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Rachel Millsted AND Hannah Frith
Centre for Appearance Research, Schools of Psychology, University of the West of England,
St. Matthias Campus, Oldbury Court Road, Fishponds, Bristol BS16 2JP, UK
Synopsis Womens breasts are invested with social, cultural and political meanings which shape the
ways in which we make sense of and experience our embodied selves. The breasted experience of women
with large breasts is under-researched despite the fact that under the male gaze, the size of a womans
breast is seen as a measurement of her value and worth. This paper draws on in-depth interviews with
eight large-breasted women in order to explore aspects of their embodiment. Two contradictory aspects of
their breasted experience are discussed: their experience of their breasts as visible objects which are
appropriated and consumed by others, and their experience of their breasts as feminine, attractive and
sexy. These two themes are discussed in relation to feminist theorising on appearance and the beauty
system, and the role of women in actively presenting their bodies is emphasised. D 2003 Elsevier Ltd.
All rights reserved.
. . . women do experience gender in an embodied
way: they live in and through their bodies that are
marked and framed through discourses and
practices of society. (Lee, 1997, p. 455)
The ways in which women talk about and think
about our bodies cannot be separated from our
physical experience of them, or from the compet-
ing and contradictory cultural discourses through
which we make meaning of them (Ciclitira &
Weaver, 2002). Womens breasts are invested with
social, cultural and political meanings which shape
the ways in which we make sense of and experi-
ence our embodied selves. These discourses outline
the ways in which breasts should be understood as
well as the ways in which they should look, feel
and be used. Breasts are seen simultaneously as a
marker of womanhood, as a visual signifier of
female sexualisation, as synonymous with femini-
nity, and as essential for the nurturance of infants.
It is not surprising, then, that women often expe-
rience their breasts in confusing and contradictory
Despite the fact that breasts are imbued with
social and cultural significance, there is surprisingly
little research which explores womens subjective
understanding of their breasted experience. Some
research explores specific aspects of breastedness
such as narratives of breast cancer (Langellier &
Sullivan, 1998), breast-feeding (Carter, 1995) or
cosmetic surgery (Morgan, 1991). Other researchers
mention girls and womens understanding and expe-
rience of their breasts in passing while the main focus
of their research is elsewhere. For example, clinical
research on breast augmentation and breast reduction
surgery briefly mentions womens feelings of dissat-
isfaction and distress with their breasts, but focuses
mostly on their perceptions of surgery and post-
operative satisfaction. Similarly, research on breast
development during puberty (arguably a critical time
for studying girls reactions to breast development) is
more likely to focus on breast growth as an indictor
of pubertal status than to focus on how adolescent
girls respond to and experience their changed bodies.
Womens own experience of their breastedness has
often been overlooked (see the photographic docu-
mentary record produced by Ayalah & Weinstock,
1979, for an exception). In this study, then, we
explore the embodied experiences of women with
doi 10.1016/j.wsif.2003.08.003
We would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for
their helpful comments.
Womens Studies International Forum, Vol. 26, No. 5, pp. 455 465, 2003
Copyright D 2003 Elsevier Ltd
Printed in the USA. All rights reserved
0277-5395/$ see front matter
large breasts, since being large-breasted entails a
particular physical experience which is understood
in relation to social and cultural meanings surround-
ing breast size.
Womens bodies are objects of the male gaze, under
which breasts are defined primarily as objects of male
sexual interest and sexual pleasure. This phallocentric
construction depicts breasts as decorative rather than
functional, as existing to be looked at, and as a series
of body parts to be consumed by male viewers.
Womens breasts are objectified, fetishised and com-
modified. We are bombarded with a barrage of
images of breasts designed to titillate, stimulate and
to sell a wide range of consumer goods and services.
Breasts, especially large breasts, have become over-
sexualised as highly prized objects of sexual desire,
as markers of sexual reputation and attitudes, and as a
focus for harassment. In popular culture, large breasts
are associated with sexual openness, loose sexual
morals and sexual licentiousness and this is reflected
in the small amount of literature which has looked at
the attributions made about women with large breasts.
