Boob Politics: The Cleavage Issue

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Cristen: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Cristen.

Molly: I'm Molly.

Cristen: Molly, this week breasts have been in the news -

Molly: They have.

Cristen: - a lot.

Molly: A lot.

Cristen: Yeah, this was - as you guys know, we don't record our podcasts and publish them the same day, so this will have already happened a few weeks ago by the time you're listening to this. The Monday of the week we're recording this podcast, Boobquake happened.

Molly: Boobquake.

Cristen: Yes. Molly, would you like to tell everyone a little bit about Boobquake, since probably by now it will be in the distant news past?

Molly: Sure. This feminist blogger, I think it sorta started as a joke. She was responding to something that this very conservative Iranian cleric had said. He had basically said that women's immodesty in dress was causing earthquakes. By becoming this deviant force in society that was tempting men, and demoralizing society, they were causing natural disasters. So this blogger said, "Hey, let's all wear our most out there shirts, short shorts if that's your thing. Let's just be immodest on this one day and see if an earthquake happens."

Cristen: Yeah. Let's see if we can really just get our boobage out there and start an earthquake. She started - she posted this on her blog, Blag Hag, and then she started a Facebook page. Of course, it blew up and the next thing you know, it's the No. 1 Internet meme.

Molly: Yeah, it was everywhere. People on my Facebook page were saying things, like, "Well, my boobs aren't big enough, they're not going to start an earthquake," so there was even some backlash about the body issues inherent in Boobquake. There's been some controversy because there was an earthquake in Taiwan the day of Boobquake, but they're saying it doesn't count because the original blogger said Boobquake lasts from this time to this time, and the earthquake was right after or something like that. So a little bit of controversy. There was an earthquake, we don't know if it counts.

Cristen: But there was also controversy among some women who didn't really take the issue that lightly. For instance, Beth Mann at Salon wrote a column about why she wouldn't participate in Boobquake. It's not that she didn't understand the humor of the situation, but she was a little more concerned that the feminist response to this Iranian cleric is to show off our bodies. Of course, a lot of men's response to Boobquake was, "Yeah, bring it on. I'm going to go get my camera phone while -

Molly: Let's bare you some Bs.

Cristen: Yeah. Marty Gras 2.0, great, I'll take Boobquake. She, for instance, from this column she says women should be able to wear what they want, that's a given. Women should be able to sexually express themselves as they see it. Of course, unfortunately, we live in a world that sees that kind of freedom of expression as a photo opportunity or another cheap thrill.

Molly: Uh-huh, which I think brings us into the second big boob story of the week, if you will, and that was the Lane Bryant ad.

Cristen: Yeah. This was a commercial Lane Bryant had shot. I can't remember which networks it was.

Molly: ABC and Fox.

Cristen: ABC and Fox did not want to air this commercial which featured one of their pl us-size models in a Lane Bryant bra. They didn't want to share this commercial because they thought that it was indecent exposure, although have you seen a Victoria's Secret commercial, Molly?

Molly: Well, there's that and, also, according to the blog that Lane Bryant wrote about this issue, one of the shows that wouldn't put the ad on during their network time was Dancing With the Stars, which features a lot of skin. Those dancers take some clothes off, so I think for them to say that Lane Bryant can't air this commercial, they're either making some sort of statement about a big body, since Lane Bryant is plus size, or just big boobs in general. They're basically saying that some boobs you can see in a bra, the Victoria's Secret kind, and some of them you can't because they're too big. It's too crazy.

Cristen: Yeah. Fox demanded excess - this is from the Inside Curves, Lane Bryant blog. They said that Fox demanded excessive re-edits and rebuffed it three times before relenting to air it during the final ten minutes of American Idol, but only after Lane Bryant threatened to pull the ad buy.

Molly: So, Cristen, our cups runneth over with breast news this week.

Cristen: Well done, Molly.

Molly: Breast pun. Let's unpack it. Let's talk about breasts. We've talked about breastfeeding a little bit in previous podcasts, and we talked then about how there's sorta this conflict between a sexual breast and a maternal breast, but this week we've got some really cool information on that.

Cristen: Yeah. Molly and I really wanted to talk about what's the big deal with cleavage. An A-cup woman can wear a low cut top and get away with it much easier than, say, a D-cup woman, simply because they might be showing the same amount of skin, but the small breasted woman is not showing cleavage.

