The male and female breasts- part two

My post “The male and female breasts” is my most read post. I hope that this reflects the strong argument and clear style, rather than the photograph of a male and female breast on the top of the post.

I have encountered three broad types of disagreement with my position:

  1. Some say that women’s breasts (and not men’s breasts) have always been sexualized in all human societies, and this is evidence that there is something inherently sexual in the former and not in the latter. This claim is factually wrong. In many human societies women’s breasts are not more sexualized than men’s, and women are not expected to cover them (for example, certain African tribes).
  2. Others contend that women’s breasts are larger than men, and there are more ways to “play” with them, hence they are more sexual. But this is not true for many men: I recently read an article stating that about 50% of men have a condition of enlargement of fat tissues in their breasts, called Gynecomastia. Many men who work out at the gym have, at least by my impression, breasts that are just as large as the average woman’s breasts, only theirs are made of muscle and not fat. Moreover, if it was the size of the organ that sexualized it, then men’s sex organs should have been considered more sexual than women’s, which is not the case.
  3. Finally, there the argument that women’s breasts change and develop more during puberty and therefore signal sexual maturity. This widespread notion is also inaccurate. Men’s breasts change and develop just as dramatically during puberty- both body fat and muscle increase and body hair develops. Also, as many feminist authors have noted, “child-like” femininity (signaling weakness and immaturity) is celebrated and sexualized in Western contemporary society. If it were indeed signs of maturity that were sexualized, then an excess of thick, black, public hair should have been celebrated as the epitome of feminine sexuality.

So I stand by my original argument. The fetishization and objectification of women’s breasts is neither necessary nor universal. You will have no luck searching for its rationale in the domain of biology. As women, we would be better off without this fetishization. Perhaps there is room for another posy about the advantages men get from the fact that such a central and big part of their body is not sexualized and objectified.

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Measuring up to myself and not others

As a child, I was very afraid of falling, or of losing balance. I remember my mother telling me once that I tumble like a rock. One time I fell on my face and broke both of my front teeth. My entire childhood, I couldn’t do a simple forward roll. Once a friend had tried  to help me, and I rolled but I instantly felt rage because of the helplessness I experienced during the roll. So I never tried it again.

BJJ is the perfect martial art for me, because it involves mainly ground work. But when I came to my first BJJ training, I had to roll forward and backwards as part of the drills during warm-up. I cherish my first coach’s empathy, un-judgmental encouragement and competence in teaching. Thanks to him.  both the fact that I rolled at this first training, and it didn’t make me feel helpless or enraged. I persevered and now BJJ is one of the best and most enjoyable experiences in my life. Through my first coach’s help, I could transcend the limits of my body and mind, and genuinely improve myself. Improve myself in relation to me, not in relation to others.

I’ve been training for a year and a half now, and I usually “lose” sparring matches in both clubs where I train. I often get comments from my training partners, such as, ” You always gives me your back”‘, or “you shouldn’t put your weight forward in guard”, “why did you do this, last time you were better”, or “Why do you keep repeating this mistake”. I know their intentions are good, and that they are trying to help me to improve, but these comments make me feel helpless. I try to do my best. Really. I try to  follow the principles I learned, and I try to work well. But when I get these comments, I feel like I’m not as competent as I should be, or that my understanding is flawed. These comments make me appreciate all the more the teaching style of my first coach. When we rolled, he rarely criticized me. He always succeeded in finding the right level of game that will challenge me yet give me a clear sense of enjoyment and sense of competence.

When I shared my frustration with one of my current coaches, he told me to focus on my successes and not failures. So I want to focus on my success in transcending myself. Yesterday, I had to do a drill that mortified me. It involved jumping to a closed guard when you partner is standing. It was the first time I observed the drill, and taking part in it really scared me. Jumping was relatively easy. Being jumped, was another story. I don’t know whether my fear was related to my body (the fact that I am a woman, and that most partners are much heavier than me), or a mental one (the fact that I never had to stand up with the weight of another person on me).

This really scared me, and the fact that the first time that I tried it I fell on my face and on my training partner did not help. A blue  belt at the club stayed after training to teach me. He had the patience to break up the drill into several stages and I felt that he had faith that I could do it, despite my fear. After several attempts as well as escape attempts (on my part, I already said that I am a coward) I managed to stay on my feet for two seconds with the weight of another person on me. I know that it is probably not impressive in relation to others, and I know that I probably “barely” did it. But I succeeded in doing something that I was mortified from at first. And it was the best feeling I had in quite a while and an accomplishment I cherish. For me, this is the meaning of measuring up to myself, and not others.