Women with large breasts are judged to be incom-
petent, unintelligent, immoral and immodest (Kleinke
& Staneski, 1980), and as more likely to engage in
casual short-term romantic flings rather than serious
long-term relationships (Furnham, Dias & McCel-
land, 1998). Consequently, although breasts play an
important part in womens sexual pleasure, and
although breasts are an important marker of womens
sexuality and sexual maturity, they are rarely seen as
belonging to women themselves. This public appro-
priation of breasts begins from puberty as Susan
Brownmiller notes:
Although they are housed on her person, from the
moment they begin to show, a female discovers
that her breasts are claimed by others. Parents and
relatives mark their appearance as a landmark
event, schoolmates take notice, girlfriends com-
pare, boys zero in; later a husband, a lover, a baby
take propriety share. No other part of the human
anatomy has such semi-public, intensely private
status, and no other part of the body has such
vaguely defined custodial rights. (1984, p. 24)
Under this male gaze, the size of a womans breast
is seen as a measurement of her value and worth. As
Young observes, In this patriarchal culture, focused
to the extreme on breasts, a woman, especially in
those adolescent years but also through the rest of her
life, often feels herself judged and evaluated accord-
ing to the size and contours of her breast, and indeed
she often is (1990, p. 189). Social and cultural
discourses of beauty require breasts to be a particular
size and shape. Breasts are seen primarily as visible
objects to be looked at by others, and evaluated in
relation to cultural norms. Brook (1999) refers to the
ways in which contemporary Western culture disci-
plines the female body within a heterosexual econ-
omy in which some bodies are judged to be more
valuable than others. This is evidenced in the UK by
the ritualised depiction of topless women in national
newspapers where the bust, hip and waist measure-
ments of the models are routinely reported, the
fetishisation of extremely large breasts in specialist
pornographic publications, and the excessive media
attention afforded to women who surgically
enhance their breasts to extreme proportions (e.g.
LoLo Ferrari, Jordan, Pamela Anderson). Breast size
has come to be seen as a way for others to evaluate
the worth of women, and for women to evaluate
In a review of changes in beauty ideals, Mazur
(1986) argued that trends in preferred breast size have
altered dramaticallyfrom the flat look in the 1920s
to the bosom mania of the 1960s. Young (1990, p.
191) describes the current trend as round, sitting
high on the chest, large but not bulbous, with the look
of firmness. Several commentators have noted that
the current norm for an ideal body that is both slim
and large-breasted is one which few women can
embody since breasts consist mostly of fat, and
consequently the size of breasts is linked to overall
body fat (Koff & Benavage, 1998). It is not surpris-
ing, then, that girls anticipate the growth of breasts
and worry about whether they will be the right size
(Lee, 1997), and that psychological research reveals
that many women are dissatisfied with the size of
their breasts. This psychological research considers
breast size to be an important feature of womens
body image. One study of British adolescents, found
that dissatisfaction with bust, waist and hip measure-
ments increased with age such that by age eighteen
over one third of the sample said that they were
dissatisfied with their bust measurements (Davies &
Furnham, 1986). Much of the research suggests that
women idealise a larger breast size than they actually
possess (Thompson & Tantleff, 1992), and that more
women would like to have larger breasts than would
like to have smaller breasts (Tantleff-Dunn & Thomp-
son, 2000). However, others have found that women
who perceived their breasts as being either very small
or very large were likely to be more dissatisfied with
their breasts (Koff & Benavage, 1998). One conse-
Rachel Millsted and Hannah Frith 456
quence of the objectification of the female body is
that a woman becomes both audience and critic for
her own appearance, as if she were an external
observer (Bartky, 1990). When observing themselves
under a normalising male gaze, and in relation to
cultural dictates about the size and shape of breasts,
many women find their own breasts lacking and
Feminist scholars have argued that it is in the
interests of patriarchal capitalism to keep women in a
perpetual state of anxiety and insecurity about their
appearance since this creates the desire in women to
change their appearance. A range of consumer goods
and services can then be offered to meet these desires
(Chapkis, 1986; Wolf, 1991). Women engage in a
range of disciplinary practices of body management
and manipulation in order to mould the appearance of
their breasts to better fit these cultural norms. As Lee
The strict definitions of acceptability in terms of
breast size, shape, and firmness results in expect-
ations for womens ongoing management and
display. Such management included lifting, en-
larging and enhancing them through a whole
series of garments and other contraptions. (Lee,
1997, p. 454)
However, the disciplinary practice that has
received the most attention is the use of cosmetic
surgery. The growth and extent of both breast aug-
mentation and breast reduction surgery can be read as
indicative of womens dissatisfaction and the lengths
they will go to in order to obtain the perfect breasts.
These women place their decision to undertake sur-
gery within a complex web of discourses around
femininity, beauty, social engagement and physical
and mental wellbeing. Women seeking breast aug-
mentation surgery cite embarrassment, self-con-
sciousness, and a belief that the operation will make
them more feminine as the main reasons for wanting
the operation (Birtchnell, Whitfield, & Lacey, 1990).
In contrast, women seeking breast reduction surgery
often emphasise the relief of physical symptoms
(including shoulder, back and neck pain, shoulder
grooving from bra straps, and skin rash under the
breast fold) as their primary motivation for seeking
surgery. Although a considerable proportion of these
women also desire surgery for cosmetic reasonsi.e.
to change the appearance of their breasts and to
improve their image (Makki & Ghanem, 1998).