Molly: A small breasted woman is not going to cause an earthquake, apparently.

Cristen: Precisely. So Molly and I wanted to dig a little deeper into this and figure out what is the deal with breasts. I mean, come on. We know that - we know everyone likes to look at them and I do say everyone. I say men and women. Obviously, men might be a little more titillated by it than women, but I think that breasts naturally draw our attention, but what's the big deal.

Molly: What's the big deal?

Cristen: What's the big deal?

Molly: So there's a book by Marilyn Yalom called A History of the Breast. It really traces how sometimes there have been good breasts in history and bad breasts in history. Sometimes breasts have been in vogue, and very stylish and very sacred. Then sometimes they've been signs of indecency and immodesty. I think right now we're sorta in a clash of those two and we don't really know which way to turn. It was a little more clear cut at certain points in history.

Cristen: So if we look back in art, it becomes very obvious that humankind has always been very fascinated by the woman's breast, and understandably so, because women, we produce milk, it is the life giver to our offspring, et cetera. If we go back even as early as 20,000 B.C. to the Grimaldi Venus, this statue that is portrayed as this very large breasted kinda potbellied woman, and it's obviously a very sacred relic from back then. This theme of these prominent women's breasts still continues in ancient art.

Molly: Right. So we jump a little bit further, from 23,000 B.C.

Cristen: We can move up from 23,000 B.C.

Molly: Yes. We go from these very ancient statues of the big-breasted women. Let's talk about the ancient Greeks. They weren't so much breast men, if I may use a common term. They liked to celebrate the phallus. Part of that is because the breast became a little bit threatening with the legend of the Amazons, according to Yalom. The Amazons were these powerful warrior women who chopped off one breast so that they could shoot their bows and arrows. So they were killing men with the bows and arrows. They were only breastfeeding their female children with the other breast, so the legend said. So that's why the Greeks were a little more about celebrating the phallus.

Cristen: Then if we take a big old leap - Molly and I are just hop, skipping and jumping through history, so bear with us. Then if you move to, let's say, the Middle Ages with the rise of the Catholic church, you have so much iconography of the Virgin Mary portrayed breastfeeding the baby Jesus. The breast becomes this very sacred thing. Even though you're seeing the breast, there aren't sexual connotations to it because this is the Holy Mother. The breast is something very sacred, maternal, very natural.

Molly: Feeding the Savior and thus, by extension, feeding all of us.

Cristen: Yes.

Molly: Then along comes the Renaissance where the breast becomes even fleshier, if you can imagine something because the skin and the human flesh was very sorta emphasized very pink in those paintings. It's also when, despite all these mother and child paintings, we do see a little bit of the signs of the sexual breast in art.

Cristen: Yes. Yalom, in the History of the Breast, points to a painting of Charles VII's mistress, Agnes Sorel. It's a painting known as The Virgin of Melun. Probably I might not be pronouncing that right, but it's M-e-l-u-n. It's the depiction of her. She has one breast out and obviously is probably about to breastfeed her baby who's sitting there, but the child is not in the act of breastfeeding. In fact, the baby kinda looks like he could care less about this -

Molly: Take it or leave it.

Cristen: - large teat in his face. She says that this is really the turning point for when we move from the sacred breast to the far more sexualized breast that is highly celebrated in Renaissance art, and also, in the fashion over the next couple of centuries as necklines drop and breasts really come out.

Molly: They come out as fruit, basically.

Cristen: Yes.

Molly: All these poets, that's when they start writing things about a woman's apples and strawberries, and cherries, and globes, and orbs. It's both global and fruit.

Cristen: Yeah. Also, if we're thinking about the fruits today, you might think that might hear a lot more about, say, cantaloupes.

Molly: Melons.

Cristen: Back then, the ideal breast was perhaps a small apple. They were depicted as a lot smaller and a little more nubile, I guess, than we might think of them today. That's largely because women in the Renaissance, upper class women at least, would try to preserve the delicate shape of their breasts by sending their children to wet nurses, so they wouldn't have to breastfeed. Renaissance husbands actually would not sleep with their wives while they were breastfeeding. They thought that it was just a bad thing to do, so the emphasis was on these more youthful, very young smaller breasts than, say, a Playboy centerfold.

