boobs: Women Explore What It Means To Have Breasts, edited by Ruth Daniell

28481692Do you or someone you know have breasts?

How can you be so interested in them?… No, but seriously. They’re just breasts. Every second person in the world has them… But they’re odd looking. They’re for milk. Your mother has them. You’ve seen a thousand of them. What’s all the fuss about? — Notting Hill (1999)

boobs is a collection of essays, stories, and poems written by an assortment of talented Canadian writers about what their breasts have meant to them, or how their breasts have played a role in their identity. When you think about it, (as I hadn’t really done properly before), breasts are everywhere, and they mean many different things to different people. They’re inescapable. People viewing the breasts of others make assumptions about the owners based on what they see; size, shape, colour, how they are covered (or not). Breasts are also “celebrated or criticized” as both sex objects or as sources of milk. “But what does having breasts mean to the people who have them, want them, don’t want them, or used to have them? How does having – or not having – breasts affect how we understand our identities as women?”

We all have our own stories; our boobs are too big, too small, asymmetrical, lumpy, in the way, useless, objects of affection, objects of abuse, strictly utilitarian, or killing us.

After reading this collection, I can’t help but wonder if any woman has ever had a positive and healthy experience with her breasts? Many of these stories are about the shame, embarrassment, or just plain confusion the narrators felt about their breasts as adolescents. Some were way ahead of their peers, some far behind; neither a good place to be. There is competition between girls, teasing from boys (I had forgotten about the bra-snapping), more serious goggling from older men, and worse. As a teen, one contributor used to believe that having big boobs meant that men just couldn’t ‘help themselves’. I felt sad for these girls who are now strong and successful women. And it made me wonder what my own daughters will experience.

Because “25,000 Canadian women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year”, many of the stories in this anthology deal with having breast cancer or breast cancer scares. All the different stages and reactions one might go through from when that lump is first discovered is explored in these stories. Although there are many of them, they are all told in fresh voices and from different angles; finding a lump, the terror of waiting for results, having a mastectomy, martial fallout, genetics, breast reconstruction: both the physical reconstruction and the question of whether or not to have it – is it considered vain to want your breasts back?

Other stories in the collection include issues around breast hypoplasia, the discomfort and inconvenience that comes with having large breasts and finding the right bra size, discrimination and harassment based on breast size, cysts and fibroids, transgendering and breast removal or hormone therapy, becoming a mother and breastfeeding (the ability or inability).

Some passages that stood out:

… I didn’t want reconstruction… didn’t want to be Barbie. I felt stupid, self-conscious at the idea of getting a new and customized rack. Yet, my kids had the idea I would only be well when I had new breasts.

I think how funny this is, me and two men I hardly know, deciding where my nipples should be. It’s not weird. It should be. But they’ve got this non-sexual yet totally interested attentiveness, and standing between them, I feel safe, More than safe. Like a work of art in the early stages. I feel like crying.

Why have I always related to my breasts in this way?  They’ve never just been what they were, in the moment – they were always about what they might become.

We think of airplanes passing overhead as loud. Chainsaws, too, or cars backfiring, or the sudden thunder of a summer rainstorm. None of these match, in volume, the sound of your own mother’s voice in the Sears lingerie department asking the clerk for assistance to FIND A BRA FOR MY DAUGHTER!

Even though I’m fully dressed, I feel as if he can see through my clothes. I cross my arms across my chest, trying to hide my breasts. I hate them. I think to myself that if I didn’t have breasts, none of this would be happening.

I always liked breasts, though I didn’t want to; I used to pore over photos of naked people in my dad’s form-drawing books and studiously ignored the fact that I found women’s bodies just as interesting and exciting as men’s.

I became more aware of how women react to my body. I have honed an edge, a hardness to deflect the onslaught of “Hey Baby”s. I’ve heard, always indirectly, that women find me cold and unfriendly. I try to make more female friends at city hall by wearing glasses instead of contacts, by not wearing makeup, by hiding my body under baggier clothes. But still, it is the men, not the women, who ask me to join them for lunch.

After she was born, my breasts were our point of connection, the bridge between her body and mine… That bridge brings me closer, somehow, to myself.

(I never thought I’d ever write the words ‘boobs’ and ‘breasts’ so many times. And, the number of times I typed ‘breats’ instead of ‘breasts’ was exasperating.)

I highly recommend this to anyone.

*Thanks to Caitlin Press for sending my a copy of the book for review!

50 thoughts on “boobs: Women Explore What It Means To Have Breasts, edited by Ruth Daniell

    • Naomi says:

      I think it would be great for men to read this book. I suspect that it will mostly appeal to women, but most women will be able to relate to at least some of the essays. For men it might be more of an eye-opener. Thanks for reading it, Don!

