“I want to tell you a story about my body and my sexuality. But it’s going to be so revealing and embarrassing for me, that I can say it only once. So please listen carefully.”
If you can please indulge me, I just want to say I’m very proud of myself for ordering Bodies and Women ‘몸과 여자들’ by Lee Seo-su. It will be the first novel I’ll have read entirely in Korean!
I was instantly sold on it by reviewsthat mention its intimate coverage of beauty ideals, gender socialization and body-shaming in schools, sexual assault, pregnancy, sex in marriage, pervasive sexual objectification, and the male gaze.
However, there’s also the matter of the other members in The Grand Narrative Book Club,* who are much more knowledgeable and well-read than myself, and have often already read the original Korean versions of the translated novels we discuss. Because while I count myself lucky that I’m never the most interesting person in the (Zoom) room, does the fact I’m the dumbest really need to be so obvious?
In 2023 then, I want to work on disguising that. Starting by getting into the habit of reading novels in their original Korean myself.
Unfortunately, Bodies and Women will not be turning up in the club anytime soon. Lee Seo-su seems to be a relatively new writer, with a discussion in Korean Literature Now about of one of her short stories being all I could find out about her in English. So, although I could translate those persuasive reviews for you here, really any translation add-on for your favorite browser should more than suffice. Instead, hopefully I will find many interesting things in the book itself to pass on later.
Sorry. I did say this post was an indulgence!
However, with that my writer’s block does seem to be cured now too, so it served its purpose. Let me offer some humor too, as a parting gift—but also, a reminder of precisely why those reviews were so persuasive, and books like it so necessary. For I shit you not: these two sponsored ads on Facebook, I saw back to back after googling “몸과 여자들” the hour previously:
Again frankly, probably the juxtaposition is a complete coincidence. After the book itself, googling “몸과 여자들” in fact mostly brings up images of women perusing fine male specimens. But more to the point, during the evening rush hour, Korean advertisers on Facebook deliberately target men with ads for lingerie etc., which they won’t buy, but which do persuade them to swipe left to be rewarded with more lingerie models, then with ads for oh-so-masculine power tools and gaming equipment which they might.
Also, ever since I hit my mid-40s I’ve been inundated with ads for libido and erectile dysfunction treatments, and doubt it’s just me. I don’t mean to laugh at anyone or their partners who actually need to avail themselves of such products, especially since I’ll probably be joining their ranks sooner rather than later (sigh). But many prove just as creepy as campy. For instance, this one where the model’s head was cut off, in stark contrast to when a different advertiser used the same stock photos of her to advertise diet products to women:
Then there’s these screenshots from yet another ad in my feed today, from which I’ll let you form your own conclusion to this post to!
*Finally, the book for January’s meeting on Wednesday the 18th is Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (2017), translated by Anton Hur (2021); I’ll put up an official notice soon. Sorry for not doing so earlier, which is my fault for not realizing that I may not be the only person out there who hasn’t actually read it yet!
If you wannabe my lover, you gotta get with my books.
Or, if you just want to be my friend (your loss!), I’ll settle for a shared love of books in general.
Just as in a romance though, a relationship on that basis can still entail a bittersweet mix of passion and frustrated longing. Specifically, as my own taste in books has rarely meshed with my friends’, I’ve found there’s only so much I can wax lyrical about my latest conquests when they’re so unlikely to ever read them themselves. And with 52 books read in 2021, plus a goal of 72 in 2022, that’s of lot of pent-up passion not to have an outlet for.
But you already know where it’s going to go now.
As I type this, I’m loving If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, “a fierce social commentary about gender roles, class divisions and, yes, plastic surgery in South Korea.” I’ve been especially struck by how realistically Cha depicts the daily lives and conversations of the four main young(ish) Korean female characters, much more so than in previous Korean or Korea-related fiction I’ve encountered. “Finally,” I said to myself, “I’ve found characters in a book talking just like my Korean friends and I talk!”
Yet we’re not in our 20s or early-30s either. Beyond the swearing and sex talk that I love so much, does Cha indeed portray their lives realistically? It’s been especially difficult for someone with my background to tell, slowing down my reading with so many nagging thoughts and questions.
Then something occurred to me in the shower. It’s a popular book, making Time’s list of 100 must-read books in 2020 for instance, meaning there’s many of you out there with your own opinions, insights, and maybe even your own nagging questions. So why not share them with each other on Zoom?
