Amy Morgenstern

Summer 2003

The Etiquette of Being a Breast

"You see it is not a matter of doing
what is right or seemly; I can assure you
that I am not concerned with the etiquette
of being a breast."

Philip Roth, The Breast

       A funny thing happened on the way to my breast reduction surgery. I grew fond of my 32DD's. Not that fond, mind you. But fond enough to memorialize them by parading in pasties for a homemade holiday card: Season's Greetings from Santa and her Helpers. I have never before sent out Season's Greeting cards. I have never before worn pasties. I don't even believe in The Season. But strangely—maybe because it was during The Season—I felt that the DD's needed to be given their due. Strike up the band! My hangdog breasts were going down in a blaze of glory. They were going to be famous, find their way onto mantels and refrigerator doors all around the country.
       "Bend over. Lift them up," my photographer directed me in my red pumps and itchy, royal blue sequined stars that refused to stick to my nipples (chewed gum works best), red satin panties, and let's not forget the Santa hat. Never mind that earlier in the day I had lectured authoritatively on Aristotle's ethics or that I had handed back exams graded in my no-nonsense, stern-professor way. Ivory tower be damned, I was going to look and behave like a freak-show act for thirty minutes of my life! How else is one to deal with the knowledge that in just twelve hours a relatively small but significant portion of my God-given body was going to be carted off in plastic sour cream containers to the incinerator? That my nipple area would be cut out from the surrounding skin, downsized, and sewn back (with a possible loss of sensation)? That by not loving my body as it is, I was committing a feminist faux pas? That I would soon be free, free, free of the DD's! How is one to confront the cacophony of excitement, anxiety, and guilt that results from knowing too much, from feeling too many different feelings? My solution: be giddy, and when that runs out, be gaudy. I was going to wear those contradictions on the surface of my skin and record the moment for posterity. For the truth was I did not love my body exactly as it was given to me. And the fact is we do have the technology to change our bodies. Besides, I have always wanted to wear strappy and strapless slinky summer dresses.
       Why was I only able to celebrate my breasts by memorializing them? I certainly would not have been so free and flamboyant with the bad boys, were they not about to be excised and turned into carbon. On the contrary, ever since the age of ten, I have done my best to hide them under oversized sweaters and t-shirts, to corset them with the world's best bras, to exercise them out of my life. I have done everything I can to ignore them.
       Whether on a date or just going about my daily business, the DD's made a regular habit of busting out and taking over. No matter what the venue or situation, they could not help calling attention to themselves in the tackiest ways. They were the obnoxious guys in polyester leisure suits, they were walking disco balls, they were the royal blue sequined stars screaming, "Hey, over here! Watch out, zaftig woman in the house! Got milk?"
       I will not miss walking on the beach in a bathing suit four times my normal size. I will not miss having my breasts referred to as "those bad boys" by a young and earnest massage therapist charged with treating my bad-boy induced upper back pain. And I will most certainly be able to live without the uncomfortable experience of first-time intimacy during which each new lover unfailingly reacted with shock and surprise upon the unveiling of the abundance that constituted my entire upper torso. Imagine, one minute the guy is fondling my minimizer-clad body, assuming that he is about to feel his way around an average-proportioned woman, and in the next moment, out pops the Venus of Willendorf. "Wow," he would cry or sigh, sounding out whatever particular mixture of delight and trepidation he felt upon realizing that he was about to have sex with a fertility figure. Damn, I would think, here they go again stealing the show, transporting us from a small Midwestern city to Mesopotamia.
       The meaning Freud would have attached to my knockers! As Freud saw it, when a guy wants a woman it is because she reminds him in some way of the breast from which he was weaned too early (for it is always too early). This means that a man's erotic journey is really a quest to come home to Mama. Great. But even more frightening to me was Freud's analysis that before being weaned a baby has ambivalent feelings towards his mother; for all he knows, that approaching breast could be nourishing, or it could be poisonous. It's a toss-up, and he has no way of calculating the odds. So the foghorn-sounding signal would go off in his head: pleasure, danger, pleasure, danger! Well, if anything could evoke the fear-fantasy of being engorged by womanliness, it was sex with me on top. There I would be, riding my pony, while my breasts flailed about, practically smothering the man just as he climaxed (when they weren't smacking against my torso). Pleasure, danger! Shit, if he could just put things into reverse, get off the ride and have the bra back in place, the blouse on, then he would not have to revisit the infantile scenario of loving and loathing his mother. All this Oedipal crap could have been avoided altogether if he had just stuck to porn.