Large-breasted women, especially those seeking sur-
gery, report a number of psychological problems
associated with their breast size such as lack of
self-confidence, negative body image, anxiety, avoid-
ance behaviour, and poor self-esteem (Guthrie et al.,
1998). Women also often feel embarrassed and avoid
public settings as they receive unwanted comments
from both women and men, and people talk to their
breasts not their face (Sarwer et al., 1998; Shake-
speare & Postle, 1999). As Guthrie et al. (1998, p.
331) point out, A small proportion of women,
however, are so dissatisfied with their breasts that
they seek breast reduction surgery. These women are
willing to risk cuts, scars, and possible disfigurement
to have smaller breasts. The motivations for breast
augmentation and reduction surgery demonstrate the
prevalence of cultural norms which dictate appro-
priate and desirable breast size and the practices that
women are prepared to engage in to alter the appear-
ance of their breasts. While feminists have been
universally critical of the beauty system which
defines womens bodies in relation to their looks,
analyses of womens engagement in cosmetic surgery
have ranged from seeing women as misguided, mind-
less conformists to unhealthy norms of femininity
(Morgan, 1991), to seeing women as rational decision
makers who are exercising limited power under
oppressive conditions (Davis, 1995).
In sum, then, existing knowledge about womens
breasted experience is fragmentary and draws on
studies of womens experiences of breast cancer or
breast-feeding, on developmental research on pub-
erty, and on clinical studies of women seeking breast
augmentation or reduction surgery. However, most of
this clinical data focuses on womens experience of
surgery, rather than on their embodied experiences as
large or small-breasted women, and most of the
studies explore only the views of women seeking
surgery. We could find no studies which specifically
explored womens experiences of being large-
breasted in a non-medical setting. Exploring the
experiences of large-breasted women may be a useful
way of examining breasted experience since large
breasts have particular cultural significance in West-
ern society.
While theorists have argued that the self-con-
scious construction of visible identities has become
mandatory in late consumer capitalism (Featherstone,
1991; Giddens, 1991), little empirical work has
explored the micro-social processes by which the
relationship between the body and the self is nego-
tiated. In this paper, we draw on in-depth interviews
with eight, young, large-breasted women. Our aim is
not to make claims about the experiences of all large-
breasted women, but to use the data to interrogate our
understanding of embodiment. By drawing on the
experience of women who occupy particular forms of
Being Large-Breasted 457
embodiment, which are set in a specific configuration
of cultural discourses about the female body, we aim
to highlight the ways in which women manage and
negotiate their visual selves.
Eight, White, European women aged between 20 and
25 volunteered to be interviewed about their experi-
ences of being large-breasted. These women were
recruited using snowball sampling where one
woman is asked to recommend another to participate
in the study and consequently, the sample is gener-
ated through social networks. This strategy is quick,
convenient and an effective way of recruiting hard-to-
reach populations (Atkinson & Flint, 2001), and was
therefore appropriate for recruiting participants to the
study of what could be seen as a potentially embar-
rassing or sensitive topic. Semi-structured interviews
were conducted and these were preferred over oral
life histories since we were particularly interested in
these womens current breasted experience. The inter-
views started with an ice-breaking exercise designed
to establish the language and vocabulary for talking
about breasts with which the participants felt most
comfortable. Nine open-ended questions were used to
explore respondents feelings about having large
breasts, the responses to their breasts they receive
from others, the possible links between being large-
breasted and feelings of femininity, and the impor-
tance of their breasts to their overall sense of self. The
interviews were transcribed and analysed using the-
matic analysis as described by Hayes (2000). This
process involves reading each transcript separately in
order to summarise key points raised by all the
interviewees individually. These transcripts are then
reviewed as a data set to identify common themes.
Once a set of proto-themes has been identified, the
transcripts are systematically reviewed to identify
material relating to each of these proto-themes. Dur-
ing this process, the proto-themes can evolve,
develop and be refined to ensure that they accurately
represent the data.
Like Young (1990), we found these women talked
freely and willingly about their breasts. All of the
women gave highly articulate accounts of their expe-
riences, often delivered with a wry smile, which
illustrated both the difficulties and pleasures of living
with large breasts. Most of this talk focused on
breasted experience in relation to the visibility and
appearance of breasts, and we recognise that this is
only one narrative around breasted experience and
that feminists have attempted to conceptualise
breasted experience in different ways (see Langellier
& Sullivan, 1998; Young, 1990). While we do not
deny that breasted experience is more than simply the
appearance of the breast, perhaps because these
women were relatively young and had not had
children, they talked about their breasts primarily in
terms of appearance. In particular, these women drew
a distinction between experiencing their breasts as
objectified and visible, and experiencing their breasts
as a pleasurable marker of femininity and attractive-
ness. We discuss both of these in turn.