I’m envisaging something very intimate and informal, cameras on, with a maximum of 12 participants (but in practice probably much fewer than that). To ensure it’s as safe a space as possible, I’ll screen all attendees as much as I’m able, the Zoom link will be invite only, and once it’s started I’ll be very busy behind the scenes to ensure things run smoothly.
Just for that last reason alone, I want to be clear that this will be a discussion, and definitely not any kind of lecture, webinar, or even dominated by me. While in my duties as host I will have prepared many hopefully interesting questions and potential talking points to raise if necessary, I strongly encourage—nay, demand—everyone attending to come up with at least couple of their own (please!).
For those amongst you who are interested but haven’t read the book yet, I’m thinking that by Thursday, January 27 is plenty of time to order, read, and digest it, and that 7pm on that evening (Korean time) is both late enough to drink eat first, and early enough to get a discussion of a decent length in before people get tired. We could also decide the next month’s book then too.
If you’re interested in attending, please leave a comment below (your email address will only be visible to me) or contact me, and I’ll get in touch in a group email closer to the date. Any thoughts, suggestions, and advice for running a book club would also be very welcome.
See you on Zoom!
If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)
Last week saw a textbook case of how not to report about beauty ideals.
The catalyst was a press release by the Catholic University of Korea (CUK). Widely copied and pasted across the Korean media, the title of the sole English translation was “S. Koreans Prefer Women with ‘Oval Face, Wide Forehead, and Small Lips’.”
The problem is, they don’t, necessarily.
Rather, what should have been reported was that a joint Saudi, US, Paraguayan, and Korean Dentistry and Orthodontics research team, including one professor from CUK, had announced they’d discovered commonalities in the facial differences between Miss Korea 2012 and Miss Paraguay 2013 contestants.
Then, when the announcement went straight to the researchers’ conclusions, as in this article from Yonhap…
연구팀은 미스코리아 54명과 미스파라과이 34명을 대상으로 3D 카메라로 얼굴 정면과 측면을 특수 촬영해 길이 및 각도를 측정했다. 측정값을 기준으로 인종에 따른 심미성 차이를 평가하고, 두 결과를 서양인의 대표적인 황금비(golden ratio)와 비교했다.
The research team measured various lengths and angles of the faces of 54 Miss Korea and 34 Miss Paraguay contestants by using special photographs of the fronts and sides of their faces using a 3D camera. The differences in racial beauty standards were determined based on the differences in the measured values between the two groups, and each groups’ results were also compared with the golden ratio, [a representative ideal of facial beauty for Westerners].
그 결과 한국인은 전반적으로 갸름한 얼굴형과 넓은 이마, 작은 입술을 선호했지만 파라과이인은 약간 각진 얼굴에 큰 입술을 선호하는 것으로 나타났다. 두 국가가 선호하는 얼굴은 서양에서 이상적인 비율로 판단되는 황금비와도 차이가 있었다.
As a result, it was found that Koreans generally preferred a slim face shape, wide forehead, and small lips [left], but Paraguayans preferred large lips with slightly angular faces [right]. The faces preferred by the two countries were also different from the golden ratio.
…Reporters should have inquired on what grounds researchers made wide, sweeping pronouncements about the entire Korean and Paraguayan populations’ beauty ideals, considering their study was just on a handful of beauty pageant contestants. Either by simply asking, or by reading the study for themselves.
I realize to have expected either was incredibly naive. Quick content and clickbait titles are key, both of which are all the more effective if they confirm readers’ stereotypes. Plus, in fairness, the academic English of the study would have been beyond most Korean reporters.
They could at least have linked to it though. Yet not only did no reporters offer even this bare minimum, many failed to provide any identifying details about the study whatsoever.
That study was “Comparison of facial esthetic standards between Latin American and Asian populations using 3D stereophotogrammetric analysis” in the Journal of the World Federation of Orthodontists, Volume 9, Issue 3, 2020, Pages 129-136, by Mohamed Bayome, Jae Hyun Park, Ahmed M. Shoaib, Nam-ki Lee, Victor Boettner, and Yoon-Ah Kook (please contact me if you can’t get access to any of the studies I mention here). Further adding to the likelihood that no reporters actually read it, last week’s articles included either a picture of CUK Department of Orthodontics Professor Yoon-Ah Kook and/or the earlier graphic supplied by the university (note the watermark), neither of which were in the study.