       If Freud was right about the psychic power of breasts, then I was in big trouble. Of course, my breasts did not really do anything except show up (and up, and then down, down). No, the problem was the psychic power of my breasts in a culture that confuses having breasts with being breasts. But fleshy glandular tissue does not a person make. Unless, of course, you are David Kepesh, novelist Philip Roth's protagonist, the poor soul who one day finds himself strung out on a hammock in a hopital because he has been transformed into a 155-pound female breast. In Kepesh's case, however, the confusion between having a breast and being a breast is not a mistake; as far as the story is concerned, he really is a breast. Even so, David Kepesh finds his new appearance maddening. For in addition to all of the medical and technical difficulties his new bodily form presents, and besides the fact that he is "no longer the easiest person to buy a present for," his life is now marred by the fact that no one can get past his mammariness and simply see him as a person. No one—not his analyst, his father, his girlfriend, and certainly not his doctors—no one now gives a shit about the fact that he was (is?) a professor of literature, a lover, a son, a friend, a neighbor, a customer, a client. He is now just a breast.
       I could relate to David Kepesh's frustration. From early adolescence on, I have been suffering the feeling that despite my preferences, talents, and annoying qualities, I was being perceived by those outside of my immediate social circle as one big breast. "Here she comes, The Body," the boys in summer camp were rumored to have said about me. Me? The Body? At that age, I was worrying about algebra, reading like there was no tomorrow, suffering from migraine headaches (yes, at the age of fourteen), watching General Hospital, and fighting off the bad hair days that afflicted my curly mop. What did The Body have to do with me? I had no idea. To me, I was a person—a subject seeing into the world, not an object of desire. And yet, from the moment I developed breasts it could have been me, and not David Kepesh, whom his shrink addresses in the effort to counter incredulity at his new, uninvited identity. "You are not mad," states Dr. Klinger, "You are not suffering from a delusion—or certainly haven't been, up till now. You are a breast of sorts." Dr. Klinger was right. No David Kepesh, no Kafkaesque pretense, and yet I was yoked into the etiquette of being a breast. Of sorts.
       When Kepesh announces to the reader that he is not concerned with the etiquette of being a breast he is telling us that he is going to fight the acute case of femininity he is afflicted with and hold onto his identity as a person. I call his affliction "femininity" because in the end, and notwithstanding its charms (the best of which is the license to shop unremittingly for shoes), femininity is not about whether you wear lipstick or how you dress or whether you have breasts or a vagina or a uterus. It is not about how you look on the outside or on the inside. It is about having your identity usurped by a body part, by an attribute, in such a way that your dignity is ripped from you as well. Femininity is metonymic logic gone too far.
       In his effort to fight for his dignity despite the overwhelming pressures of femininity, David Kepesh reminded me of the character, Saga, in the Swedish coming-of-age film, My Life as a Dog, who notes with regret that her budding breasts are beginning to show. "Look, I'm getting breasts," she says to her new friend Ingemar, the film's charmingly mischievous young male protagonist. "It's awful. Jesus, they're really swelling out. Can you see? I'll be kicked off the team. I know I will." Saga first appears in the film as she sideswipes Ingemar on the soccer field and steals the ball. She next appears as a fierce boxer among the village kids. Along with the viewer, Ingemar is not even initially aware that Saga is a girl; she is simply a venerable rival. Her personality, her possibilities, are open. But Saga knows that once her breasts are "sighted," she will be viewed not as the star athlete of the all-boys village soccer team but as a spectacle—as the cool teammate who was thought to be a boy but instead has tits. Saga is acutely aware that her world is about to shrink, dramatically. In one scene, she is shown avoiding a ritual public shirt exchange between teams. Shoving off a boy attempting to take off her shirt—furious and vulnerable—she refuses to relinquish what she knows she will inevitably lose: the freedom to be competitive and surly, to showcase her talent without apology. Once "outed" as a girl, Saga's rigor and egoistic intensity will count against her. So when she laments out loud that her burgeoning bosom will radically alter the terms of her life as she has thus far chosen to live it, the sympathetic Ingemar suggests she find a way to hide them. They proceed to bind them with a scarf. "Can you see them?" Saga asks. "No, they're invisible," Ingemar replies. Saga looks at herself in the mirror and takes a boxer stance. The problem is solved, at least temporarily.
