Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Goldfish Guide to Living With Big Breasts

Last week, there seemed to be a few young women about feeling miserable about their big breasts. Stevie at Vagenda wrote the rather disheartening On Having Big Baps and a young letter writer to Captain Awkward wrote about her mother who was using her breast size to critcise her weight, leading to a lot of discussion on big breasts in the comments, this post by Fizzy about bra-fitting and this excellent celebratory post by Elodie which all busty women should read, even if you don't have time to read my post as well:
The Cup Runneth Over: Love, Lifestyle and Clothing Tips For Large Busted Ladies
I wanted to this when I saw Elodie's post and thought, "Do I have anything further to say?" Possibly not, but I may say it differently, and this is a subject worth talking about as long as there are busty young women out there, feeling miserable about their bosoms.

What are big breasts for?

Breasts appear to have three biological functions.
  1. They provide milk for suckling infants. But sometimes not.
  2. They are a secondary sexual characteristic, which together with body hair and waist to hip ratio, help identify you as a sexually mature female. But sometimes not. 
  3. They are an erogenous zone which can provide you with considerable sensual pleasure. But sometimes not.
None of these things are what your breasts are for.  They are just some reasons why you might possess them. Your breasts are yours to do with as you wish.

However, it's worth noting that none of these things depend on size; a big breasted woman is not more likely to breast-feed with ease, she is not imbued with a greater degree of femaleness and she us not more likely to take pleasure from her breasts.  Alas, biological function has no answers for our big-breasted questions!

So why do I have big breasts?

Minoan Snake Goddness, lifted from
Wikipedia's page on the Minoans
Genes, hormones, nutrition and quite possibly, a pixie curse. I understand that genetics is the big one but I am the only woman in my family who has particularly big breasts (given that the average UK cup size is now a D).

The great variation in breast size and shape is one of those little mysteries, like the distribution of men's chest hair.  There are great swathes of the world's population - entire ethnic groups - where breasts are almost universally small and chests are almost universally bald. Among other ethnic groups there is massive variation in both breast size and chest hair distribution. Who knows why?  But it's obviously not natural selection across the species - if heterosexual men consistently selected larger-breasted partners, breast size would be more consistent throughout the world.

(Check out the Embarrassing Bodies Breast Gallery for mostly pale-skinned bosoms in some of their considerable variety.)

There'd also be more evidence for our own culture's particular interest in big breasts throughout the world and our own history. This just doesn't exist. In most cultures, women's breasts are not nearly so remarked upon, in some cultures, everyday clothing givens very little away and in pockets of culture (which were once very much larger and more numerous pockets, like anthropological cargo trousers to the current hot pants of this practice) women go about bare breasted.  Breasts have to be understood very differently in these cultures, next to one in which it is possible to be arrested for exposing one's breasts in public, and where despite a great deal of bare female fresh and sexual imagery in film and advertising, it is rare to see an entire naked breast outside pornography.

(Which reminds me of when as a thirteen year old on the French Exchange programme, I saw nipples on a soap advert in the middle of the afternoon.  The father of the family, whose English was about as poor as my French, noticed my discomfort and declared, "I am shocking!"  I barely managed not to say, "Your entire country is, mate." )

So are big breasts not a sexual advantage?

Internationally, probably not.  In our culture, maybe, just now and to a limited extent. A quick leaf through the history of female nudes in Western Art will reveal that many different breasts can be both beautiful and sexually attractive. A quick leaf through our modern feminine icons, the women who get to be on the most sexy lists will reveal that this has not changed.  Whilst some individuals have specific preferences (and others feel obliged to), most gynophiles will tell you that breasts are quite lovely in all their variety. What's more, people's natural breasts tend to suit their bodies - nature is kind like that, in the same way you never get eye colour that clashes with a person's hair colour.

Our culture, however, says  "Look, look, look at the big breasts! Hilarious big breasts!"

Honestly, there are only one or two comments I have ever received about my breasts which weren't a bit of a joke. I'm gorgeous, of course, and I have had sincere compliments about various aspects of my physical appearance, but most of the breast stuff - and there has been a lot of breast stuff - has been a great big dirty joke. All the unwanted touching has been in jest (though no less awful for it). And this is not just among creepy strange men.  My breasts were a joke at primary school and in my all-girls high school.  My breasts have been a joke in my family. Big boobies! Ha ha ha!

Meanwhile, women with naturally large breasts can have the truly humiliating experience of disappointing a lover who has consumed too much pornography. As an eighteen year old virgin, I was informed that my breasts were saggy. They weren't and they're still not, but natural breasts are heavier than silicone and this can come as a shock for some wankers (I mean that word figuratively and literally).