As a visible sign of womens femininity and sexual
maturity, womens breasts are often treated as public
property and as belonging to others (cf. Brownmiller,
1984). Women with large breasts become aware of
their visibility under this male gaze, and often feel
that their breasts are the first, and sometimes only,
aspect of their appearance that is noticed. Often their
breasts become their defining feature and the way in
which they are known by others, for example, Nicola
notes how she is identified by her boyfriends friends
as the one with the big tits. By focusing on their
breasts and only their breasts, these women felt that
they were rarely treated as individuals: There is so
much more to me. Im not just a pair of boobs
(Jane). Women experience this as annoying, irritating,
frustrating and disrespectful, as Helen describes:
. . . They treat me as just a pair of breasts rather
than like a whole person [. . .] which is obviously
horrible and makes me feel quite angry and just
find it really disrespectful because they know
nothing about me, you know, Im me, Im
intelligent, Im funny, Im pretty, Im witty, you
know, Im not just a pair of breasts.
These women feel that they are treated as a set of
unconnected body parts to be consumed in isolation
from the whole. They feel that they are constantly
under surveillance and that their large breasts draw
attention to them, and make them more noticeable
and more visible than other women. They are looked
at and stared at.
. . . when I was younger, and also when I was
bigger, the fact that my breasts drew attention to
me was bad. I found it hard, it was constantly on
my mind, if I was meeting new people, if I was
walking into a room, that was all Id be thinking
Rachel Millsted and Hannah Frith 458
about, thinking that theyre looking at me . . ..
. . . we got into the club and I took my jacket off,
and I think I was wearing a pink V-neck, low-cut
top and all night hed been talking to me normally,
and then I turned round to start another con-
versation with him and that was it! He was just
literally staring at my chest for about ten minutes
and I was just completely gobsmacked at how
rude and disrespectful he was being. (Jane)
Women find these stares intrusive and feel self-
conscious about and uncomfortable with their visi-
bility. For example, when Danielle realises that her
breasts are being stared at it makes her feel kind of
funny and sick inside. As Vicky says, Its just not
nice . . . it makes you feel, I dont know, it makes
me feel sick I suppose, and then you feel conscious
and then you think about it for the next half an
hour. Others have found that girls experience the
development of their breasts as embarrassing
because they feel humiliated by the tendency of
boys and men to stare at their breasts and comment
on them (Lee, 1997; Martin, 1997). However, it
does not just stop at intrusive stares, men also feel
that they have the right to comment on womens
breasts. This is demonstrated in two examples
described by Nicola and Helen:
Well, you know when I was in India there was that
bloody Canadian, he was like So whats it like to
be a breasted woman?, and I found that really
offensive. You know, I didnt ask him what it was
like to be bald! [. . .] And at the time I was
wearing a sort of baggy t-shirt, it wasnt like I was
wearing a bikini top or they were on show or
anything. I did find it quite intrusive. (Nicola)
I remember one time walking into a pub and this
guy just goes, You have got fucking massive tits,
and I was just like Fuck off, because it made me
so angry that he dared to speak to me that way
[. . .] Id just been minding my own business and
he just said that to me and I was like. . . I found it
unbelievable and God! It just made me sick, I
mean yeah, theyre big, ten out of ten for
observation, well done. I just felt like how dare
he invade my privacy like that. (Helen)
These women have very strong emotional reac-
tions to these comments which are offensive and
insulting. In addition to anger and feeling sick, other
women talked about feeling embarrassed and humili-
ated by degrading comments from men. These
women are made to feel self-conscious about their
bodies when they might otherwise have remained
relatively unaware. Men call their bodies into
beingthrough intrusive comments and invasive
looksat a time when women are minding my
own business and their breasts are not on show.
The visibility of their breasts is something these
women try to manage. They are aware that breasts
can be deliberately displayed by wearing clothing
which is tight-fitting, low-cut or which accentuates
the cleavage, and (as we demonstrate in the following
section) this is a strategy which these women some-
times adopt for themselves. However, given that
women with large breasts experience their bodies as
being particularly visible, they talk about manipulat-
ing their clothing and posture to make their breasts
invisible and therefore unavailable for comment and
. . . when I was younger I always tried to improve
my posturestand upright, shoulders backbut I
was always accused of sticking my tits out. So,
sometimes I slump a little bit from time to time
[. . .] I dont want to draw attention to them.