    • Naomi says:

      That one makes me sad, too. And she’s not the only writer in the book with this experience – just the one with the quote that made it into my review. But what is the answer?

    • Naomi says:

      It’s true, but I had never really thought about it much before I read this book. (A good thing, I guess.)
      It makes me wonder if someone could put together the same type of book for other body parts – feet, shoulders, stomach – with the same effect.

  1. bookskeptic says:

    Great review and sounds like a very interesting book. I always thought I have sort of neutral result to my breasts, but then one day (who knows for what reason) I started thinking if I had a mastectomy would I go for breasts reconstruction, exactly the same question that you mentioned, when I answered I would I started thinking how much of my identity is connected with having breasts. It is a very interesting topic!

    • Naomi says:

      After reading the story about it, I was wondering the same thing. It is an interesting question… and one that is not necessarily all about the person the breasts belong to, which hadn’t occurred to me before. The question of vanity versus identity is also a good one. It feels cosmetic, which puts a lot of people off, but it would be so strange to suddenly be without a body part that has been with you for so long.

      • bookskeptic says:

        It’s vanity/identity question, but it also made me realize how much of my identity is formed of how other people perceive me, or how I think they do. I was also thinking how breast reconstruction is something we’d carefully consider, but if it came to a hand or a leg it would be an obvious decision (if it was possible).

  2. River City Reading says:

    Ah, this sounds so interesting! And your question about our relationship is something I’ve never really thought about either. Like usual, I’ll have to do some digging to see if it’s possible to get my hands on this one 😉

    • Naomi says:

      It really was thought-provoking, especially for someone who hadn’t given it a lot of thought before. (Which really just means that I’m lucky I didn’t have to.)
      I really hope it will be available below the border!

    • Carolyn O says:

      I thought the exact same thing–I wonder if it’s available here. Great review, Naomi–and re: other body parts, somewhere around here I have an ARC on women’s relationship to their hair . . . but honestly I’d rather read this book.

      • Naomi says:

        It’s too easy to change your hair, but most of us are stuck with our breasts whether we like it or not. Better to make the best of it. And, in the meantime, read how other women have decided to make the best of it. Really you can’t go wrong with this book if you are at all interested in women’s issues.

  3. Caroline says:

    That does sound like an interesting collection. I could imagine other body parts would be interesting too but this one, obviously, is tied in to so many topics.
    I have a feeling using the b word in a title might generate heavy traffic. 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      I think a lot of women had a lot to say! It must have been a big process wading through all the entries and having to decide which ones to include and which to leave out.

  4. FictionFan says:

    Great review! And the collection does sound interesting, However… I suspect women’s fascination with breasts is caused by men’s fascination with breasts. Perhaps if we just made the assumption that any man who who can’t see past our breasts (figuratively speaking!) isn’t worth considering, we might be able to obsess about something more meaningful. Chocolate, perhaps…

    Signed: Grumpy old feminist 😉

    • Naomi says:

      Haha – good point! (With the exception of the breast cancer and breastfeeding stories, of course!) Chocolate is much nicer to think about!

  5. Bina says:

    Haha I would totally type breats all the time, too 🙂 Thanks for this wonderful review, I put the book on my tbr after you recommended it, and it really does sound wonderful. Probably lots of us with breasts have positive and negative experiences and I love the sound of topics covered in the book!

    • Naomi says:

      It covers a wide variety of topics, but it was also nice to have a wide variety of voices – the writers and their styles were all unique. I loved that, too. Nothing boring in this book!

  6. Grab the Lapels says:

    When I go on campus and see male students in the sun, shirtless on a hot day, playing frisbee, or whatever, I always get very angry. Some glands and fat make a woman’s chest shameful or sexual or whatever, but the lack of those things is as fine as elbows. *SIGH.

    I started thinking differently about breasts after reading a book of poems on breast cancer that were funny and horrifying.

    • Naomi says:

      On the bright side, if we keep our shirts on, we don’t need to worry about slathering sunscreen all over our fronts and backs. 🙂

  7. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    I think I had one small bad experience with boobs, when I was in fourth grade and some of the girls already had bras and they were like “oh ha ha Jenny doesn’t have a bra yet.” But apart from that I have felt generally A+ about my boobs. The women on my dad’s side of the family (who I take after physically) tend to have ENORMOUS boobs and it seems like a hassle that I have very fortunately escaped. So — yes? All positive and healthy boob experiences on this end?

