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Sarah Thornton Discusses Why We’re So Obsessed With Breasts



The day before her double mastectomy surgery six years ago, the author and cultural sociologist Sarah Thornton let her breasts free. She went swimming in an outdoor pool in the San Francisco Bay Area and untied her bikini top, allowing her 34Bs to sway in the water and soak up the sunshine. It was her way of saying goodbye to them, she said in a recent interview.

“I was someone who kind of dismissed them as just dumb boobs, irrelevant, not important,” she said. As a self-proclaimed feminist, she used to think that any obsession with breasts was vain and distasteful, driven by a superficial need to please the male gaze. Her own breasts were the focus of two sexual harassment incidents in her teens, and, about a decade ago, they became a source of fear: Breast cancer ran in the family and doctors discovered atypical cells. After much prodding and testing, getting rid of a part of her body that she wasn’t particularly attached to seemed like an easy precaution to take.

But months after her surgery, which included getting implants that felt like “silicone impostors” — so foreign and inanimate to her that she felt compelled to give them the names Bert and Ernie — she became “just a total muddle of emotions around what I lost and what I gained,” she said. “Bert and Ernie were really weird for me — they were larger than I’d ever had before, they were hard, I had no nipple sensation anymore.” (For our video interview, Thornton wore a crew neck T-shirt with a drawing of Bert, Ernie and other Sesame Street residents across her chest). It was then that she realized she hadn’t appreciated her breasts enough.

Thornton’s exploration into the cultural significance of breasts resulted in her new book, “Tits Up: What Sex Workers, Milk Bankers, Plastic Surgeons, Bra Designers, and Witches Tell Us About Breasts,” which will be published on May 7. “Tits,” she writes, is her preferred word; “breasts” sounds sterile and is associated with cancer and feeding, while “boobs” suggests unseriousness, like “booby prize” or “booby trap.”

Thornton wrote the book “in order to help women reappraise their chests in positive ways, and men, too,” she said. “Actually, I would really like men to read the book because so many of them think they really know about tits.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How do you feel about ‘Bert’ and ‘Ernie’ now, after writing this book?

After I finished the book last November, I actually had another surgery. I got rid of Bert and Ernie. And I now have Glenda and Brenda. And the good thing about Glenda and Brenda, compared to Bert and Ernie, is they’re smaller, they are much more comfortable. I like these girls now. I can wear some of my old jackets. Actually last night, I wore a jacket I hadn’t worn since before I had the first surgery.

My attitude toward this part of our bodies has been totally transformed. Studies show that most women in America are dissatisfied with this part of their body. And these days I’m like, Are you kidding me? This is the emblem of womanhood and it’s right under our face, it’s front and center.

You note in the book that much of the dissatisfaction women feel stems from the pressure to fit a specific idea of attractiveness. How did breasts become a subject of eroticism?

In the early 20th century, legs were most fetishized. You have to remember that women had been wearing long skirts throughout the 19th century and then, in the ’20s, there was a radical shift in the clothing women wore — legs started to be seen after World War I. Of course, you usually only saw them from the knee down. Betty Grable? Her legs were insured for a million dollars. That was partly a publicity stunt, but it was because her legs were her asset.

That totally shifts after World War II. There’s a shift with pinups and Hollywood and magazine publishing. But very importantly, there’s also the rise of baby formula. You don’t have the full sexualization of the breast when they’re associated with breastfeeding. There’s a correlation you can see between breast milk substitutes and the sexualization of breasts because, if a baby owns a breast, it interrupts a man’s ownership of the breast.

More recently, the sexualization of breasts has resulted in the huge popularity of breast augmentation. Are we still obsessed with big breasts?

I don’t think big is best anymore. I would say that augmentation reached a peak in 2007 — there is a sense that the really big boobs look old-fashioned.

Augmentation also skews more working class nowadays — actually, I would say conspicuous boob jobs skew working class. In one study, a segment of British working class women, for example, see fake tits as a form of consumption that gives them status and signals that they are independent women in command of the male gaze. And then similarly, a contingent of Brazilian women who began their lives in poverty want people to know they have implants as a form of financial accomplishment.

The whole notion that big breasts are the benchmark beauty ideal is particularly American and possibly runs right through the Americas. But in Asia, for example, there’s a very long history of breast binding. And actually the sexiest women had flat chests. You can see that in the costume of a geisha. In Africa — I reference a sculpture from the Dogon tribe, but you can see this in other tribal aesthetic traditions as well — this kind of dagger-like breast, a downward pointy breast, is the beauty standard and it’s absolutely related to nursing.

Peoples living in hot climates did not tend to cover their chest, male or female, and breasts were not sexualized and still are not sexualized in those cultures. Breasts are honored principally for their hydrating, nutritional and immunological functions. And their eroticization is a kind of perverse import.

In your book, you touch on the breast-related legends and symbols embedded in many major religions. Was there an idea you came across that stands out?

In south India, there’s this notion that nipples are a third eye. That I find hugely appealing, because I didn’t realize how sentient and living my nipples were until I lost all my breast tissue and the nerves to my nipples were cut off. We also know that the relationship between mother and child is absolutely a communicative one — an infant’s saliva and body temperature and everything about an infant during nursing is in a feedback loop with the mother’s body and the breast milk will accommodate, in different ways, infant nutritional need. This kind of interpersonal communication through the breast is validated by medical studies. Actually, a milk scholar that I have in the book calls this “corporeal communication.” I actually really love that term.

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