or your butt. Or your left earlobe. You are so much more than that. We're all here temporarily in these bodies to learn whatever we can. What your vessel looks like is not nearly as important as how you treat yourself and others. You deserve to be treated well, so start with loving and appreciating yourself just the way you are. And please don't go under the knife on our behalf.
Gentlemen: Don't be idiots. Don't stare, grab, or ogle unless invited to. You deserve happiness too- just not at the expense of the ladies. Appreciate the human body for all its wonders, but remember there's something much more important inside each of us. Remember that beauty is only skin deep.