       When I watched Saga bind her breasts, I felt that she and I saw things in the same way. I understood her fear. Watching Saga, I was brought back to seventh-grade science class and the bizarrely wrathful humor of John Hassler, the popular naughty boy of our grade. We could be at the Bunsen burner, learning about the law of thermodynamics or anxiously awaiting an exam; it did not matter. Everything reminded him of my tits, and he made these associations—no matter how far-fetched—loud and clear. John Hassler had brown straight hair with natural golden highlights that feathered back perfectly. Aside from appearing a little lanky in his Levi's and flannel shirts, he was beautiful. At least that is what I thought every night as I lay in bed fantasizing about that feathered hair burrowing into my afro, those lanky fingers latched onto my belt loops as he kissed me on the lips, darting his tongue right into my braces, not giving a damn. In my dreams, all he cared about was my forgiving him for wondering out loud in class about such things as how it would look if my tits were squashed or stretched or wrapped around my neck. The entire class would laugh. And then I—feeling that the only other alternative was to cry—would laugh, too. I didn't know what else to do. I remember feeling like a mink caught in a trap, betrayed by everyone and everything in my immediate environment. I remember feeling my skin crawl in hot humiliation. ……
       At any rate, Saga and I knew each other. We imagined our sprouting bodies being sucked into the vortex of femininity, swirling and swirling amid Seventeen magazines, low-fat foods, bikini line depilatories, pink puffy bridesmaid dresses, birds of prey. We saw breasts as barriers to pursuing the fullest range of human possibilities. Breasts spelled some pending sacrifice or another: of smarts for desirability, pleasure for respectability, ambition for children, meals for the little black dress, of breathing space. Saga and I suspected that once betraying the slightest hint of womanhood, our bodies (and our souls) might be spun into a galaxy of endless French gardens featuring grid after topiary grid of tame bush. But we were not ready to enter into a world uncarved by us, a world in which too many important decisions had already been made. We were digging our heels in at the threshold, like ancient women warriors did long before our time.
       Ancient chroniclers such as Herodotus and Plutarch tell of Amazon warriors living during the Bronze Age near the Black Sea who were legendary for searing off the right breast to better aim a bow and arrow. Skilled equestrians, these women could shoot arrows on horseback as easily and accurately as on foot. If need be, they could spin around and shoot while riding backwards. They could vault themselves onto their horses with their spears. They chose and discarded lovers as they pleased, procreated when they needed to. They exiled or crippled unruly boys. They were cool and beautiful, disarmingly so. Lore has it that when the ancient Greek "hero" Bellerophon bombarded them with arrows and boulders from his flying horse (a significant advantage, the ancient equivalent of a B-52 bomber), they resisted him for eight days. When Heracles attacks Amazonia in order to steal Queen Hippolyte's golden girdle, they mercilessly slayed many of his soldiers on the beach before capitulating. And when they found themselves prisoners of war on a Greek ship, they took it over. So what if they had no seafaring skills? So resourceful were they that when the ship drifted into the shores of foreign Scythia, they found the local men, fucked them, and then ran off with these men (and their inheritances!). When Theseus showed up in Amazonia, seduced Queen Antiope, and whisked her away to patriarchal Athens, her sisters threw a fit and laid siege on Athens for a solid four months. The Amazons lost, but not without heavy Athenian casualties, not without honor, and not without the story of this battle—so significant was it to the Greek imagination, as significant as the Persian War—being etched into the Parthenon walls.