I wouldnt wear anything that was hugely
revealing, as in a low-cut top or anything like
that, not that I make an effort to make then look
smaller, I just wouldnt put them out on display
. . .. (Joanne)
Yeah, I do tend not to wear low-cut tops because
even though they are still there when you wear a
normalnot even high-neckedtop, if things are
on show then people do look more. (Nicola)
However, despite attempts to hide or disguise their
breasts through clothing and posture, because of their
size large breasts may be perceived to be on display
whether or not the women intend them to be. For
example, Nicola says she gets irritated by the
responses she receives from other women who accuse
her of showing herself when she is wearing
modest clothing. Despite attempts to hide and conceal
their breasts, women often found that their breasts are
Just the fact that they are shouting stuff like that is
revolting [. . .] because I dont show them off,
theyre not even looking at them, theyre just in a
jumper and theyre still saying stuff, it makes you
cross and upset in that way. (Vicky)
Being Large-Breasted 459
These women talked about the ways in which they
had to negotiate their visibility and the salacious and
insulting comments and reactions that this visibility
brought with it. The experience of having others draw
attention to their bodies, making their breasts visible
and salient, was particularly frustrating when women
had made efforts to conceal (or at least not explicitly
display) them. Not having control over whether or not
to make their breasts a salient aspect of their embodi-
ment and identity in any given context, and having no
choice over visibility, was experienced as disempow-
ering and distressing.
In contrast, when making a deliberate and con-
scious decision to make their bodies visible, these
women anticipated, expected and to some extent
accepted comments from others. This was particu-
larly the case when talking about moving through
public spaces such as pubs and clubs:
. . . to a certain extent you accept that youre
dressing up, not only for yourself but for others as
well, so its not that youre inviting comment, its
just that its more expected. (Sophie)
In these contexts, women may choose to deliber-
ately display their bodies. Knowing that comments
are expected and anticipated (although not welcome
and still inappropriate) means that these women can
prepare themselves for having to deal with these
I handle it better then [when going out for the
night] because I am expecting it more. So, if I am
at work or something and someone makes a
comment I usually get flustered or embarrassed or
angry about it because it is inappropriate. Its
never really appropriate I dont think, but Im a lot
more prepared for it when I go out for the night in
a pub or even when Im on the street. (Angela)
I might wear something that reveal a bit and if Im
feeling thin and if someone made a comment then
I wouldnt take that as badly at all. Id feel like I
was showing myself therefore I would expect a
comment, and sometimes, occasionally, I have
liked the comments [. . .] but were I to go out
wearing my normal kind of high-neck top and
some random guy was to make a comment then
that would probably really upset me. It would be
like, please not now, I just want to be without you
commenting on my boobs. (Vicky)
Helen, for example, talks about expecting and
accepting comments when on a night out and wearing
a low-cut top and push-up bra, so that she is more
prepared for it, like more mentally prepared for it.
She goes on to say:
Im more prepared for it if I go out, you know,
you dont kind of expect it if youre just going
about your daily business. Its very embarrassing
if someone makes a comment then youre just in
town or whatever [. . .] Its really unfair for
someone to put you in a situation like that and
its difficult for you to defend yourself.
Being able to deal with offensive comments from
men is something which these women thought were
part and parcel of their embodied experiencesome-
thing they had to learn to adapt to as their breasts
grew. For example, Sophie talks about the ways in
which her response to comments has changed as she
has got older. She talks about the ways in which her
social skills and confidence have developed so that
she can deflect and deal with other peoples
reactions to her breasts. She now describes herself
as verbally very confident and would like to think
that most social situations I can cope with well.
Similarly, Helen feels that she is at a point in my life
now where I can enjoy them, and theyre not quite
such a bad thing, being at a point where I feel
comfortable with who I am and sort of equipped to
deal with the pros and cons of them. Women with
large breasts experience what seems like a tireless and
never-ending barrage of insults, comments and intru-
sive stares. It is part of their embodied experience and
impacts on the ways in which they respond to others,
and how others respond to them. It is such an integral
part of their social interactions that they feel that they
have to learn strategies to negotiate the responses of
others and to avoid feeling upset. This takes energy
and can at times be very draining.
Appearance, femininity and respectability have
become interconnected in the construction of gen-
dered sexual propriety (Skeggs, 1997). As a marker
of excessive sexuality and a lack of control, large
breasts mark women as vulgar, tasteless unruly and
undisciplined, in short as not respectable. It is in this
context in which appearance becomes a marker of
conduct and identity, that appearance also becomes a
site for the operation of power relations. Foucaults
(1977/1985) notion of disciplinary power, power
which is exercised through surveillance not force,
and which is internalised when people self-police and
act as if they are constantly being watched, is useful
here. Women attempt to manage and constrain their
breasts to make them invisible and unnoticeable, to
avoid being marked as sexual objects and disre-
Rachel Millsted and Hannah Frith 460
spected. But, despite their efforts to remain invisible
and unnoticed womens bodies are rendered publicly
available and their visibility in public spaces makes
them a target for censure and harassment. As Brook
(1999) notes:
The public spectacle of a womans body enacts an
antithesis to the identification of femininity with
the private and domestic body. Theories of the
disciplining functions of the male gaze suggest
that she enters public (masculine) space as a
potentially disruptive, transgressive body and it is
her position as spectacle (making a spectacle of
herself) under the view of the masculine eye, that
disciplines her back into line, returns her into a
docile body. (pp. 111112)
When these women enter public spaces they
experience their bodies as publicly available, as
visible, and as inevitably transgressing norms about
appearance (and femininity) which would allow them
to pass through public space without comment. They
are made conscious of their embodiment and the
location of their bodies within discourses of feminin-
ity and sexuality, and their place within the hetero-
sexual economy in which their excessive breasts are
seen as inappropriate. Their bodies are disciplined
under the masculine gaze through degrading com-
ments and intrusive stares which mark their bodies as
sexualised, and they engage in self-disciplinary prac-
tices in an attempt to render their bodies invisible.