How big is too big? 

As Elodie points out, linking back to a Shapely Prose piece, it is possible - and commonplace - for people to describe breasts of almost any size in a derogatory or sensational way. Very many women around average size imagine that their breasts are particularly large or particularly small, finding themselves being offered a padded push-up bra with one hand and a minimiser with the other.

I take a GG or H cup depending on manufacturer and my breasts are not enormous. You may have seen photos and videos of me and not noticed my bosoms. Many people who know me very well would not immediately identify me as a person with particularly big breasts. It's just not necessarily the first - or the twenty first - thing that people notice about a person.

I give this personal information because I've seen many letters and numbers thrown around in these discussions and many of them are much smaller than the ones I'm working with.  I'm reminded of a time in a changing cubicle in the Marks and Spencer lingerie department, realising I would not fit into the FF bra which was the biggest they had (they now go up to a K). Suddenly, the young woman in the cubicle next to me cried out (and she really did yell), "I can't be a DD cup - I'm not some kind of freak!"

That young lady was allowed to feel as she felt about her own body, but I know for sure that if she'd noticed me walking round the store, she would not have identified me or any other woman as a freak.

Rockbox 3
The top of a bra with a mp3 player clipped to it.
Bras have so many uses.
My perception of my bust has changed dramatically over the years. There have been great lows; for years, my appearance was a source of daily criticism and mockery from my ex. It's a very obvious thing to say, but increased confidence (and I have undergone a massive increase in confidence within the last few years) diminishes the prominence of a big bust - even though my posture has changed, and (when I'm not lying down) I generally sit up straighter with my chest relatively stuck out.  I am absolutely convinced that people notice my bosoms less now than when I was hunched over with my arms folded across them.  Despite the  frustrations, I enjoy shopping for clothes.  I get much less crap about my bust, far fewer jokes and comments now, presumably because it's obvious there's no shame there, no self-consciousness to poke  at or paint over with humour. In terms of my perception and my experience, it is as if my bust has gone from being a physical flaw to becoming completely normal in the space of a few years, without my body changing in any way.

So how big is too big?

Breasts could be too big if they - the breasts and not an ill-fitting bra - are causing us pain, unhappiness or dissonance.  The smallest breasts are too big if we don't feel comfortable in a body with breasts.  But if they are comfortable - or if the pleasure they give us outweighs any pain they cause - then they are just fine exactly as they are.

So, some advice on how to come to terms with and learn to love your big breasts.

1. A sense of proportion about your proportions.

In the absence of pain or dissonance, big breasts are not among the worst ways in which a body can deviate from the fictional standard model.  They can be expensive, demoralising and have social consequences but it doesn't compare to say, being fat, trans, having certain physical impairments or one or some of the above and having big breasts. The comments on the Vagenda piece quickly descended into an argument between thin cis women, some with big breasts, some with small, about who was most disadvantaged. Ha!

This may sound obvious and like I'm minimising the issue (tee hee), but I've not always been good at this myself.  Even without everything else, when I've been miserable about the ways in which my body doesn't work, I have fixated on its external flaws. One thing I have found very helpful in coping with chronic illness generally is to focus on the things my body can do and the parts of my body that work just fine.

I strongly recommend this for anyone who feels bad about their body.  My bosoms are just fine.  They don't have any work to do, but they're not painful and they do give me pleasure. On these grounds,  they're absolutely great, exactly as they are!

2. Buying a bra

I think big-breasted women have a simple choice here: you either get yourself a good bra that fits you well, or you don't wear one at all.  Personally, I don't enjoy being braless if I'm moving about, but an ill-fitting bra is so much worse than nothing. It feels absolutely miserable and with big breasts is likely to lead to chronic posture problems, back and shoulder pain, skin problems around the breasts and ribcage etc.. Also, it can look much worse, placing your bosoms in odd positions and causing you to hunch.

Bras with big cup sizes can be very expensive, but it would be better to get just one and wash it every few days than to make do with several that are the wrong size.  Personally, I buy almost all my bras on eBay and have been able to afford quite a collection.  It takes a little time, a trawl and a bit of a gamble (although much less of a gamble as time goes on and you get to know you're preferred brands). But I can get £35 bras for around £15 and less - much less if it's one a private individual has bought in error and photographed badly!