  8. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I have to admit that I didn’t think I would ever read the words “boobs” and “breasts” quite so many times in one review. But as usual, you’ve picked a book that has piqued my interest. For what it’s worth, I love the breast cancer awareness bumper sticker that simply says “Save the Ta-Tas.” It catches my attention every time I see it. But honestly, with the exception of hair maybe, I don’t think a book about any other body part might garner such an immediate general interest as boobs (which I have now twice misspelled as “books”).

    • Naomi says:

      Haha – I did that, too (or ‘bobs’, but not as much as ‘breats’. I typed ‘breats’ almost every single time!
      I’ve never seen that bumper sticker, but now I’ll be watching for it. 🙂

  9. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’d definitely be interested to read this. If you’re looking for a companion read, Vagina by Naomi Wolf is excellent. I was careful about reading that one in public back in my London commuting days 😉

  10. Cecilia says:

    This sounds fascinating, Naomi. I agree that breasts is not something we’d normally think we think about, but as women they are central to our identities and experiences. I remember feeling ashamed of my negative attitude toward my breasts once I started breastfeeding, and how I was surprised by that. I’d love to read this collection. Thanks for the great review!

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, I had never thought about my breasts more than when I started breastfeeding. I loved breastfeeding, but it really brings it all out there, doesn’t it? Feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, wondering what others are thinking about it. After 3 babies in a row, though, I got pretty good at it, and got so that I didn’t care if anyone was staring at me anymore. Most of the time.
      I remember once feeding my baby at the mall on a bench, and there were 2 boys probably about 12 years old who kept circling around me and giggling.

  11. Lee-Anne says:

    What a fascinating topic to explore. I’ve always had a happy relationship with my breasts. Surprisingly, it sounds like I may be in the minority. Strange. I love books like this that open our perspective on something upon which we don’t usually think deeply. Thanks for the review.

    • Naomi says:

      Another positive experience – I’m happy to hear it!
      I wonder what the norm is. I’m assuming that most of the people who wrote in had negative experiences – otherwise what would you write about? So, it could be that things aren’t as bad as they seem!

  12. Read Diverse Books says:

    The cover of the latest book you reviewed is filled with wigs and this one is filled with bras! Hah, what a funny coincidence.

    I must admit, I don’t often think about breasts! Like not ever, really. But yes, they are everywhere and it’s difficult to escape the images and cultural fascination with breasts.

    • Naomi says:

      Yay – someone who doesn’t think about them! It would be interesting to do a poll… or maybe not. Someone else can do it. It was enough to have read the book, I think.
      It *is* funny that there are 2 books in a row about body parts. I read The Blondes last month, so it really was just a coincidence.

  13. The Cue Card says:

    I’m not sure I could read an entire book on breasts. Never even think of them. But the cancer part I’m sure adds important reflections on the whole matter.

    • Naomi says:

      I didn’t think I would be able to read it all at once, either, but I had no problem! It could be the more you *don’t* think about breasts, the more this will fascinate you.

  14. Deepika Ramesh says:

    Oh, what a fantastic post, Naomi. This book sounds important and fascinating. I am surely adding it to my TBR.

  15. Heather says:

    Fantastic review, Naomi, and a very thought provoking one. I had the strange through the other day (I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before) about how films/tv shows that have a topless woman in them will have a nudity rating at the start, but the same doesn’t happen if there’s a topless man. I mean, I’m not about to getting my boobs out at every opportunity, but it really is strange that the female breasts are so sexualised – how did it get to this point?

    • Naomi says:

      The answer to your question: Men!

      My daughter and I were walking on the trail near our house a couple of days ago, and the weather was unseasonably warm. Along came a man who was jogging without his shirt on, and my daughter couldn’t understand why he had taken off his shirt. I still don’t know what to make of this. Is it good that she thinks no one should take of their shirt in public (man or woman), or bad? I just avoid the whole conversation by telling them that we all have to keep on our shirts to avoid getting too much sun. 🙂

      • Heather says:

        Haha, good response! But I completely get why she wouldn’t be able to understand why he could take his shirt off, but women can’t. Perfect example of a double standard!

  16. DoingDewey says:

    Wow! This sounds like an interesting topic, but it also seems as though the perspective is kind of depressing. Perhaps a happy story about breasts wouldn’t be as eventful 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      It does come off sounding depressing, I guess, but really it’s not at all. The essays are written with a lot of humour, some more than others, but most have at least some. The messages are there, but they are disguised as good stories. I would have been happy to keep reading more!

  17. Leah says:

    A woman I know was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and quickly went through a double mastectomy, so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about women’s relationships to our breasts. This sounds like a really fascinating book.

    • Naomi says:

      Sorry to hear that, Leah. But, really, it’s going to happen to us or someone we know at some point, because it’s so prevalent, right? I hope she is doing much better!
      Thanks for reading. 🙂

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