Why is America So Obsessed With Breasts?

Aurora Snow argues that our obsession with breasts is getting out of hand. millann/Shutterstock.com

America is a boob-frenzied society. We have elevated these fatty vessels designed for infant feeding to a level of obsession. There is a cultural emphasis on a woman’s breasts—some even measure their personal worth by the size of their chest. We live in a society where girls graduating high school are gifted with breast implants, while breastfeeding mothers are routinely kicked out of public places for offending others with their “indecent” exposure.

As a former adult actress, I felt pressure to have implants. In that business, breasts can mean big bucks, and an enhanced chest often propels an actress’s career to the next level. My agent at the time advised me to go for it, but I just couldn’t—I’d seen too many bad boob jobs to be swayed.  

Sadly, I had only ever thought of my breasts as sexual features with value to bedroom partners and porn producers. That is until it came to the very innocent, very natural act of feeding my baby. While extremely awkward and somewhat mind-blowing at first, it didn’t take long to understand that my baby’s cries meant lifting my shirt for mealtime. At home, this was a pleasant bonding experience, but in public baby mealtime was almost always a logistical issue. I’d never been shy about whipping a boob out before I became a mother, but in these innocent, natural moments it was suddenly problematic. While I avoided breastfeeding in smelly bathroom stalls whenever possible, I wasn’t above leaving restaurants or social gatherings to sit in the car to feed my baby.

Breastfeeding in public made me feel something I had never felt as a porn actress: shame.

More than anything else, I was confused and a little surprised by own feelings. I’ve always been willing to bear the brunt of public criticism for my career choice, but I couldn’t stand the thought of being scolded for nursing. I knew my breasts had been celebrated as sexual objects, and yet I felt this bizarre sense of shame when they weren’t.

“Humans are the only species where breasts and breast stimulation have become part of their sexuality,” says Dr. Larry Young, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Emory University. “In every other species, the breast serves one purpose only, and that is nursing, but in humans it’s become part of sexuality. The reason I think this has evolved in humans is that breast stimulation evokes oxytocin release.”

Young, who studies complex social behaviors as they relate to cellular and neurobiological mechanisms, and is the author of The Chemistry Between Us, is quick to point out that the same chemical that fosters mother-baby bonding also helps us form and reinforce the bonds we have with our partners.

Which is why oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the “love hormone,” might play a role in our culture’s obsession with boobs.

“In any other species, we see the baby suckle the breast and we don’t think anything about it but for us, because there is a sexual component to the breast, it activates brain regions that are involved in sexuality,” explains Young. “At the same time, we recognize that they are nurturing, which may create a psychological conflict that is uneasy for us.”

In some cultures women don’t cover their breasts—being topless is as natural for them as it is for the men—so it could be argued that breasts are not inherently sexual. Young floats the theory that those men have simply become desensitized to something they see regularly.

“I think in those cultures they have become habituated to them so that just seeing [breasts] is not that sexually arousing anymore,” he argues.

Could this be the root of the issue? Perhaps in the West we just don’t see enough breasts in non-sexual situations.

A mother breastfeeds her baby in this image taken by photographer Ivette Ivans.

A mother breastfeeds her baby in this image taken by photographer Ivette Ivans.

No one thinks twice about a man going topless in public, but that wasn’t always the case. As Yahoo reports, “up until the mid 1930s it was illegal to publicly flaunt the male nipple in public.” Men protested their right to go topless in public, and in 1936 the State of New York legalized it while maintaining that women could be charged for public indecency or lewd behavior for the same act.

It wasn’t until 1992, thanks to the court ruling in the case of the People v. Ramona Santorelli and Mary Lou Schloss, that women were given the same rights as men to bare their chests in NYC. The defendants, Santorelli and Schloss, had been caught topless in public, thereby violating a law they argued was discriminatory “since it defines ‘private or intimate parts’ of a woman’s but not a man’s body as including a specific part of the breast.” The court ruled in their favor, which is why women today can legally walk around NYC topless.

Even though New York’s attitude is a step in the right direction, gender inequality is alive and well in many other parts of the world and on social media. Women who post their topless New York photos on Instagram often have their accounts deleted, unless the nipple is covered. It is a clear issue of double standards and one that Scout Willis, daughter of A-list celebrities Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, has been working to publicize. After her account was deleted over “instances of abuse,” Willis bared her breasts on the streets of New York, documenting her entirely legal activity on Twitter and then penning an open letter on xoJane to make her views known.

In her letter, she writes: “I am not trying to argue for mandatory toplessness, or even bralessness. What I am arguing for is a woman’s right to choose how she represents her body—and to make that choice based on personal desire and not a fear of how people will react to her or how society will judge her. No woman should be made to feel ashamed of her body.”

The most recent fight for female equality on social media is taking shape in the form of a nipple. Artist Micol Hebron posted an image of a nipple online with this suggestion: “If you are going to post pictures of topless women, please use this acceptable male nipple template to cover over the unacceptable female nipples.” Her rallying cry has recently gone viral. Encouraged, women everywhere have been Photoshopping male nipples onto their topless photos with a #freethenipple hashtag. It’s a clever way to beat Instagram’s unfair policies, but it’s also disheartening. The difference between a male and a female nipple in photos should be insignificant. Isn’t it time to remove the stigma from female breasts?

In a deliberate push to show the world how beautiful breastfeeding can be, photographer Ivette Ivens is slowly demystifying the breast and eliminating the shame of nursing in public. “Over the years, breasts have progressively become more sexualized and used to market products,” she says. “This, naturally, changes the way a person views them. Because of this and many other reasons, some may find breastfeeding uncomfortable to view.”

In her soon-to-be-released book, Breastfeeding Goddesses, Ivens has created a series of images that glamorize nursing. Women of all shapes and sizes are pictured breastfeeding their children in visually dramatic outdoor settings: some are in the woods, or basking in the sunlight, while others are surrounded by snow.

“Mothers who saw my first images of the Breastfeeding Goddesses series kept saying ‘this is exactly how I feel when I’m breastfeeding my child.’ We all are familiar with our raw everyday life, and I’m trying to highlight what is not always seen—the way a mother feels when nurturing her child. It’s empowering and selfless,” says Ivens.

As women, we shouldn’t be ashamed of our bodies. We should have the right to breastfeed in public, or even to go topless on the beach. It’s not our responsibility, nor our fault, that our bodies have been overly sexualized in the media. Hiding them, treating them as offensive and banning them from social media? All this does is reinforce the idea that breasts are somehow naughty. We can’t have equality until we develop a sense of normalcy, which means it’s time that we see more breasts—not confined to porn or racy advertisements designed to sell the latest trend piece—but in non-sexual situations.

Aurora Snow is a former adult actress and a contributor to the Daily Beast.