I sometimes get curvy-lady clothes, like this ace jacket,
as Christmas/ Birthday presents from family.
(me wearing a pink/brown tartan jacket)
Something else I've done is to ask for bras as Christmas and birthday presents from family. Which sounds a little weird, but as a young woman this was an item which I couldn't normally afford, was a nice pretty thing that was a pleasure to receive, and saved better-off family members spending the same amount of money on an ugly vase that I would only hide in a cupboard (or sell on eBay so I could afford a new bra). Obviously, I usually chose the bra, but weeks in advance so I'd forget what it was like and so was able to looked surprised.

3. Getting dressed. 

The first rule of getting dressed with big bosoms is that there are no rules about getting dressed with big bosoms. Stevie felt her boyfriend had a valid point when he complained that she wasn't dressing sexily enough. They're both wrong. A trenchcoat made of incontinence pads would be plenty sexy enough if she felt so inclined. Although it would get very heavy if it rained.

As Elodie puts it
"Do you know what type of figure you have? Oh god, you probably do. There’s the Apple, the Pear, the Ruler, The Strange, the Charmed, the Snail that Overturns the Nougat… the Hourglass. Because women love identifying themselves with fruit and objects! Pick up any magazine with Clothing Tips. It’ll rhapsodize on the natural, feminine beauty of the mythical Hourglass, probably saying something like “lucky bitch!” before going back to how Rulers can make their breasts look bigger, and Apples can make their everything look smaller. Let’s get rid of those notions now – let’s throw them out the window. You are a large-breasted person, yes. You are beautiful, yes. But fuck those magazines. Fuck ‘em. They don’t know."
Big breasted women receive two messages about getting dressed:
  1. Cover them up.  Use tricks, colours, lines and layers to make your bust look smaller than it is. Wear brightly coloured knickers over your jeans to draw attention away from your bust. You are all out of balance. Establish a balance!
  2. Flaunt those bad boys, girlfriend!
Dress is a form of communication but one we have limited control over.  Lots of outfits that are worn because of their power to communicate, nevertheless convey very different messages to different people; a police uniform, for example, a nun's habit or an expensive suit. 

Women's clothing is understood to have extraordinary powers, effecting other people's behaviour, let alone their impression of us. No woman can win with this, not really, but I think it's especially tough for busty women. Dress one way and you're immodest, a tart, your clothing invites comment about your body and event assault. Dress in the other way and you're a frump, unfeminine and not making an effort. In his capacity to critcise absolutely anything, my ex variously described me as dressing like a cheap whore and a sack of washing.  But I was wrong to think that there was a magical balance between these two insults, because they are insults.  By far the biggest effect your clothing has on others is through you. If you feel good, if you're comfortable, confident and cheerful, people will react to you better. The kind of people who are going to judge you because they can or can't see the shape of your body under your clothes aren't going to treat you like an actual person, whatever you do.

A brief detour into minimising...

Because I was tall, I usually had to play the male roles in school plays.  For this, girls like me had to have our breasts bound to us with bandages.  This was very uncomfortable and made us into rather strange new shapes (it's not like you can make the flesh go away, you can merely flatten it - to a limited extent - against your rib-cage).  It was also kind of weird and unpleasant to see it happening to others.

At some point in my teens, I got to the stage where minimisers were the only bras I could find in the shops which would fit me. I felt like I was being told that my breasts were simply too big, and I had to squish them down as I had for the school plays, only now it was just to play a woman. I didn't want to draw attention to my breasts, but then, I don't want to draw attention to my arse but I refuse to wear those horrible rubbery tube things that make your bottom smaller (or at least, redistribute your bottom over a larger area).

I hate the idea of trying to disguise a part of my body out of shame about it. If minimisers are more comfortable for you and allow you to wear nicer or more appropriate clothes, that makes perfect sense.  But don't feel obliged to hide something away because you feel your body is somehow offensive or inappropriate.

Back to Getting Dressed...

Wear what you like, but everyone should
have a dino hoody in their wardrobe.
Some clothes won't look so good on you as they do other women with different proportions. Some clothes will look better on you than they do on other women. This is the case for everyone. Have a look at photographs from fashion shows, where you have tall and thin young women wearing clothes by the world's top designers. Some of those clothes do not look good on those body shapes (of course, some of them don't look good at all, but some would look much better on, say, a short woman with a big bottom).

Of course, looking good is subjective and looking good is not necessary your top priority when getting dressed.  That's up to you.