On the body and shame

I don’t remember exactly how old I was. I was transitioning from childhood to adolescence. I started growing hair on my armpits. I was probably in fifth grade because I remember a friend showing me her two new hairs on her armpits the summer before at summer camp for fourth graders (and I didn’t have any hairs then). Somehow I knew that growing hairs on my armpits is not good. That it was embarrassing and that these hairs should be removed. But I wasn’t sure how to do it. I think that I said something to my mother and she dismissed it, saying that I was only a child.

Then I went to the swimming pool. A group of two or three boys around my age or a bit older noticed my new grown hairs. They started to mock me and make fun of me because I had these new hairs. I was frozen with humiliation and didn’t know what to do. I dived deep into the water so as not to hear them laughing at me.

Somehow this early experience of body shame was made into a part of my body. I carry it with me ever since. If I had to physically locate this experience, I would locate it near my armpits. Like invisible irremovable hairs, which cause shame and embarrassment. I guess that over the years new “organs” like this joined my physical body –  I will always be that kid that was laughed at because she was fat, or deemed ugly and unattractive.        

The male and female breasts

Image

My view of the body is a variant of the social constructivist approach. I don’t deny the power and significance of the organic-material body and biology. I do, however, believe that the experience, interpretation and definition of biological events can only take shape through cultural schemas modulated by the social position of individuals in society.

Many have written about the construction of human sexuality as the domain of the secretive and the forbidden. In Western contemporary society, the human body is clothed and treated as a secret. That is why exposure of certain body parts in specific contexts is arousing. Normally, children’s bodies are not socially constructed as sexual; that is why there are fewer restrictions on children’s bodily exposure.

This interplay of concealment and exposure is at the heart of the differential treatment of male and female breast in Western contemporary societies. As the image above serve to illustrate, biologically speaking, the male and female breasts are not that different. I hope no one would seriously claim that the fact that the bulge is mainly of fat in one case, and mainly of muscle in the second, makes any difference in the two breasts’ potential to elicit arousal. What is dramatically different is that only the female breast is sexually objectified.

Sexual objectification is also evident in the differential treatment of male and female breasts in the martial arts. In some competitions in certain martial arts, men are forbidden to wear a shirt underneath the gi, and women are forbidden not to wear a shirt. In the popular MMA competitions, all men fight bare chested. I assume that the bare chest of men has the same biological potential to elicit arousal in humans that are attracted to men, as the potential of the bare female chest to elicit arousal in humans that are attracted to women. So I can see two possible interpretations of the social legitimacy of presenting the bare male chest in non-sexual settings:

 1.  Either society/culture represses and denies the potential of the bare male chest to elicit arousal, and hence represses the desire for men (just as society emphasizes the (often) male desire for the female body); OR

2.  Society overwrites the potential of the bare male chest to elicit desire by systematically excluding it from the concealment/exposure game (to which the female breast is subjugated and in the name of which it is commercialized and exploited ), sending the message (to those who are attracted to men): don’t make a fuss.

I believe that it is  in the interest of women that we demand to exclude greater parts of our bodies from the cultural concealment/exposure game.

A letter to a “Naked woman on a sofa” – Lucian Freud, 1984-1985

Image

I really like this painting. It expresses a deep truth for me, as an embodied being. It strikes me as a painting of a real woman. Not just body, but body and mind. Not merely an image, a simulacrum or a cultural sign.

Something is very familiar to me in this painting. It evokes something in my past, in my childhood, even though it seems to me that today I’m younger than this woman when she was drawn. It makes me think about mother-daughter relationships, and more broadly, about multi-generational bonds between women.

It reassures me, makes me calm. Even though she is naked, drawn through the eyes of a male painter (Lucian Freud), I don’t feel like I’m a voyeur. I can identify with her, with the marks of time on her body. She seems serene to me, and strong in a way. I wish that I was surrounded with such images as a girl, as a teenager, without having to hate my body that will never conform to the images that did surround me at the time, and still do!

Why do I enjoy this painting so much? Clearly – and even though she meets some cultural norms of beauty (she is white, she seems to have an average size body) – she fails to meet others : her breasts are soft (too soft, our culture says), her tummy is loose (our culture says, too loose). I find in her body solace that I cannot find in the muscular images of men I like to identify with so much (consciously and to spite others) because they are strong, tough, not soft. I am her more than I am tough.

Flushed areas are marked on her face and she has big, wise eyes, which seem to me be absorbed in the here and now, like time itself is her lover. I feel as though this painting tells me something valuable and old about my identity, my flesh and my mind, as a woman. I am already her, she is a part of me.