These strategies and experiences are, of course, not
unique to large-breasted women. The collapse of the
public/private distinction may be marked on the
material body of the large-breasted woman in partic-
ular ways, but this is only one instance of the ways in
which women are made to feel that their bodies are
not their own in public spaces. Gardner (1980, 1990)
notes how in public spaces women are often subject
to catcalls, compliments or other evaluative com-
ments from men, and manage their appearance (e.g.
by adopting certain clothing practices) in order to
appear invisible.
In contrast to the accounts presented above, these
women also spoke about their feelings of pride and
pleasure in their breasts, the ways in which their
breasts enhanced their appearance, made them feel
feminine and attractive, and gave them a sense of
self-confidence. We are so used to hearing about
womens self-loathing and their dissatisfaction with
their bodies (e.g. Frost, 2001), that it is refreshing to
hear young women talking about their bodies with
pride and pleasure. However, it is important for us to
unpick these feelings a little and to examine their
origin. Large breasts are, for these women, a tangible
sign of their femininity and their attractiveness:
I think its important cos it [having large breasts]
does make you feel more feminine and I think
with me being on the skinny side it does give me a
little extra shape. (Joanne)
These women talked about being shapely, cur-
vaceous and having a womanly figure. In the
following extract, Danielle talks about the ways in
which her embodiment as large breasted allows her
unproblematic access to the status of someone who is
both a woman and who is feminine.
. . . actually feeling feminine and nice and stuff,
just to feel shapely. Its nice to know that I look
like a woman and can wear things and have a nice
cleavage. (Danielle)
Her breasts allow Danielle access to the identity of
woman in a way that small breasts apparently do not.
Reflecting previous research in which the loss of a
breast through cancer is equated with a loss of
femininity (Margolis et al., 1989; Steinberg, Juliano,
& Wise, 1985), and in which gaining a larger breast
through breast augmentation surgery is equated with
increased femininity (Birtchnell et al., 1990), these
women saw their breasts as a visible symbol of their
femininity. These women also talked about the ways
in which their breasts gave them more confidence
especially when compared to smaller breasted women
that they know who are always worrying about
being flat-chested and stuff (Nicola).
I think they make me more confident because
people tell me Ive got a nice figure [. . .] it makes
me makes me feel more confident, and if I go out
wearing a nice cleavage-showing top then theyre
more likely to look at my boobs, then it gives me
more confidence. (Jane)
While these women talked about the ways in
which their breasts enabled them to feel feminine
and womanly, this enjoyment of their bodies is not
about the way in which it physically feels to inhabit
this body. It is not, for example, about pleasure or
feelings of sexual arousal that might be associated
with these breasts. Rather, the enjoyment of their
body arises out of the way in which their body looks
Being Large-Breasted 461
rather than how it is directly experienced. However,
this de-sexualised language might reflect an attempt
on the part of participants to dissociate themselves
from the stereotypical association of large breasts
with sexual openness, loose sexual morals and
As Kathy Davis has argued, the body is as much
about identity as it is about physicality, and identity
needs to be treated as embodiedthat is, the out-
come of an individuals interaction with her body
and through her body with the world around her
(1995, p. 169). It is here in the discussion of how
women feel about themselves in relation to their
large breasts that we begin to develop a sense of
their embodied identitiestheir confidence and
sense of femininity is intimately bound up with their
embodied state. Yet, equally, this cannot be separated
from the ways in whichthrough their bodythey
engage with the world around them. A world in
which they are made visible and objectified, and a
world in which they are desired and admired. In the
previous section, we noted the ways in which
women feel humiliated and objectified by comments
from men who harass them in public places. How-
ever, not all comments from men (and others) are
experienced in this way, and comments and
responses from others are an important part of these
womens embodied experience. Womens experience
of their large-breasted bodies as feminine is insepa-
rable from the evaluation of their bodies as feminine
by others:
I do feel very feminine, very feminine shape, I
mean Ive got a bum and Ive got a waist and
Ive got big boobs and Ive got, you know, the
sort of responses Ive got are that I look feminine,
that I look nice, that I do have quite a womanly
figure, that its sexy, that Im sexy. So, yeah, they
do make me feel feminine. (Helenemphasis
I feel a lot more feminine when Im wearing
tighter tops. I definitely feel more feminine then.