In short, the researchers make—justify—their mental leap on their argument that beauty pageant judges are objective and representative (p. 130):
“These beauty contestants reached the final stages of the contests based on selections made by the competition panels consisting of media figures, artists and producers, famous plastic surgeons and orthodontists, as well as other community influencers. This means that their opinion plays a principal role in forming the general public opinion.”
Indeed, writing in the Korea Times about the 2019 Korea pageant, Lee Han-na mentions that the “judging panel consisted of experts in the areas of fashion, music and entertainment, joined by actresses and former Miss Koreas.” Which I don’t deny sounds diverse, nor that, say, cosmetic surgeons in particular play a huge role in shaping general public opinion in Korea.
That such groups may be bringing their own subjective preconceptions, worldviews, and agendas to any discussion of beauty however—let alone the six Dentistry and Orthodontics professors involved in this study—seems not to have occurred to them.
Moreover, in the Korean case in particular, beauty pageant judges’ role as gatekeepers is further undermined by the public’s utter disinterest in the event, as well as by ironically choosing a 2018 winner who was far too “fat” for many Korean netizens’ standards. Also, to counter charges of objectification and lookism, contestants’ academic backgrounds, personalities, and performing abilities have been given much more prominence in judging since the early-2000s.
I’ve only been able to find one reporter, Go Jae-won at Donga Science, who suggests that the researchers’ conclusions shouldn’t be taken for granted. To say that journalists were not doing their job here is an understatement:
이번 연구는 미스코리아는 2012년 참가자들의 얼굴을 대상으로 미스파라과이는 2013년도 참가자들을 대상으로 분석이 진행됐다는 점에서 최근 참가자들의 트렌드를 반영하고 있지는 않다는 한계가 있다. 또 미스코리아 참가자들이 한국인들의 평균적인 미적 기준을 반영하고 있다는 근거도 부족하다는 지적도 있다.
By analyzing 2012 Miss Korea and 2013 Miss Paraguay participants, the study has limitations in reflecting recent trends. In addition, some point out that there is a lack of evidence that Miss Korea participants reflect the average aesthetic standards of Koreans.
Another issue was the researchers’ liberal use of overgeneralizing terms such as “Westerners,” which are particularly useless and misleading when talking about beauty preferences and racial differences. So too, was perpetuating the myth that the “golden ratio” is a signifier of beauty, for which there is actually inconclusiveevidence at best that it plays any role in attractiveness whatsoever. To be sure, technically they acknowledged that lack, which their study further confirmed, but—jumping ahead—they and/or CUK should have anticipated the ensuing “Westerners just loooove the golden ratio in their women” style of reporting.
But given that the other, explicit aim of the study was “to compare the facial esthetic standards between Paraguayan and Korean beauty pageant contestants,” that was clearly too much to ask. For they were no less careful to restrict their conclusions to only beauty pageant contestants than any tabloid news reporter. For instance, consider the loose generalizations from the introduction (p. 129-130, my emphases):
Attractive Asians are characterized by longer faces than the general population and with less height of lower lip and chin and smaller volumes of chin and cheek. On the other hand, attractive Latin Americans are distinguished by less nasal prominence, large nasolabial angle, less protrusive lips, and less prominence of the chin.
And from the conclusion (p. 136, my emphases):
“From our results, it may be claimed that most Latin American individuals, in general, prefer rectangular faces with wide mouths and large lips, especially the lower lips, whereas in general, most Asian individuals prefer long tapered faces with small mouths and lips [see below]. Even though it might be well-known that the Misses are not selected solely based on their faces, as these contests include various measures, it is quite unlikely to have a qualified finalist who did not have a beautiful face.”
In between those six pages, many various nationalities and racial groups are mentioned, but none are defined. Are Paraguayans included among the Westerners they mention? The Caucasians? It’s all very confusing, and particularly irresponsible for an academic journal article.
This is a shame, for I believe 3D facial photography is very much a promising new approach into researching beauty ideals, and have no reason nor inclination to dispute the results of this study. Indeed, I’m now overwhelmed by all the intriguing “related articles” to pursue. But the researchers’ conclusions in this one? Peruse the sources used, and conspicuous for their absence are any from sociology, gender, or media studies. Had there been some input from those fields, perhaps the researchers would have been more rigorous with their definitions. In turn, they may have been more restrained in their beliefs that beauty pageant judges were objective and representative, upon which their conclusions rest. And more circumspect in going to the media with them.
