The Meaning of Breasts

09/16/2010 05:31 pm 17:31:11 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Breasts are old news. Breast feeding is also old news, as women have been performing the sacred task since time immemorial. Yet sometimes we find that we need to remind ourselves of what breasts are really for: babies. Which makes one wonder why men have nipples, provoking the question of "was there once upon a time . . . . ?" Indeed, nipples -- any nipple -- can be stimulated to produce milk, especially if the right hormones are present.

But of course, most would agree that breast-feeding is a woman's job in a biological and emotional sense. It is an honorable inborn ability: one that should not limit but empower women. Still, for some it may be more complicated than that.

The human breast is a mysterious appendage. We ascribe so much meaning to it and make such fuss about a pair of them. But men's breasts are not exactly a big deal, are they? Men can be topless and walk down the street on a hot day, wash the car, or sunbath without much reproach in modern America. Their breasts are not sexualized like women's breasts are. Men's breasts are thought to be vestigial organs. Useless. Or better yet: no one really thinks of men's breasts at all. That is, unless they become enlarged like those of women through the accumulation of fat or sculpted muscle. Then and only then do male breasts become noticeable as an attractor or detractor of male appeal. Nevertheless, stigmas about male breasts are ignored more often than not.

Women's breasts, on the other hand, are never ignored. They are perceived as sexy, sexual, and beautiful. Unlike the male breast, the female breast is a "private part" -- almost as private as male or female genitalia. As private as female breasts are however, they are celebrated, exploited, and even condemned. Strangely, we are completely accustomed to these habits as if they are just as natural as breathing.

Of course women should not walk down the street on a hot day, wash their cars, and sunbathe topless unless they are in a country or territory that "accepts that sort of thing". No, that would be wrong. That would be obscene. And likewise, if a woman was to transgress in this way, she would receive a hefty citation. All because her bare breasts are somehow considered to be more of an indecent exposure than the flatter, hairier nipples of the male.

So what about legalizing the exposure of women's breasts? If men can do it, so should we, as crazy as that sounds. Yet even as a Playboy Playmate, I would be uncomfortable walking down the street exposed under such a liberal ruling in favor of women's bodies.

But why? You might ask. Shouldn't you of all people . . . ?

Well, perhaps it would not be the exposure as much as the context and response I am conditioned to expect from society for such an action. Sadly, this is probably the only element preventing me from feeling entirely comfortable with public nudity at this point in time.

At the end of the day, female breast exposure is only uncomfortable because of the climate of judgment we have created around it. Furthermore, as a culture, we are selective about which breasts we celebrate and which breasts are "okay" to publicize. For example, many men would support the idea of legalizing the ability of pretty young women to walk around topless. But older women? Women with pendulous breasts? Then, the new law would not be so appealing. Again: the double standard.

To be fair, women are equally exposed to the chiseled chests of young muscular men and the droopy hanging folds of older men. We accept it. We see it on the beach. We may not like everything we see, but we have been raised to believe it is normal while ours are somehow private, hidden, and superhuman in their ability to affect the masses. What power and limitation we have as women.

How we socialize ourselves to believe certain stigmas are natural and normal. How we forget what breasts are really for. Which begs the question: why should we punish female breasts and their owners for how men fantasize about them and how society at large perceives them? Not for what they really are?

At the same time, there should be nothing wrong with perceiving female breasts (or male breasts) with sexual adoration. But let us also be careful to avoid pigeonholing their entire meaning based on that appreciation. And moreover, if we insist on sexualizing breasts, then we must insist that sexualized body parts be free from double standards. If women's breasts are labeled obscene, then men's breasts should also be labeled as such. And if men's breasts are perfectly acceptable, then those of women should be as well. Consistency is key.

This may sound completely radical and revolutionary, but if one truly examines how society has unfairly judged this body part, the fact that we ever did it and normalized the practice in the first place seems completely goofy. What is even more silly is how postpartum lactating women are shooed away from the public sphere as they feed their infants with their scorned nipples. Counter-intuitive to nature, our confrontation with the maternal functionality of breasts can inspire disgust in many people. What those people do not realize however, is that they are unwittingly judging the female breast based on sexuality and archaic notions of decency, not on the actual reality of its true purpose or existence.