       Perhaps the most impressive and saddest story of an Amazon warrior is that of Penthesilea. In the tenth year of the Trojan war, Penthesilea showed up miraculously to help Troy. This was Troy's darkest hour, as Hektor had just been killed by Achilles. Penthesilea was lauded and celebrated as a savior, and she played the part well. A big talker, she vowed to drive the Greeks back, to challenge Achilles to single combat, and to "leave him groveling in his own entrails." She warmed up by slaying a bunch of Greek soldiers, disemboweling some, pinning others to the earth with her spear, trampling others with her horse. She was hell-bent on winning. But Achilles' shield deflected her blows; he managed to strike her in the breast and pinned her to her horse—then fell in love with her—once she was dead. Penthesilea lost (Achilles did, too, in a way), but she went down as a worthy opponent, not a victim.
       The Amazon warrior was my kind of woman. She knew how to go for what she wanted, directly, without any manipulative, she-devil crap. She did not accept loss. There are conflicting versions about how and why Amazonian society arose. Some say that the original Amazons killed their husbands for repeatedly raping them and thereafter excluded men from the fold. Some say that that they took up arms to avenge the treacherous deaths of their husbands at the hands of enemies. Others think that they fought off foreign men who tried to move in when their husbands went off to war and failed to return. Still others think that the Amazons are pure myth, that they are a fabrication of the ancient Greek imagination serving two purposes: to scare Greek women into remaining barefoot and pregnant and to provide a way for men to get off on outlaw women. But whether fact or fantasy, and whether a breast was really seared off or not, the message of the Amazon body is clear: big breasts get in the way of a good fight. Just look at the statues of the Amazon patron goddess Artemis. No larger than a B-cup. Now if Amazon warriors shaped their bodies for the sake of their freedom, why couldn't I?
       My breasts were a part of my body, a part of me. And yet I felt they betrayed me at almost every turn. They broke up the unity of my fantasy about myself. In my mind, I was a compact locus of force dashing around on horse-back, bow and arrow on hand, fighting off pigs like Hercules. I was supposed to shield the honor of my warrior-harlot sisters, defend territory whenever territory needed to be defended. In the fashion of Penthesilea, I was supposed to be a worthy opponent, not a victim. I was not supposed to be perceived as a diabolical temptress like Helen whose loyalty to men more powerful than she is never certain, nor as the mother Mary whose loyalty to a man more powerful than she borders, quite frankly, on the canine. In fact, of all the archetypes available, the suffering maternal figure is exactly what I want my body to defy. For this reason, I do not want my relations with men, with anyone for that matter, to be arbitrated by how emphatically my body announces its capacity to lactate. Which is why I frown upon breast augmentation. Not that silicone implants have anything to do with the capacity to lactate. But they do enhance the announcement of this capacity. And that announcement invites all sorts of other assumptions—such as my innate nurturing, or of all things, my virginity. (Whoever thought of that winning combination, the virgin-mother, really should be sued.)
       Besides, I am just not a suckling kind of woman. Other than being slightly persuaded by the high it is supposed to provide, I can think of little less appealing than having a babe chomping away at my teat for months, or years. I know: breastfeeding is natural and beautiful. It is an all-around organic experience. Well, some of us like McDonald's French fries and fake fur and all sorts of artificial stuff. And some of us think that more lip service than honor is accorded mothers, even in this modern age. When I think about the fact, for example, that Andrea Yates' history of hallucinations, postpartum psychoses, and suicide attempts did not deter her husband from impregnating her a fifth time—against their doctor's recommendation—nor from insisting that she home school their children, I want to let out a thunderous warrior cry: We are not in Bethlehem! There are no more mangers! Nor are we in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, the time during which the tasks of motherhood and home schooling were sealed together in images of maternal, domestic piety. From art to literature, images abound of Dutch women sitting by the hearth and not only suckling their young but also educating them in the ways of virtue and modesty. It is a wonder that Rusty Yates did not have Andrea churning butter, frying herring, and trotting around in wooden shoes. For it is this idealized and sentimentalized model of motherhood that Rusty Yates pressed upon Andrea, and it was in the name of this model that a Texas jury thought to demonize her rather than to question how she was set up to fail miserably at motherhood.