These flaws are also evident in a similar study by different researchers published just a few months earlier in The Journal of Cranofacial Surgery (Volume 31, Number 3, May/June 2020. (Which, because of reporters’ unprofessionalism/laziness/crushing deadlines, for a long time I thought was the one actuallybeing referred to.) In that study of 44 Miss Korea and 22 Miss Paraguay contestants (competition years not given), the researchers were ironically much more forthright about the difficulties of determining racial beauty ideals. Yet ultimately, they ended up even more convinced that the beauty pageant contestants possessed objectively-determined, universal-shared racial beauty ideals, a conclusion perhaps facilitated by the cheat of simply referring to Koreans and Paraguayans as “Asian” and “Western” throughout.
Yet it was three of the same researchers behind the first study who already demonstrated the potential of 3D facial photography in an article published in the March 2017 Korean Journal of Orthodontics (47(2):87-99). Specifically, the faces of 52 Miss Korea 2012 contestants and 41 young adult female students of a nursing school at Wonkwang Health Science University were compared, and no overarching conclusions extending to entire Korean population were made.
What they did say? Again, please let me know if you can’t get access, and we could discuss the differences between the groups in the comments, or make them the subjects of another post. Either way, let me be forthright with my own biases from the beginning. Isn’t it uncanny how page 95’s “proportional diagram of the average face from the Miss Korea group (A) and another from the general population group (B)” instantly reminds you a young and middle-aged Jang Yoon-ju? Or is it just me?
With apologies in advance for the unflattering picture, please let me know in the comments!
What is it with people ever talking about “Asian” and “Western” women’s bodies?
If the conversation is in Korean, usually only Korean and white women will actually be meant; the latter, as women of color that don’t present as Korean tend to be referred to by their race or nationality instead. But even reduced to just those two groups of women, how could the idealized figures described in those conversations possibly embody the mélange of real, flesh and bone Korean and white women’s body types and features? Let alone actually have something useful to say about them?
Left picture: I’ve watched Western women wearing leggings, and I’ve had heated discussions about leggings with Western friends. After a month of that, I’ve come to realize why it’s so difficult for Asian women to wear them.
Right picture: When Asian women don’t have wide pelvises, flaps of skin in their “Y-zones” get bunched together and exposed. “Embarrassing!” / Instead of your skin looking soft, it looks thin and lacking in firmness; the underside of your bottom looks flabby. “I’m ashamed!” / Compared to Westerners’ long and slender legs, Asian women’s legs are short and many Asian women have stout lower bodies. “It’s upsetting!”
Shopping in New York’s Chinatown can sometimes be a minefield too:
Me at new Asian cosmetics store me:what products do u recommend? pretty saleswoman: ....ur mixed? me: no w: oh,sorry, it's just that ur features are kind of.... me: hmm,really?what features? w:I guess your pores... me: ? woman: u have white-ppl sized nose pores but on Asian face
There is resistance to this line of thinking. In response to Temple Leggings’ sponsored tweets above for instance, one Twitter user (since made a private account) argued that Korean women’s reluctance to wear leggings actually has nothing to do with their perceived body shapes or supposed too short legs vis-a-vis Western women, but is more because of a culture of constant evaluation of their bodies and “gaze rape” (“동양여성들이 레깅스를 입기 힘든 이유는 동양 여성들의 체형때문이 아니라 여성몸매평가 문화와 시선강간 때문입니다…”) with commentators in the ensuing long thread often echoing sentiments about leggings raised in both sides of recentcontroversiesoverthemin the US. And probably she’s got a better handle than I do on why she doesn’t wear leggings, and has spoken to far more women about them too.
But Temple Leggings wouldn’t have mentioned Korean and Western bodies if they didn’t think it would resonate with their target market. And I have spoken to some Korean women on the subject of Asian and Western bodies specifically, and they’ve all been quite blasé about making such distinctions. I regularly hear women loudly doing so in coffee shops too, and my students aren’t shy about it either. Also, it may well just be confirmation bias, but it feels very telling that the very first result from my YouTube search for “동양몸매,” the “다이어트천재 동양몸매 vs 미친골반 서양몸매 구경하고 가세요” video (“Genius Asian body diet vs. crazy [wide?] pelvis Western body challenge”) that I couldn’t resist inserting the thumbnail from below, was titled and captioned thus without either woman ever actually mentioning Asian or Western bodies in it. Add journalists’ enthusiasm for raising the subject too, then I’m going to go right ahead and say this way of thinking is totally a thing.