Yeah, I suppose they [breasts] do make me feel
more feminine because Im often told I look quite
feminine. I think if they werent there then Id feel
that Id lost a part of my femininity. (Angela
emphasis added)
This demonstrates the importance of visibility and
the validation by others. Angelas breasts are only
feminine because they are seen to be feminine (in the
sense of being literally viewed while wearing low-cut
tops), and are recognised as such by others. This is
taken up more explicitly by Angela later in the
. . .sometimes if Im going out of a night and Im
wearing a low top, then Ill feel a bit more
confident. I know that Ill get a positive reaction
off blokes [. . .] because in our society large breasts
are seen as good it raises my confidence more
than if I had little boobs. (Angelaemphasis
There are a number of things to draw attention to
here. Firstly, there are contexts in which Angela
wishes to draw attention to her breasts, when she
wants to reveal them by wearing low-cut tops.
Secondly, Angela feels confident wearing these
clothes because she expects that her embodied self-
presentation will be evaluated positively by others.
More than this, not only will individual men respond
favourably to her embodied self-presentation, but
large breasts are socially validated as good, attrac-
tive and desirable. This contrasts sharply with the
responses of others to their breasts which women
voiced in the previous section. There, we noted how
womens frustration and distress may arise from a
sense of being unable to control the ways in which
the body is read by others. In other words, attempts
to render the body invisible are undermined by
unwelcome comments and intrusive stares. When
women actively court attention, it is perhaps not
surprising to hear them speak with pride and pleasure
when these strategies are successful.
While it is tempting simply to validate these
womens feelings of increased confidence and femi-
ninity, we argue that the origins of these feelings need
to be unpacked in the same way that Holliday (1999)
has unravelled the notion of comfort in relation to
the management of appearance through clothing by
lesbians and gay men. Holliday argues that talking
about clothing choices in terms of comfort functions
as a naturalising discourse which obscures the polit-
ical and subcultural resonances implied by comfort.
She argues that comfort also signifies the way in
which identity is mapped onto the body, and derives
from being recognizably queer to both oneself and
others (p. 481). Extrapolating from this to our
understanding of womens feelings of confidence
from wearing low-cut tops, we would argue that this
confidence arises out of the recognition that ones
body meets the cultural ideal and is recognisable as
attractive. The aesthetic scaling of women (cf. Young,
1990), in which womens bodies are evaluated as
more or less valuable according to their appearance,
means that some women, at some times, may feel that
Rachel Millsted and Hannah Frith 462
their appearance is socially validated as recognisably
attractive. We need to consider, then, how breast size
might interact with other socially valued aspects of
appearance to create this sense of confidence for our
participants. For example, several participants
described themselves as skinny or having a waist,
and it is not clear how their feelings of privilege
might be as much to do with being physically ideal
(including being young) as with being large breasted
(see Frith & Gleeson, 2002a, b). Indeed, these differ-
ent aspects of embodiment clearly interact, at least for
Vicky, who says, if Im feeling thin and if someone
made a comment then I wouldnt take that as badly at
Young (1990, p. 190) argues that women respond to
the objectifying male gaze in a number of different
ways. Some, she argues, may loathe and fear the
gaze that fixes her in shock or mockery, while
others may enjoy the attention and learn to draw
the gaze to her bosom with a sense of sexual power.
It is clear from the interview extracts we have
presented that these women experience their breasts
as both a source of pleasure, pride and confidence,
and as a source of embarrassment, anxiety and
harassment. Mirroring other research on breasted
experience, and on appearance as a whole, we find
that appearance is simultaneously and across time a
site for pleasure and strength but also a site of
anxiety, regulation and surveillance (Skeggs, 1997,
p. 107). Womens breasted experience is complex,
contradictory and conflictingwe do not just have
one response but many and these responses are local
and specific to each context in which we find
ourselves, and our intentions, purpose and sense of
agency within these contexts.
Feminists are critical of the male gaze in which
womens bodies are evaluated and judged in relation
to this gaze. They have also been critical of women
who play up to the male gaze by adorning them-
selves, compete against other women to look more
beautiful, and engage in dangerous practices (such
as cosmetic surgery) in order to improve their
appearance (e.g. Morgan, 1991). For these women,
the beauty system inscribes their bodies as attractive
and desirable (although this can change from moment
to moment). These women are privileged, and feel
themselves to be privileged, by virtue of the social
validation of large breasts. It is not surprising that
these women value their breasts and experience them
with pleasure, pride and increased confidence. For
some feminists, by capitalising on the fact that their
breasts are socially valued, by enjoying looks and
comments from men, and by having pride in their
appearance, these women are complicit in their own
oppression and the oppression of other women. By
becoming alienated from their own bodies, and able
to see themselves only as objects for consumption,
these women see themselves as commodities and
evaluate themselves and other women as such. Ironi-
cally, as Bordo (1993) points out, while engaging in
practices which train the female body in docility and
obedience to cultural demands, women can experi-
ence these practices in terms of power and control.