Stop oppression in the name of health

Fat studies researchers and activists aim to understand the dominant reference to fatness as pathological and as a health problem in its broader social, cultural, political and economic context. They argue that the medical terminology and logic both conceal and reinforce social power relations that underlie any definitions of ‘normal’ or ‘proper’ body sizes, as well as the corresponding  social stereotypes and prejudices surrounding fat bodies (See, Wann, 2009). Researchers argue, for instance, that different factors, such as economic status, mediate the alleged correlation between fatness and ill health; that health should be viewed as a holistic concept that includes more elements than a person’s weight, such as general life style; and that the pressure to lose weight, and the measures that reinforce this pressure, are more damaging to health then fatness itself (Burgard  2009; Ernsberger 2009; Lyons 2009).

One study, for instance,  compared two groups of fat women: one group was encouraged to diet and exercise, while the other was encouraged to eat a healthy diet, to listen to one’s bodily cues, to engage in fun activities and to participate in a fat acceptance group. After one year, the health of the second group improved significantly, e.g. their blood pressure and cholesterol levels decreased (although they did not lose any weight).  The participants of the first group lost weight but did not improve their health to a significant extent.  Most of them eventually regained the weight they initially lost (Farrell, 2011).

Historians and cultural critics, such as Amy Farrell (2011), Hillel Schwartz (1990) and Peter Sterns (1997), argue that the social rejection of fatness and the pressure to lose weight were connected to underlying social trends that characterized late modernity in the West. They also argue that the social rejection of fatness preceded and then became intertwined with explicit medicalization of fatness.

Fat people’s health is none of your business. You should not publicly dissect and analyze the risk factors presumably associated with fat, just as we (as a society) don’t target other social groups. If you really care about fat people’s health, you won’t take part in media humiliation and vilification of fat people, see, for instance, “Headless Fatties“.

If you are interested to learn more about the social stigma of fat and its’ implication, you should read UCLA Professor Abigail Saguy’s new book “What’s Wrong with Fat”. To see some of my published works on the subject, visit my page on Academia Edu or Google me on ScholarGoogle.

Bibliography:

Burgard, D. (2009). “What Is “Health at Every Size?””. In: E. Rothblum and S. Solovay (Eds.), The Fat Studies Reader (pp. 41-53). New York & London: New York University Press.

Ernsberger, P. (2009). Does social class explain the connection between weight and
health? In E. Rothblum and  S. Solovay  (Eds.),  The  fat studies reader (pp.  25–36).  New York,  NY & London, England:  New York University Press.

Ferrall,  Amy E. (2011). Fat shame:  Stigma and the fat body in American culture. New  York: New York University Press.

Lyons, P. (2009). Prescription for harm. In: E. Rothblum and S. Solovay (Eds.), The Fat Studies Reader (pp. 75-88). New York & London: New York University Press.

Schwartz, Hillel. Never satisfied: A cultural history of diets, fantasies, and fat. Free Press, 1986.

Stearns, P. (2002). Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West. NYU Press: NY.

Wann, M .(2009). Fat Studies- an Invitation for a Revolution. In: E. Rothblum and S. Solovay (Eds.), The Fat Studies Reader (pp. xi-xxvi). New York & London: New York University Press.

Exposing the marks of male physicality in our intellectual discourse

Yesterday I read an op-ed about the psycho-physical problem in philosophy. As I was reading the article I  was startled by the following paragraph (translated from Hebrew by me): “…Some stimuli are prioritized by the brain from the entanglement of environmental stimuli (e.g. pain, a beautiful women, a friend, a foe)”. I felt instantly transformed, from a thinking subject reading a philosophical text, to a mute chicken on a plate. What made me feel that way?

Refering to a beautiful woman as a “environmental stimulus” is common in texts written by men. It exposes something important about spoken and (especially) written language, higlighting several cultural assumptions, that are usually taken for granted:

a)     The general, unspecified, default reader addressed by the text is a man.

b)     That the general, unspecified, default reader addressed by the text is a heterosexual man.

c)    It is culturally acceptable for men to mark the texts they write with the signs of their physical sexed bodies and desires.

d)     Rational and intellectual modes of argument in our societies have been historically shaped by men.

These assumptions stem from a reality in which education, and writing, have traditionally been males’ territory. Today, when women express their opinions in writing, they are expected (and in fact have no choice) to inhabit this presumably “neutral” (but in fact sexed) subject position. When we write texts, we are expected to leave the marks of our physical and sexed body out of the text. And so, if I was writing a text for a respectable outlet, I would never have written: ” Some stimuli are prioritized by the brain from the entanglement  of environmental stimuli (e.g. pain, the bare chest of a well-built man, a friend, a foe)”. (The demand that women leave their corporeal bodies out of the text is reminiscent of the demand that we avoid using our personal (supposedly biased) experiences as a source of authority. For a critique of this demand, see Sandra Harding’s “Strong objectivity”).

 How would a language, a mode of argument and intellectual discourse shaped by women’s sexed bodies look like? Perhaps our daughters will  teach us.

Update: this is an example of using a beautiful women as an environmental stimuli.