But that gives absolutely no-one permission to engage in Orientalist eye-rolling at the habit. For the Western, English-language pop culture, media, cosmetic, and medical industries are equally guilty of perpetuating such cringeworthy distinctions. More so even, as they’re frequently underscored by racist assumptions that Asian women aren’t just fundamentally different, but actually yearn to look white too.
If that’s news, I recommend reading Professor Ruth Holliday’s (Leeds University) and Professor Joanna Elfving-Hwang’s (University of Western Australia) 2012 Body & Society article “Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea” on the subject, in which they present numerous examples—and which read like a withering manifest of the intellectual baggage Western observers can’t help but bring to the subject. But read it even if it’s not news too, both for their critiques of other journal articles and especially for the stark clarity with which two strong themes of English-language discourses on the subject emerge from their discussion.
First, is the hypocrisy and absurdity of raising the subject of race and a supposed desire for “westernization” at all when discussing the motivations of say, Korean-American breast-augmentation patients in the US, but never doing so for their white counterparts, who are ascribed completely different reasons—again, perpetuating the notion that each group is fundamentally different, both physiologically and psychologically. And second, the fact that Korean-Americans in the US, they point out (let alone Koreans in Korea), are hardly immune to specifically Korean beauty ideals, whether they retain them when they come to the US, they are exposed to them through relatives and the wider Korean-American community, and/or they are encouraged to adopt them by following the examples of increasingly visible Korean celebrities. In fact, they may be motivated more by those ideals than whatever Western reporters, cosmetic surgeons, and academics insist they are instead (who’d have thought?), with “V-line”surgery, for instance, being very popular in Korea, but which cannot possibly be described as making Koreans look more white.
Put like that, it seems astounding that the narrative that Koreans just want to look white persists.
But it’s not that simple. Spend any amount of time in Korea, and actually you’ll quickly encounter overwhelming evidence that seems to support it, which few people have the inclination and time necessary to debunk. This is why the stereotype is so strong.
For starters, consider how many ostensible Western beauty ideals such as pale skin are indeed heavily valued in Korea, Holliday and Elfving-Hwang explain, albeit largely only because they “entered Korea fitting pre-existing notions of class and status.” Also, among many, many other potential sources of confirmation bias:
Few people are aware that the overwhelming reason was the stigma attached to lingerie modelling caused by moonlighting pornography stars, but which has since been effectively eliminated by K-pop stars.
And then there’s the overabundance of white models in revealing clothes in ads for your local nightclubs (NSFW example after tweet below), which is not necessarily because of stereotypes that they’re more promiscuous than pure, virginal Korean women.
(Although these stereotypes too, are definitelya thing. As a friend put it, “It also often has to be white peeps on pictures, cause ya know, wouldn’t…”).
(Update: Instead, it’s because they’re somewhat less likely to sue than Korean models, as once hilariously revealed by a nightclub owner that refused entrance to non-Koreans, despite featuring foreign women in the club’s posters. Indeed, as if to stress that it’s not always about white people, back in 2011 I thought the model in this poster for another club was Korean, and there was no reverse image-search available then; only now can she be revealed as the very white supermodel Miranda Kerr, photographed a few weeks previously by Seth Sebal. To the best of my knowledge, neither of their lawyers have gotten in touch with the nightclub yet.
Believing that Koreans want to look white then, does make a lot of sense. Right up the moment you read, or are personally informed through the clenched teeth of Koreans and colleagues, of how sick and tired they are of such assertions—and you suddenly realize that all this time you’ve been talking about Koreans rather than with Koreans, and can no longer rely on the convenient narratives you’ve being telling yourself to help understand the place.
By no means does this only apply to body image either: realizing how important it is to just STFU and listen is a very important process that every expat, observer, and commentator on every group or culture they are not native to must go through. And, if you didn’t personally need reminding of that, and feel I’ve actually been completely projecting all this time? With all the points mentioned so far reading like signposts in my own much too long journey through that process? Then you’re absolutely right.
You’ll appreciate then, my uncomfortable surprise when I recently read Professor Mei Mei Rado’s chapter “The Qipao and the Female Body in 1930s China” in Elegance in the Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s (2014). In that, Professor Rado (Parsons School of Design, NY) explains that in China in the 1920s and 1930s, Kuomintang government officials and male intellectuals did explicitly view white women’s bodies as ideals for Chinese women to aspire to. Which not to say Chinese women necessarily did themselves, or even at all, but Professor Rado’s argument that it dominated discourses about women’s bodies at the time is very convincing.