Some clothes will not fit you properly, no matter what you do.  This can be tough - buying clothes for a special occasion in the summer, where everything is straps, halternecks or low backs, is very tricky. There's only one place I know where I could buy button-up shirts or blouses. When I was a bridesmaid, it took attempts by three different experienced dressmakers to make the dress design fit around my bust.  As well as making and dramatically adjusting clothes, I have taken some extraordinary measures to wear the clothes I like. In one case, I actually painted an area of a camisole the right colour to match the top I was wearing it under so that my vest looked like part of the top.

Elodie's post provides some excellent practical advice on this stuff, but you read all that already, didn't you?

4. Appreciating female beauty.
In her article, Living With Breasts That Can Be Seen From Orbit, Lindsay Miller says
I've found that nothing helps my breast-related self-image quite so much as sleeping with women. If you're not queer, sorry about that, but for the girl-on-girl crowd: When was the last time you thought “Wow, I wish her breasts were smaller/bigger/perkier/farther apart/a different shape”? Probably never. Probably you usually think something along the lines of “Hell yes, naked girl!” Seeing other women's bodies in a context where you're enjoying, not critiquing, can help you reframe your relationship with your own body in the same way.
I have an eye for the ladies but I'm not sure you need to be turned on by, let alone sleeping with a person, to notice their physical beauty. The trouble is that women are so often being asked to compare themselves to other women, as if there are a handful of standard beautiful women against whom all women's beauty might be measured.  You can look through a women's magazine and see a great number of beautiful women who look very much alike and nearly nothing like you.

But you can't do the same looking through a book on art, typing a girl's name into a search on Flickr or just looking at the various women you love.  Even if you can't find any physical feature that you find beautiful and which you also possess, you will at least see that beauty looks like very many different things, and so the chances are that others can see beauty in you.  Also, if you go for the Flickr route, you will encounter at least one cute animal who shares your name (here's mine).

( I recommend the same for men and people of other genders (see Genderfork) who struggle to accept their physical appearance, with or without big breasts. )

On a slightly negative note... I know that nobody who reads my blog would ever be involved in this sort of thing, but I've seen the posts going around comparing some thin modern celebrity to Marilyn Monroe with slogans such as "When did beautiful stop being this and start being this?"  I've seen people refer to curvy women as "real women" and lament the shallowness of men who date stick-thin beauties who have nothing between their ears or underarms (which is a lot like this infamous article, only in reverse).

This is not on.  Not only because it is sexist and sometimes outright misogynist, but because it can't possibly make such people feel better. If any aspect of one's self-esteem relies on the inadequacy of others, one is destined to be repeatedly indignant when those others get the luck, praise and love one feels entitled to. Not because really they're actually hotter than people who do this, but because they're nicer than people who do this. So there.

5. Accepting what your breasts are and are not.

Your breasts are part of your body which you are probably going to have to live with.  You may lose weight and your breasts will get smaller, but they will still be large in proportion to the rest of you (in fact, if the back size of your bra goes down with weight loss, your cup size may go up).  Surgical breast reduction is an option for some, but a radical and very expensive one.

Your breasts aren't part of your sexuality or even your femininity. They are just part of your body. They may be involved with both your sexuality and your femininity or they may not. You can be butch and big breasted. You can be another gender and big breasted. You can be asexual and big breasted.

Your breasts do not cause other people to behave in a certain way.  Together with other mammals which have mastered the art of not staring at others, human beings are not compelled to stare at your breasts, however big they are. When I am using my wheelchair, nearly nobody stares at my breasts, and they haven't gone anywhere (in fact, being sat down all the time, they're easier to look at).  The kind of creeps who stare at people's breasts are usually the same kind of people who can't look at disabled people at all.  A win for me, but the point is that this is a problem with other people, not your anatomy.

The same goes for comments and unwanted touching (including touching by a gay man making a television programme - honestly, I daresay some women enjoy being fondled by Gok Wan, but he never asks. Even people who have had to handle my bosoms for medical reasons have asked every step of the way).

Your breasts are not there for pleasing other people, whether suckling infants, adult lovers or the people you meet in your daily life. You are free to keep your breasts entirely to yourself, whether covered up or on display (to the extent the law allows). It's entirely up to you.

Go forth and enjoy your breasts! 


Elodieunderglass said...

Goldfish, I'm so sorry I didn't see this earlier! What a beautiful post, heartfelt and touching. Great research and lovely links, too (I love the snake-boobie lady; she is an inspiration to us all.)

You are a remarkably gorgeous human being, by the way <3

The Goldfish said...

Thank you Elodie - no need to apologise. :-)

My Classicist chap says that the image of the snake-boobie lady is what got the great Bettany Hughes into Classics. She said so in a lecture he attended, apparently.