Molly: Right. Though men are starting to show their affection for breasts, I guess you could say, in art because you see a lot of paintings from that time when the man is cupping the apple-sized breast as a sign of ownership.

Cristen: Yes. These -

Molly: The weirdest sentence I've ever said.

Cristen: Yeah. There are plenty of depictions. I think there's a Vermeer that Yalom points out of a husband cupping his wife's breast, saying, "Look, this is my beloved. This is my breast, not your breast, hands off.

Molly: Right. It's a sign of ownership, but it wasn't really thought of as crude.

Cristen: No.

Molly: It was that was just the way things were, but eventually, the 18th century, let's take another leap forward, that idea of sending your kids off to the country to be breastfed, it went out of vogue.

Cristen: Yeah. There was this huge shift in the - I think around 1750, Yalom estimates that around 50 percent of Parisian children were wet-nursed. By 1800, however, all of those kids were being - well, obviously, not the same kids, but the trend completely shifted towards mother's breastfeeding their own children. This really started in England. Interestingly, this notion was not instigated by women, it was started by lots of prominent men at the time, including Daniel Defoe, Russo, Linnaeus, all these men saying, "No, women, you must breastfeed your children." So we have this shift from the sexual breast back to the maternal breast, but interestingly, also the fashion of the time still allowed for women to show their cleavage, put their breasts more on display with these low cut dresses that they were wearing. So Yalom says that it's also around this time that we have the merging of the maternal and the sexual at the same time. At this point in history, the lactating breast becomes sexual. So we move from the Middle Ages where the lactating Virgin Mary is seen as something completely sacred and separate, to now the sexual new mother.

Molly: Right. So I would say, Cristen, that we've been struggling with that joining of the maternal breast and the sexual breast ever since. I mean, you look at the debate over breastfeeding, which we've touched on in other podcasts, and people have a problem seeing women breastfeed because they've been trained to think of breasts as these sexual things. It wasn't always so. I mean, even though we sorta jumped through our history, we do have evidence that there were points in which women sorta walked around topless and it didn't mean anything. It didn't mean, A, that she was selling herself, and it didn't mean that she was anything less than royalty; it was just breasts weren't loaded with everything we've loaded them since we're loaded them right up with all that sexual and maternal innuendo.

Cristen: Right. I think we also have to keep in mind that we're talking about Western culture right now. In other parts of the world, a woman walking around topless is no big deal at all. It's just it's part of daily life. It's interesting we generally think of breasts, like you said, as either something that's completely maternal or completely sexual. Yalom also points out that they've been used for political symbolism as well, especially around the time of the French Revolution. You have many depictions of women, bare-breasted women as Lady Liberty leading the people onward. Even during World War I and World War II, we have depictions in the States of Lady Liberty with more prominent breasts. I think that they were still seen as symbols of women's power and also something separate from men. At one point, she makes the argument that, during World War II, American troops sorta had a breast fetish because the female represented everything that they were basically destroying in this war, which is love and compassion, and intimacy.

Molly: Things we were fighting for in the war or that the war was destroying?

Cristen: I mean, those things were the antithesis of the warfare going on.

Molly: Got you. So how do we get to today, Cristen? I mean, how do we get to a world where men in World War II were essentially - I mean, just to over, over simplify it - inspired by breasts to fight - and that again is a very big oversimplification - to today where women are wearing low cut tank tops to make a point?

Cristen: I think the tricky issue, the boob politics, the cleavage issue that we have to deal with is the fact that I don't think that we can ever divorce the sexual from breasts. I mean, as primates, we have perpetually engorged breasts, some scientists have theorized, as a sign of sexual maturity. I think that it's different for women because it's just an immediate outward sign of her sexual maturity, whereas for men we have things like facial hair. We've talked about facial hair before and how stubble is very attractive to women because it's also their initial outward sign of sexual maturity. Usually you can't exactly spot from a guys' outward appearance whether or not he is well-endowed as well.

Molly: So perhaps it's the fact that women just have to deal with the fact that they have them. Let's go to an issue, cleavage in the workplace.

Cristen: That's a tough one, Molly.

Molly: So there have been studies and reports that both men and women judge a woman who is showing ample cleavage in the workplace. As you said earlier, a woman who has smaller breasts can easily wear a low cut shirt and not be seen as scandalous. If a big-breasted woman wears the same shirt, then people's perceptions of her professionalism and her capabilities immediately drop.