This post was originally intended to be a discussion of the numerous questions that raises: what other scholars can confirm her arguments? What influence, if any did those discourses have not just in China, but also in Taiwan, Japan, and Korea? What did people in those countries think of foreign bodies and beauty ideals then?
Those questions proved to be far too much for one post, so now my answers will be spread over several in a series. Always hanging over covering this topic at all though, was the fact that I’m still basically a middle-aged, cishet, white guy explaining that (he was shocked to read that some) Asianwomen (once) want(ed) to look white (maybe). To avoid being lumped in with every other pig-ignorant Orientalist commentator that genuinely believes that then, all my own baggage as a Western commentator needed to be laid on the table first. And there was a lot to unpack.
With that out of the way, Part 2 will be a discussion of Professor Rado’s chapter and other sources on discourses about women’s bodies in 1920s-1930s China, while Part 3 will be on those in Taiwan, Japan, and Korea at the same time, extending to a Part 4 if necessary. Until then, is there anything else that I’ve missed or been misguided about, or you think needs an alternative perspective? Please let me know in the comments!
If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)
“In the 18th century, it was often assumed…that women were incapable of rational or abstract thought. Women, it was believed, were too susceptible to sensibility and too fragile to be able to think clearly.”
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
These days, I’m generally loathe to lead with quotes. Especially when I’m forced to admit I haven’t read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman since university, and had to rely for that line on its Wikipedia article instead.
But the video below deserves the hyperbole. Because ten years ago, I wrote a post about the widespread practice of calf-reduction surgery in Korea. It really got to me, learning about the literal slicing away of muscle and nerves to make legs slimmer and more “feminine” and “attractive.”
Afterwards, the women literally have to learn how to walk again. Why, oh why, is this still a thing?
For sure, technically Hyundai isn’t promoting operations. But it is contributing to their normalization by reminding everyone that muscular calves are “ugly,” thereby discouraging schoolgirls from exercising.
Like my 12 year-old daughter, who starts middle-school in two weeks. Thanks, Hyundai.
Do you remember climbing it every morning for three years?
I’ve arrived, but if I look up I’m still not at the top.
Then at the gates I happened to look at my leg…
OMG, what’s this on it?!!
Are Korean girls and women still shamed for muscular legs though? Please let me know your own thoughts and experiences in the comments. It’s been ten years, so I would just love to learn that it’s actually a very outdated stereotype, and that Hyundai is just being lazy by relying on it.
Many years ago, I was perusing the “Last Word” section of a New Scientist magazine, where readers submit and answer each others’ science questions. If memory serves, that week the questions were about why men are soooo attracted to breasts, and why human females’ are disproportionately large compared to other primates’. Much commentary ensued, in hindsight entirely by men. (And, entirely British men at that—but that’s a subject for another review.) Then, someone who actually had breasts stepped in, and said something along the lines of:
All of a sudden, I realized that much—probably most—of what I’d ever read about the evolution of breasts had been written by men, centered around sexual selection and the all-important male gaze. This lack of women’s voices meant I’d missed out on many obvious observations and insights, which strongly challenged theories I’d long taken for granted.
Much the same experience can be had from the first chapter of Breasts, greatly aided by Florence Williams’ similar, no-nonsense style of writing. For instance, from pages 22-23:
…there are problems with making sweeping statements about evolution based on studies about male behavior in pubs. For one thing, I am still hung up on the nubility hypothesis, which might as well be called the sag hypothesis [that age, gravity, and successive pregnancies take their toll on breasts, signalling to other men that younger women with perkier breasts might be more suitable mates]. But speaking from personal experience, I can report my breasts actually got bigger and fuller after pregnancy. I really can’t say they are sagging, not yet anyway. I am well past the age of what anthropologists call “peak reproductive value.” Does a man really need breasts to tell him a women is getting on in years? Aren’t there more obvious signs that don’t require awkward social glances? And as anyone who’s been to a public shower or springtime college campus can tell you, there is an enormous, and I mean enormous, variety of breast sizes out there. I’m talking 300 to 500 percent differences in volume, and these are in women of roughly the same age. What other body part is so variable, I ask? If breasts were such important communicators, wouldn’t they be more on the same page?
