This afternoon, I sat in the park rereading parts of Susan Brownmiller’s Femininity for the first time in a good while; As I did when I first read it, I still felt overwhelmed, and admiring, and grateful, enlivened, sad, angry, understood, and truly recognized, all at the same time. It’s an intense, consciousness-altering thing really, to have another woman—one generations separated from you, one you’ve never even met—explain so perfectly what you yourself have experienced, what I feel as a woman in my body and soul about this particular thing; her words are what I’ve felt particularly when I’ve tried (without much success, probably partly because of my own anger around all this) to explain to a male partner what I want sex to be—and maybe the hugest part of it is, I so, so much want the chance to be understood, seen for who I really am, and it feels like there are so many barriers and roadblock to that between men and women sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever find a way.
A lack of confidence about my body doesn’t come anymore from me feeling there’s anything so terribly flawed about me; I’m proud to say that at nearly 33, I’m at a point where I kind of even love my flaws—they’re part of who I am as a human being. No, for me, the self-consciousness—and, if I’m honest, the downright irritable bitterness—about standing naked in front of a male partner doesn’t come so much from worrying that I’m not “beautiful enough” for him—it comes from me having this acute awareness of how he may (or may not be) seeing me.
My breasts aren’t small, and I think I’ve felt self conscious about them for such a long time partly because, frankly, I’m very smart, and an intuitive woman, and any woman who pays half a moment’s attention to the ways of male supremacy that pervade American culture knows that men or most men anyway seem to think they have an absolute right to your chest if you were born a girl. Even if they don’t know you, ogling is considered a male prerogative. And as Brownmiller observes in the passages below, men have literally transformed women’s breasts from simple udders for supplying milk to babies, into these glaring, anxiety-inducing badges of gender; breasts are, in the eyes of most men, symbols of female sexual dirtiness, the “unruly” nature of women’s sexuality, and shame. How could a woman not feel somewhat conflicted about this part of her?
I want to feel proud of my body, particularly during physical intimacy; it’s not even that I don’t want to be looked at, to share joy in my physical self, but that I don’t want to be looked at in that way. I want a man to actually see me, not tits, not hooters, not binoculars, not jugs, not boobs, not taytas…Good grief! The list is nearly endless, but the bottom line is, all the patriarchal jargon for my body and my sexuality is not now and never has been mine. These words for myself (and my body is myself on an important level) were never chosen by myself; And I don’t want them; all they do is make me feel low down, lower than the dirt, and what I want is the chance to soar, to find my own words that give off pride and smack of autonomy, my own sexuality; I want to carve out some sexual dignity for myself, and maybe because I’m a poet, doing it through language lures me much; and if that makes men who’ve learned to like the other kind of words feel guilty and angry, okay, fine—feel guilt, and feel anger. And then, please kindly get your shit together and work on building something better with me.
The following are some of the passages that most inspired me today in S.B.:
No other part of the human body has such semipublic, intensely private status, and no other part of the body has such vaguely defined custodial rights[.] This is the girl child’s lesson—and through the breast iconography she sees all around her, she comes to understand that breasts belong to everybody, but especially to men. It is they who invent and refine the myths, who discuss breasts publicly, who criticize their failings and extol their wonders, and who claim to have more need and intimate knowledge of them than a woman herself.
…slangy familiarities such as boobs, jugs, titties are basically hostile appraisals, despite attempts by some women to incorporate these contemptuous descriptions into their own vocabulary as hip terms of demystified endearment [Yes, this is what those words feel like to me, words of contempt.]
Who can blame women for being confused about their breasts? And what good does it do to point to our barebreasted sisters in other culture, for we have seen too many pictures in National Geographic of wizened old females with sagging, shriveled teats or with udderlike breasts that hang forlornly to the waist. No, not sexy. Not pretty and attractive. Entirely too remindful of the she-animal function, of milking the cow until she runs dry. Who wants to dwell on the thought that breasts can look like udders, that breasts are udders, dry, full, swollen, dripping with milk, squeezed, sucked on, raw, tender, in pain—and ultimately used up and withered. No, we’re Marilyn Monroe in the calendar pose. We’re Friday-night entries in a college town wet T-shirt contest. We float down the avenue in a Maidenform bra and the nipples don’t show. [Dang, she’s so fucking dead on.]
Not surprisingly, although the erectile tissue is present [Yeah guys, you can and probably do have sensitive nips], masculine sexuality has rarely featured or even admitted its own nipple responsiveness as a source of erogenous pleasure. (When and if it does, will men grow shy about going shirtless?) The little boy who draws two dark, angry circles on the poster of the fully clothed woman has already absorbed society’s lesson: the nipples on his chest are invulnerable and sexless but a girl’s are shameful and dirty. [Women are actively discouraged from enjoying the male body physically, and particularly any parts of it that might be considered emblematic of vulnerability or softness, like nipples or testicles—most straight women I know look at me like I’m nuts if I suggest there’s anything visually appealing there—meanwhile, the female of many, many other species on this planet is partly lured toward her male mate by something bright, colorful, or visually showy and alluring about him. Maybe I should have been born a blue bird (or a dull brown bird, if I were the female;-).]
After decades of frantic obsession, breasts evidently were such a thoroughly colonized province of masculine sexuality that the sight of a braless woman on the street in the late 1960s could inspire a strong negative reaction. The hoots and catcalls eventually subsided, but the initial emotion was something akin to rage. [The SOLE reason I wear a bra in day to day life is to avoid drawing negative or unwanted comments and attention from men; when I’m in woman only space, I don’t wear one, and the FIRST thing I do when I’m in my home after work is get the binding thing off me. Yes, a bra feels bothersome and restrictive.]