“I wear two,” my female coffee companion informed me when asked what brand of running bra was her favorite. “It’s the only way I can stand to go running.”
She’s a normal, healthy woman. Not large-chested by any measure, but happy with where she finds herself in the omnipresent assessment of breast size to which women are subjected every day.
Requisite boob puns
Only recently, thanks to growing awareness of breast cancer through fund raising events has the world of female breasts crossed an important threshold where people can speak of breasts without tittering. Okay, that’s the requisite boob pun. One has to do these things to ease into these subjects. That’s why Austin Powers made such fun of our prurient fascinations with his running series of “dick” jokes in his movies. It’s the habit––and moneymaker––of the entertainment industry. Naughty makes nice at the box office.
There is a certain fault that rests with movies, television and other media when it comes to the American obsession with female breasts. There is an unspoken rite of passage among female movie stars to do a gratuitous topless scene at some point in their careers. If actresses they don’t actually undress in a movie, paparazzi photographers grope with their cameras to catch a glimpse of starlets falling out of their dresses at awards shows. Some even stoop to catching actress moms showing downblouse cleavage while tending to a child in a baby carriage. Anything for a glimpse. Capturing images of bared breasts is what modern culture seems to be all about.
Yet there’s a side of the culture that reacts at the opposite extreme, trying to ban sex in society at all. As a result, American society’s sexual fixation with boobs leads to a sort of sexual fiction about breasts as both desirable and taboo. Some of the prudish attempts to pretend that female boobs don’t exist have been darkly comic. Remember when U.S. Attorney General Donald Ashcroft tried to cover the breasts of those statues in the halls of government in Washington, D.C.? Now some jerky politicians in North Carolina are busy passing laws that would ban women from baring their breasts in public under any circumstances. Who are the real boobs in that case?
Abreast of the competition
The tendency to sexually ogle women spills over into sports as well, where breasts are just part of the ranking order of sexual athleticism, with tennis stars seeming to rule the roost in the breast category. Butts proliferate the TV screen in beach volleyball, and track and field too. Sexualization of the female athlete is far more common than doing the same to men, and some women bank on that exposure to heighten their personal brand. I wrote about the difficult journey faced by Suzy Favor-Hamilton, the women’s track star whose girl-next-door attraction was parlayed into calendar girl status.
Hamilton was one of those rare female distance runners who seem to keep their cleavage no matter how fit they are. As a result, athletic stars like Favor-Hamilton get a lot of attention in the sports world. Her journey took a strange turn when she took it all a step further and actually acted out her sexuality as a highly paid call girl. Not exactly the Olympic Medal she was hoping for her whole life, but is she to blame, or is society at fault for exaggerating her beauty over her talent? Ask those female golfers who win tournaments week after week but don’t get half the attention as the cute little blonde gals with bigger boobs and shorter skirts.
Suzy Favor-Hamilton is far from alone in struggling with self image. Elite female distance runners often lose body and breast weight due to training. High school girls in particular may struggle in their early maturation between “keeping their breasts” or competing in an endurance sport that can help them manage their emotional, physical and even spiritual health over the course of their lifetime. Overall, distance athletes females face an interesting challenge in maintaining healthy weight or getting so thin from high mileage that they experience conditions such as amenorrhea––cessation of periods due to low overall body weight. Put simply: women deal with a lot more shit than men when it comes to competing in sports.
The uninformed viewer of a track and field or cycling event may focus on the apparent absence of breasts on elite women athletes. More than once while watching a world class race during the Olympics or World Championships, I have overheard comments to the effect of, “Look at those girls. They have no boobs.”
“Well, so what?” I’ve often wanted to say. “Boobs would only slow them down.”
Even that comment falls short of real gender equity when it comes to women in sports. When you see women on the podium at a cycling event with oversized thighs but small chests, do you automatically think, “Poor girls, they have no boobs?”
Or do you stop to think, “My concept of how and why women might want to look is highly skewed toward some sort of ‘norm’ that has nothing to do with reality…” because the latter rather than the former shows more respect for the female athlete.
Perhaps someone should invent a bra for men that helps them appreciate how hard it can be to run with the weight of breasts on your chest. Those of us whose wives or girlfriends run or ride soon grow to appreciate the “extra step” in finding the right bra for each sport.
Radical change in perception
The moment when the notion of breasts changed for me was when I saw a male friend at a Breast Cancer Survival event. “Are you here with your wife?” I asked.
“No, I’m here for me,” he told me. “I just got over breast cancer.”
Several people around him turned to stare. “Yes, men have boobs too,” he chuckled bitterly. “I had breast cancer and had chemo and I survived. And I don’t wish it on anyone.”
His illustration shows that the other “cancer” of perception is how we project both prurient and prudish imagination on people with breasts. We all have them, after all.
It seems that sports like running and riding are a great starting point to get over the whole breast fixation thing. Breast size doesn’t matter. Breast fixation is a warped view of the world. At the same time, breast avoidance is just as sad. Let’s give breasts some room to breathe in this world, and see what happens when it comes to showing everyone else respect.