Cristen: Right. The more cleavage you have, the more attention you're going to get, and it's probably not going to be positive attention if you're in the workplace. We ran across a few articles about this on Huffington Post and in The Wall Street Journal where they were trying to advise women in the workplace about what we should do. There really were a lot of double standards, I think. For instance, let's go to this column in Huffington Post from Karen Salmansohn on the power of cleavage. She said, she's talking about how much breast you can display in the office, and she said, "It's like pornography versus art. You know the difference when you see it. Well, if you're honest with yourse lf, you know the difference between pornographic cleavage at the office and artistic cleavage at the office." I say to Salmansohn, first of all, lady, what you talking about? Pornographic cleavage at the office versus artistic cleavage at the office. I mean, no, Salmansohn, it's the difference between an A-cup and a D-cup, and one button or two unbuttoned.

Molly: Well, that's the thing is now we've trained to think that big boob equals stripper because the women who have made successful lives for themselves as strippers probably, again, to generalize, have really big boobs.

Cristen: Well, and then she goes on. To support her argument, she calls out this study from the University of Central Florida where researchers were testing out how people would, men and women, would perceive a woman giving a speech, based on her breast size. So they saw this woman as separate times as an A, B, C and D cup, and then they rated the actress on her professionalism. She says the majority of males perceived the actress to be the most professional when she had a medium cup breast size, whereas female were generally not influenced by the actresses breast size at all. That's fantastic. Well, what are you supposed to do if you are a D cup woman. We can't exactly control - well, I mean, I guess we can control, but we can't naturally dictate our breast size.

Molly: Which gets to why banning an ad for Lane Bryant is so ridiculous. I mean, if you really do want to teach a woman about the products that are available to help her keep a D-cup inline so that you don't immediately think stripper as soon as you see her, perhaps she should know about Lane Bryant's products.

Cristen: Well, I mean, if we are talking about what kind of cleavage is acceptable in a professional setting and what's not, I mean, yeah, I've sorta taken Salmansohn to task for her - this Huffington Post article. Then if we head over to The Wall Street Journal, I mean, kinda similar tones are echoed where it's, like, yeah, cleavage in the office is still extremely taboo. The column quotes one woman who says, "There's no greater crime than to show cleavage, period."

Molly: No greater crime.

Cristen: No greater crime. I mean, it was - basically, it's making the point that if you want to make a lasting impression, yeah, you show cleavage, but that lasting impression is going to be of you as the sexual object rather than an intelligent professional, especially in a male manager's mind. As one psychologist has put it, men have - men go into a man trance whenever they are around breasts and they can't help look at them because it all goes back to basic biology of this display or our sexuality, so we should just cover them up unless we want to attract all of these stares.

Molly: Now, Cristen, the woman who coined the term man trance is a woman named Luann Brizendine. She has a book, The Female Mind and the Male Mind. I kinda take everything she says with a grain of salt because she's been called out for kinda shoddy research, like taking one isolated study and just blowing it way out of proportion, or misreading her results altogether, but you can't ignore the fact that man trance is an interesting term. As if we weren't short on research dollars, people like Brizendine and other scientists are doing all these studies about just how much men love breasts.

Cristen: You wouldn't believe the number of studies that have been conducted just to see if in fact men do like looking at boobs. It's ridiculous. I mean, we've got - Molly and I found studies about how, "Hey, surprise, the larger the cup size, the more hitchhiking rides a girl can get." "Hey, men seem to rate women with larger breasts sizes are more attractive than women with smaller breasts." Insane. I mean, it's kinda funny, actually.

Molly: So then we've got - again, let's try and bring it back to this week in breasts, as I term this week. You've got Boobquake, you've got Lane Bryant. We're clearly at this point in history where the sexual and the maternal have merged. Is Boobquake a positive thing, a negative thing, can you even say do we need to make into account the fact that we're judged constantly on our breasts, or do we, if we've got it, flaunt it? I mean, that's sorta the question of the day. It's unanswerable, we're not going to claim to answer it, but that's sorta what we're grappling with.

