Love & Sex

Why Are Boobs So Fascinating?

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Our obsession struck long before Angelina Jolie.

Boobs, hooters, gazongas, whatever you want to call them—it seems they were on our minds just a little more than the usual all-day-all-the-time recently. One of those reasons is because Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy were the boobs heard round the world. After getting her breasts removed as a preventative measure against a mutant gene for cancer she carried, the world had many opinions, questions, and claims about the pair, one of them being, now that they’re “gone”, they’ve retroactively become the generation-defining set of our time. And we’re talking about it in the public sphere because it was Angelina’s decision to put this private information in the public sphere. Which made me ask myself, regardless of what someone does in their own time and for what purposes, can’t tits just be tits, just like any other body part?

No, not now and basically, not ever. They’re too fascinating. They hold such a pull on our cultural thought—somewhere between utilitarian and completely recreational, between hidden and overexposed, between sacred and lampooned. 

Yesterday The New York Times covered performance artist Holly Van Voast, whose bare-chested walks around New York City were getting her arrested and detained despite a more than two decade-old court ruling that going topless for noncommercial reasons, regardless of gender, was perfectly legal. But that all changed when the NYPD were recently given specific requests not to arrest anyone for public lewdness or indecent exposure if it was just a woman showing off her knockers (and you know, nobody was jerking off or dry humping anyone). There are many other topless activists, such as Moira Johnston, taking advantage of this law slackening, who hope to educate women about their right to go topless. They also hope for a time when American street corners are lined with as many unnotable bare boobs as a French beach in July. 

In this video coverage of Moira Johnston’s activism (probably NSFW), what was most interesting to watch was not the pleasant and informed topless Moria speak, but the reactions of onlookers as they become an audience for what they normally see everywhere—in magazines, music videos, porn, and films—except in the street. One older woman from Kentucky is asked if she would ever try it out when she was informed toplessness was legal and she responded, “I’m not a large-breasted woman, so if I were to do that, no one would notice, but for large-breasted women, that would bother me, because I’ve always been self-conscious that I don’t have a lot.” That dear woman from Kentucky misses a point, though. She would be noticed if she walked around with her top off. Boob obsession transcends size, shape, weight, or nipple appearance. Our fervor for tits is biological, Darwinian, sexual, sensual, cultural, and political and has been for centuries. 

A few months ago, Playboy provided us with an “Ultimate History of Boobs” that invented few wheels and reduced decades down to breast trends. The highly scientific findings were that the 50s were large, the 60s were conical, the 70s natural, and the 80s were augmented. Of course, that’s the type of breasts that they were publishing, but biology and individual sexual preferences beat on despite the pervasive and over-generalizing hand of lad mags. 

If they were going to go for a more comprehensive history, they might have started in the second century AD with the polymastic statues of Artemis of Euphesus, a fertility goddess who was literally covered in breasts that gave her power. In the West, during the Middle Ages, there was a rejection of the nude body in life and art, and only in movements and art where we uncovered the now taboo body part, did tits finally get so titillating. An early example of this fascination factor was in the Renaissance, with the portrait of Agnes Sorel, mistress to King Charles VII, whose nip-slip would have given Janet Jackson a run for her money. From then on, boobs have always been biological symbols for nursing and symbols of eroticism, with the two modes meeting in peculiarly designed champagne coupes said to have been modeled and cast from historical women’s breasts like Helen of Troy, Marie-Antoinette, and Lee Miller. We like boobs so much, we made them into everything from cups, to poetry, and chocolates.

While initially a tool for our survival, boobs today are inseparable from their sexualization (in fact, while watching a news video about Jolie’s plan to remove her ovaries, I couldn’t help but notice and laugh at the website streaming a video advertisement for Viagra prior to the clip.) There are so many famous and revered boobs, off the top of my head: Marilyn Monroe, Halle Berry, Betty Page, Zoe Saldana, Pamela Anderson, Kiera Knightley, Christina Hendricks, the sphynx sentry statues from The Neverending Story. What do they all have in common and why are they so-called defining an age? They probably have more money than you and they also have great boobs, in their own way, shape, and size. All of these boobs tacitly tell us, "We will provide for you!" while also being incredibly aesthetically pleasing. Culturally and genetically, that's a win-win.

My own, how-should-I-say, ample breasts have been a cause for my distress, especially in my adolescence. Oh man, how they sweat, how they move when I move, how whatever clothing I put on, they are still, unwaveringly, there. There’s a constant battle I fight against button-up shirts and I never win. In fact, an entire subway platform has seen my breasts as I unwittingly and briskly walked with an open blouse just because those bad-boys didn’t want to be contained. I used to hate this. In some ways, I still do. But my breasts are also too damn cool, perplexing, comfortable, and fun to feel hung up about what they’re doing or how they look all the time. Of course I care about the politics of breasts, but not when they're being squeezed by someone handsome and not when I am using them as late-night stress balls. I stopped the constant body-checking because it’s me, it’s boobs, and those won’t change, sorta like kneecaps. 

I’m really sad boobs get cancer, but you know, so can every other part of our wonderful bodies and it’s great that we’re openly talking about prevention. And I’m sad that people would feel dissatisfied with their boobs enough to undergo painful surgery (since 1962), but that’s their choice, and it’s totally within their right. Despite whatever negative connotations we can dredge up, I just don’t think we will ever get off the happy, inspiring boob train—we've been naturally selecting them way before Angelina Jolie was born, way before there were laws that permitted or disallowed their exposure.

Can a cigar be just a cigar, as Freud put it? No, not when these cigars are the subject of centuries of art, writing, scholarship, and worship. Not when these cigars, are ultimately, above all political or social meaning, incredibly fun. 

Boobs will remain a dominant (and awesome) force in our cultural narrative because they're non-threatening, functional, but most of all, they've become recreational. They’re concealed, desired, useful, and sometimes, dirty. No matter how we configure it, the world will keep having them, loving them, and yes, for better of for worse, we will keep looking.