Heilman (1998, p. 195) talks about this process in
relation to womens experience of eating disorders.
She argues that:
A girls feelings of power can come from both
meeting the individual challenges such as suc-
ceeding in not eating for a day and from meeting
the challenge of approximating a cultural norm of
beauty. The second form of power comes from
receiving approval purely as an object, as a thing
that looks good or appropriate. This is the power
of becoming a successful commodity.
But, it is not as if we can step outside of these
cultural discourses in order to experience our breasts
(or any other aspect of our appearance) in a feminist
utopia, free from cultural discourses. Feminists,
importantly, attempt to stand outside of cultural
norms in order to critique them, but even recognising
this critique does not mean that individual women
(feminist or not) can be entirely free from the trap-
pings of cultural notions of beauty. Even the most
vehement critics of the beauty system, who have
produced groundbreaking and insightful analyses,
find themselves unable as individuals to step outside
of this. For example, Wendy Chapkis, author of
Beauty Secrets, talks about her experience of elec-
trolysis, while Susan Bordo, author of Unbearable
Weight, talks about her weight loss. The point is not
to lament the failings of individual women, but to
recognise that despite their insightful critiques of the
beauty system they too are unable to step outside of
discourses about attractiveness, femininity and sex-
uality. As Frost (1999) points out, it is not as if
appearance is somehow detachable and that women
simply have the choice to ignore it.
This does not mean that women are passively
positioned in relation to cultural discourses, rather
women actively negotiate their position in relation to
a complex web of discourses, gazes, audiences,
identities and visibilities. Davis (1995) has long
argued for an approach to feminist theorising which
Being Large-Breasted 463
is able to critique the beauty system, but which also
accepts that women are not passive victims of these
hegemonic systems. Smiths (1990) conceptualisa-
tion of the production, construction and performance
of femininity as an active accomplishment on the
part of the female agent provides a way forward in
thinking about this. Smith argues, and we agree, that
women are not simply passively positioned by com-
peting discourses, they have actively to do femi-
ninity. As we cannot choose not to appear, some
decisions have to be made about what clothing we
will wear and how we will have our hair, and how
we will present our bodies. It is not surprising then,
that some women will choose to present their bodies
in ways which best approximate the cultural norms,
in order to access the greatest amount of prestige and
power they can. Our participants are actively
involved in doing femininity, but consider them-
selves to be in a relatively privileged position in
being able to inhabit this identity by virtue of their
embodiment. Yet, these women work to negotiate
how their bodies can be read by others. This
control is important, but it not always possible to
maintain. Women can display their bodies in ways
that can be read as feminine and sexy, or they can
try to avoid their bodies being read in this way (i.e.
by wearing t-shirts and baggy jumpers). However,
despite their efforts, the inevitable visibility of their
large breasts, and the coding of large breasts (at least
when on slim women) as sexy means that despite
their efforts their bodies can be read as sexualised.
To further complicate this process, womens bodies
are simultaneously presented to, and read by, any
number of different audiences. For example,
although a woman may experience their bodies in
relation to an abstract and intangible male gaze, she
is also the object of a set of interpersonal gazes in
which her body is appraised by a variety of others.
These interpersonal looks are also evaluative and
can be positive or negative. As Lee notes, during
puberty girls are caught in the middle of a complex
set of gazes and looks which are experienced in
different ways. As she observes, you do not want
people (especially boys) to notice/embarrass you, yet
at the same time you desperately want them to
notice/approve of you (Lee, 1997, p. 467). Our
data suggests that this may also be true for adult
women, but we know little about how women
understand and categorise these different kinds of
reactions from others or how they manage their own
emotional responses to these reactions. For example,
although the women in our study talked about
responding positively to comments received when
courting attention and when dressed in more reveal-
ing clothes, and negatively when they have dressed
more conservatively in an attempt to be invisible,
this distinction is far from clear cut. Even when they
are actively seeking visibility, some comments make
them feel embarrassed and humiliated while others
make them feel feminine and attractive. Further
research needs to explore the circumstances under
which these two very different kinds of emotional
reactions arise.
Identity is always the outcome of womens active
negotiation of the contradictions of female embodi-
ment (Young, 1990). The decisions that women make
in attempting to negotiate their appearance are inevi-
tably also decisions about identity and embodied
experience. For women with large breasts, this may
mean attempting to develop a sense of pride and
confidence in their appearance, in spite of the degrad-
ing and disrespectful attention they have been sub-
jected to, and arming themselves with strategies to
combat these intrusive looks and comments.
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