Cristen: Well, I would say though that I think that this is - you say are we judged for our breasts, I think that that is more of an issue for large-breasted women. I don't know that small-breasted women really are that just, unless you might get snarky comments about how they don't exist. Since they're not quite as out there, I think that the stakes are so much higher for large-breasted women. For instance, we ran across a column in Washington City Paper in response to the Lane Bryant issue. The headline was "With Great Cleavage Come Great Responsibility." I think that that really kind of sums it all up. I don't think that women should necessarily have to cover themselves up. If you're a D-cup, or larger or smaller, whatever, you shouldn't have to wear a turtleneck to the office. It shouldn't be more appropriate for an A-cup to wear a deep V than a D-cup. Anyway, this is also the prime point when, Molly, I think it's time to turn it over to our wise and wonderful listeners to let us know what they think. It really is kind of an unanswerable question. I mean, yeah, breasts are always going to attract people's attention no matter what. I mean, if I see a large-busted woman wearing a low cut top, do I look? Yes, I do, and you probably do too, Molly. Don't even try to lie.

Molly: I didn't say anything.

Cristen: I'm sure it can be a difficult challenge for guys who don't want to seem smarmy at all, yet they're going to look as well. So I don't know. Y'all help us answer this question. Help us settle the cleavage issue.

Molly: All right. The email address is, and we will read a few quick emails. First up is a correction from Valerie. In our sex addiction podcast, we referenced an article called Facing My Obsession in the Flesh. We said it was by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, and Valerie let us know that the name is French and pronounced Benoit.

Cristen: Benoit.

Molly: I knew Benoit sounded wrong.

Cristen: It did sound a little unpoetic.

Molly: All right. We have another correction here. You guys have been so on the ball. This is in response to our podcast about tattoos. We talk about an ad, Kat Von D. of reality show fame. She's covered in tattoos. For any of you guys who don't who she is, she's lead personality on L.A. Ink. She is a lovely woman who is just covered from head to toe for tattoos. At one point, she did this ad campaign where they used cover-up to, essentially, remove all of her tattoos to show you what she looks like tattoo-less. We made the point that by doing that it was removing her power, et cetera, et cetera. A number of you guys wrote in to say that actually Kat Von D. was exercising her own power because that was an ad for her makeup line to advertise tattoo concealer.

Cristen: True.

Molly: Wah, wha, so it's a little ironic, a little funny.

Cristen: You can get a little circular with it. Why did she need a makeup to cover up tattoos if society was a little easier on tattoos?

Molly: Yeah.

Cristen: Not that I'm justifying the mistake we made.

Molly: But we were wrong in that pop culture reference, whoops.

Cristen: I will say some of you are strangely mad that we would get a Kat Von D. fact wrong.

Molly: Really angry. Let's do one more.

Cristen: Let's do one more, Molly.

Molly: All right. This one is not signed, but really a great email that I like. "I'd like to thank you for podcasting about Androgyny. I identify as androgynous and it's a continual frustration to feel so invisible, unaccepted and judged for something that is not a choice, but is an accident of my genetics and/or brain development, like being gay is for some. Your handling of the topic was very respectful, if sometimes a little clumsy and confusing physical sex, male/female, with gender and masculine/feminine. I wanted to add that there are people who have a clearly defined physical sex, such as female in my case, but who still identify as androgynous. Just as some people male have the conviction that they should have been born female, I was born female but had a conviction that I should have been born some combination of male and female. Thus, I am most comfortable with a mixture of gender roles and behaviors. If it were socially acceptable to reassign my physical sex to be androgynous to match up with my gender identity, I'd do it in a heartbeat. However, our society is still so stuck on gender and sex binaries that no therapist or doctor will allow a middle of the road sex reassignment. I'd love to hear if any of your other listeners identify as androgynous. I hope that if you read this in the podcast that this note helps them feel a little less alone."

Cristen: So there you go.

Molly: So thanks, all of you, for writing again . Again, the address is If you would like to add any comments during the week, whatever, let us know how you're doing, any questions, you can also head over to our Facebook page. It's just You can also follow Molly and me on Twitter. We have a Twitter account and it's Mom Stuff podcast.

Cristen: I know, we have so many different iterations of Mom Stuff, Stuff Mom Never Told You, et cetera, but bear with us. Then finally, if you want to follow our blog, it is called Stuff Mom Never Told You and it's found at

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