       This idealized and sentimentalized model of motherhood was enough to drive even someone as sane as author Adrienne Rich to record her feelings of "murderous alternation" between love and violence as a young, full-time mother. Which is why I fear breastfeeding. For no matter how irrational and exaggerated my feelings may be, this is the sequence of events as I see them: I'll have a baby. I will breastfeed. The next thing I know I'll be home schooling. Then I'll find myself understanding the feelings that coursed through the defeated and demented soul of Andrea Yates, and soon after I'll be herding the kids into the bathtub. As far as I can tell, in a society that denies the despair that lurks at the heart of full-time motherhood, breastfeeding could very well lead to jail. So until our mainstream vision of motherhood—of parenting, really—leaps out of a time warp and into the twenty-first century, I'll stick with the bow and arrow.
       I recognize that the problem of protruding organs is not limited to women. I ran into a former lover a few months ago who, upon learning of my breast reduction surgery, confessed that he was contemplating a penis reduction because his large member hindered his lap swimming. "It's like a rudder," he proclaimed. "It steers me this way, it steers me that way, it slows me down." I swear this story is true. And I can believe that in certain situations his penis does act like a rudder propelling him towards all sorts of odd corners of the universe. Now mind you, this guy is weird. And truth be told, my primary motivation for sleeping with him was that he reminded me of Mickey Rourke's rendition of Charles Bukowski in Barfly. Why I was living out a fantasy of sleeping with a guy who recalled an aggressive, childish actor portraying a talented but self-destructive drunk is the subject of yet another essay. The moral of this story, however, is that, rare as it may occur, even big dicks can get in the way.
       In one way, "Mickey" and I were in a similar situation. We were both willing to trade the social clout our physique granted for some personal, physical freedom. But the similarity ends there. Mickey's grand member did nothing but open things up for him, so to speak. Getting a penis reduction would have been like a rich person throwing away money. My grand mammaries, on the other hand, were like counterfeit cash in a world of real currency. They got me appreciative looks, they got me dates (first dates). But once it was discovered that real, live cognition came with the cleavage (Pleasure! Danger!), more often than not my play money was handed back, and the aura of Eros dissipated into thin, thin air. For it turns out that he wanted to fuck Pamela Anderson while I was planning the seduction scene by whipping out my dissertation's table of contents. My experience is that it is a rare man who gets beyond my boobs and wraps his brain around my mind, the part of my body I find most sexy.
       Whether we like it or not, and unless we self-consciously use our bodies to question and resist these stories, they will not escape the dominant narrative flow. This is because a body houses meanings that predate its particular existence. Bodies speak. From a historical standpoint. As Aristotle writes, we are zoon logon echon, life with language. We reflect ourselves to ourselves through language in a variety of ways in order to give meaning to our existence. The Odyssey is such a story. The Book of Genesis is such a story. Femininity is such story. Our bodies by default repeat these stories, if only for the reason that these narratives predate and loom larger than our particular existence. My large breasts, for example, repeated the story about womanhood that happened to gain political power and historical prominence: that a woman's value lay in the capacity to bear children and that this capacity was not very valuable. My surgery was one way to resist, to reposition my body so that it became an active interlocutor of, and not merely a passive vessel for, the grip of femininity, the vise of compulsory reproduction. This was a drastic move (although it could have been more drastic; had I persisted in finding a willing surgeon, and had I thought that I might still have a chance at getting a date, I would have eliminated them altogether). It is, however, by no means the only path of resistance. Wearing baby doll dresses and combat boots is one way. Dressing in drag, or wearing men's cologne is another. Not giving a shit (if you really don't give a shit) is yet one more option. The possibilities for creating new bodily truths are endless.
       The artist Orlan understands well the need for new bodily truths. Since 1987, she has undergone a series of cosmetic surgery procedures, all of which have been videotaped or broadcast live, each deliberately staged with a unique theme and accompanying props. When she alters her face, it is to resemble mythical beauties; she has sought, for example, the forehead of the Mona Lisa and the mouth of Boucher's Europa. She costumes herself, her assistants, her surgeon, and the surgical team. During the procedure, while under local anesthesia, she reads philosophical and literary texts, she converses with cohorts or audience members, she laughs while her surgeon slices open her lips or removes an ear. At every stage, Orlan is in control. In Orlan's world, the operating room has become a theatrical laboratory for testing the boundaries of personal identity. As she sees it, if used imaginatively and artfully as a way of questioning and altering the ordinary, cosmetic surgery can move beyond a force for social control into a powerful form of self-portraiture. In such a world my decision to have cosmetic surgery need not be caught at the crossroads between the feminist mandate to love my body and the mainstream pressure to loathe my body, a crude dichotomy that leaves little leeway for forging new forms of identity and beauty.