Further complicating the picture, there is also great variety in men’s tastes. [A male scientist interviewed] conceded that male preferences aren’t as universal as he’d hoped…
Nor does she simply critique such theories, but discusses several other equally plausible ones centered around health, fat deposition, and suckling babies. Indeed, “With breasts,” one anthropologist she interviews concludes, “men are just loading culturally a set of symbolizations onto something that really evolved for more direct reasons. We’ve got to be more scientific about it.” That’s a refreshing new perspective, and much-needed imperative, given all the misinformationaboutbreasts out there.
Yet she overcompensates I think, in ending that chapter by rejecting the combined, complimentary roles of natural and sexual selection. Instead, she goes to the opposite extreme, completely dismissing the (literally snowballing) role of breasts’ sexual attraction to men in their greater and greater size over time (pages 34-35):
What if instead of men selecting breasts, the breasts selected the men? It’s possible that…Early Man loved lots of different specimens of Early Woman, some with no breasts, some with small breasts, some with hairy breasts, whatever. Man, for all we know, is sometimes not that picky. Then, for the [physiological] reasons described earlier…the women with the enlarged breasts and their infants gradually outlasted the others…
Consequently, the people who could talk and sing and have the biggest, best-fed brains were the ones born of women with breasts. It makes perfect sense that we would grow up to appreciate and enjoy breasts, eventually putting pictures of them in eye-trackers machines in universities.
Perhaps, all along, the breasts were calling the shots.
It’s just an off-the-cuff conclusion really, but it reminded me that with a breezy, persuasive writing style, tends to come arguments and examples that are often much more debatable than authors make them appear. It also felt alienating, because here she seems less concerned about scientific plausibility than in playing to her likely overwhelmingly female audience, justifiably sick of men lecturing to them about breasts.
To understand what I mean, imagine, say, a male author dismissing women’s preferences for tall men as having had no influence on humans getting taller over time. Rather, tall men just happened to do better in the competition for mates because of physically defeating shorter, weaker rivals for sexual access to passively awaiting women.
As for women’s own sexual preferences, and what they had to say about who they had children with? Or how those sexual preferences arose in the first place? Pfft.
Maybe I’m just making mountains out of molehills. But it helped me realize her book is only a starting point really.
On a first reading though, you’ll be much too busy enjoying it to care.
First, because of the wide variety of topics she covers. I’ve only concentrated on the first chapter here, because of the strong impression it left on me. But, if curves don’t do it for you personally, there’s 13 more topics on various aspects of breasts which may have have a similar impact on you, such as changes during pregnancy, feeding, development in puberty, toxins, cancer, and so on.
Those strongly reflect Williams’ background as a science journalist, so readers hoping for in-depth discussions about fashion, lingerie, and/or cultural attitudes may be disappointed to encounter mentions only in passing (albeit frequent mentions). But I’d still encourage them to buy the book. Because these are breasts we’re talking about. Whatever your sex or sexuality, you do have an interest in and/or some opinion about them, in which case there will be something—probably many things—in this book in for you. (I have so many post-its in my own copy, it looks like I read it during a ticker-tape parade.)
Also, because however science-focused, it’s so humorous that you won’t want to put it down. For instance, take how she describes undergoing an examination in a cosmetic surgery clinic, to better understand what it’s like for patients (page 60):
The robe came off, and [the surgeon] pulled out a small tape measure, He measured me from collarbone to nipple, from nipple to under-breast fold, and from nipple to nipple, calling out numbers to [the assistant]. He took a step back and mashed my breasts together with his hands, then squeezed each one like a club sandwich. I felt like I was awaiting the word of St. Peter. I was secretly hoping one of the world’s foremost experts on flawed breasts would be so vexed by my nice, very normal breasts that he’d tell me he had nothing to offer.
That also stood out for me because while reading the first sentence, I had a feeling that if I had breasts, I’d like to walk into a cosmetic surgery and be told that mine were different, better somehow. Maybe even exceptional.
Then with the last sentence, Florence Williams literally spoke my mind.
As well as being funny, it gave me a simultaneously eerie and warmly empathetic feeling. One which I hope I’ve sometimes given my own readers in my own writing.
Or, if not, that’s something to aspire to. Helped along, by also providing much more readable—i.e., shorter—and relevant posts for you in 2016. Starting with reviewing only the books I think TGN readers would be interested in, instead of every bookI read.
Any thoughts or questions on Breasts? How about on breasts in general? Anything you’ve been meaning to get off your chest? Please let me know in the comments.