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!