       I have seen a short clip of Orlan's ninth operation. In this scene, she receives injections of local anesthesia followed by incisions of the surgeon's knife into the skin between her left ear and cheekbone. We see the surgeon's scissors cutting underneath the cheek skin, scraping vigorously from the inside, poking the skin into the air. We can hear what is going on; if we close our eyes, it sounds like hedges being clipped. Orlan hears, too, yet she lies there in peace. As far as she is concerned, the discomfort felt upon witnessing her performance is our problem, not hers. The last thing Orlan does is show us what we want or expect to see. So she takes us into a medical operating room—a space where technology blurs the borders between mind, body, artifice, and nature—to get us to confront the fact that a face is fragmented and flayed before it is reconfigured, that beauty touches the grotesque. Orlan knows that the border between beauty and monstrosity is the true source of imagination. By bringing us to this border, she intends to force our fantasies onto new paths. The experience of viewing her art is therefore not meant to comfort or entertain. It is meant to fascinate and disgust.
       Orlan's art is warrior-art because through it, she gives us a worthy opponent dispatched to challenge norms that no longer make sense to her—like the mandate not to tamper with our God-given bodies, or the assumption that this tampering is always aimed at a feminine (and not an individual woman's) ideal, or the idea that beauty and identity depend on stasis. Orlan knows that the source of beauty is difference, and it is for this reason that she positions herself as a self-promoting, self-mutating monstrosity. Orlan is always changing, in ways neither we nor she can foresee, always leaping into new territory. And she asks us to come with her to the frontier. She knows that her personality, her possibilities, are open, and she wears this knowledge flamboyantly on her skin. Although small fry compared to hers, my Season's Greeting stunt was nonetheless a way of saying that I was not only at the brink of an important transformation, I was at the helm. For the first time, I was in charge of the story of my breasts. I chose the setting and the costume. I was aware of the irony involved in celebrating my breasts just before they were about to be fragmented, flayed, and reconfigured. I knew how silly and potentially risky it was for a Jewish philosophy professor at a Catholic university to pose in a cream-puff picture. It was a pleasure/danger scenario of my own devising.
       When I returned from surgery, I immediately looked in the mirror and made a major discovery: I have ribs. Next, I saw my stitched and stapled Raggedy Ann breasts and thought: freedom. I wanted to find my surgeon and hug him. I don't know if it was due to my post-anesthetic haze or not, but during my recovery I frequently entertained the idea of asking him out on a date, just for the Pygmalion thrill. Now fully recovered, scars have replaced the staples and stitches. I balk at the suggestion of having these scars removed. They are indications that my body has its own complex history in relation to the larger narratives of gender. Strange as it may seem, I would feel more comfortable parading naked among strangers with my smaller, scarred breasts than with the uncut DD's.
       Better poised to dispense with the etiquette of being a breast, I can now simply enjoy having breasts. I can enjoy unfettered, unfloppy, on-top sex (on the rare occasions that I actually get laid), I am an easier person to buy a present for, and most important, I can frolic about without a bra. Whether this thirty-six-year-old, peri-menopausal body looks good in a halter-top is beside the point. The point is that I feel good in a halter-top. Wearing strappy and strapless summer dresses gives me pleasure. It reminds me of when I first switched my bed sheets from the crisp polyester blend ones to the soft, t-shirt material ones. When I go braless, I feel the breezy caress of silk, of worn-washed cotton, of cashmere—of fabric unfurling itself on my skin, over my still sensitive nipples.



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About the Author

Dr. Amy Morgenstern is a writer and a scholar in ancient Greek philosophy. She has won numerous grants and awards for her creative and academic writing. She is currently working on a book-length manuscript called Scholar Girl: A Philosophical Memoir.

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