(Review) Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams (2013)

Judy Garland & Lana Turner, Breasts Florence Williams(Source, left: Bombshell Bettie. Source right: unknown)

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:

 “It occurs to me that few of the previous commenters have ever suckled a baby. If they had, they’d realize how important the shape is to prevent babies from suffocating while nursing.”

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 misinformation about breasts 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 The best moments in reading -- Alan Bennettown 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 book I 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.

Next Review: Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club, by Anne Allison (1994).

Related Posts:

Books I Read in 2014: (Part 1 of 4)

my personal space(Source: Luca Vanzella; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Yeah, I may be straining the definition of “fashionably late” here. But most of these 22 books were already quite old, so let’s make this post just as much about the subjects they raise as about their authors and contents, which I hope you’ll find much more interesting.

To that end, it’s very long, which I’ve had to split into four separate posts so as not to overwhelm you. But by all means, just skim ahead just to whatever catches your eye, or to Parts Two, Three, and Four that I’ll link to once they’re completed. And, if you’re tempted to buy one of my recommendations but want to know more about it first, or if you think I’ve misread something by one of your idols, please do let me know in the comments section.

For those of you interested in a breakdown of the authors, 15 of the 22 were written by women, with one more co-authored with a man; needless to say, I’ll never understand men who are too embarrassed to be seen reading female authors, especially when some women are turned on by those that do. (At which point, it behooves me to mention the crucial role of the book I was reading when I met my first girlfriend.) Unfortunately though, to the best of my knowledge only three of the books were written by people of color, or included chapters by them. But, frankly, correcting that remains a luxury I literally can’t afford: just two of the books were new ones ordered by me, and delivery charges often make second-hand books from overseas just as expensive as new ones in Korea. Most of the remainder then, came second-hand from the limited choices available at Fully Booked—since closed down—and Nampodong Book Alley in Busan, or from What The Book in Seoul.

Also complicating matters are my 900-ish books which arrived from New Zealand last year, after 14 years in storage, some 50-100 of which were well overdue for a read even before they were boxed. For example, tempting me from the corner of my eye as I type this is the 654-page The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe, 1500-1800 by Olwen Hufton (1995), which I see from my note on the inside front cover* that I bought on October 26, 1997. Like a lot of things associated with turning 18, I’m not sure I can wait any longer.

Finally, alas, my total pales in comparison to the veritable library read by the person who inspired me to keep track. But I have many uncounted journal articles as an excuse, and it’s still on par with that of a busy io9 writer, as well as an improvement on the measly 16 I read in 2013. With only 13 read so far this year though, I’m going to have to seriously up my game to reach my goal of 30 in 2015.

But that’s what are summers are for, right?

(*A habit I picked up from Clive James)

Seeing Through Clothes thumbnail#1) Seeing Through Clothes by Anne Hollander (1980)

One of those books that completely shifts how you look at the world.

As a student in the mid-1990s, I was constantly disappointed with art history books, which overwhelmed with references to artists, works, and movements that I’d never heard of. But I wasn’t a beginner; if they’d been adequately illustrated, I’d have been able to follow along. Instead, they just left me feeling frustrated and ignorant, as if I shouldn’t even bother reading if I didn’t already have a degree in the subject. Better to learn something else to dazzle women at cocktail parties with, I soon realized, after ranting about snobbish art history writers inexplicably failed to impress.

Twenty years and thousands of books later, many with lots of big words and no pictures at all, I’m much more confident in calling out bad academic writers. But I’m also less quick to judge authors for things that are often out of their control, having some practical experience of my own with the arcane restrictions editors place on the use of images, and I’m much more willing to accept where my knowledge is lacking, and which subjects will need more of a commitment from me than others. For those, I’ve learned to approach via angles which I already have some background in, and know in advance I find interesting.

With art history, my interest was slowly rekindled through Erving Goffman’s occasional allusions to it in Gender Advertisements (1979), which I’ve done extensive work on (scroll down the right sidebar), then later through John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972). With Seeing Through Clothes though, I’ve become a giddy, wide-eyed teenager again, as not only does it have over 300 accompanying photographs (if only I’d found it 20 years ago!), but it made made me realize that art is one of our main and sometimes only source on changing notions of fashion, beauty ideals, status, and sexuality for much of human history. Rather than a study of art for art’s sake, that’s what this book is about, which makes it much more interesting and accessible for the lay reader, and means it’s thick with facts and insights that completely overturn what you thought you knew about those subjects. It’s clearly had quite an influence too, being referenced repeatedly in the very next books on fashion—The Language of Clothes by Alison Lurie (1981), and Fashion, Culture, and Identity by Fred Davis (1992)—that I read a year later.

That said, it’s still a solid, academic, 504-page tome, not for the faint-hearted. Also, while the first chapter on drapery was interesting enough (which, again in hindsight, there’s rather a lot of in medieval paintings), and the next two chapters titled “Nudity” and “Undressing” were fascinating, I have to admit that the remaining three of “Costume”, “Dress”, and “Mirrors” were really quite dull by comparison; naturally and obviously perhaps, but I’m not just being facetious, as the difference was so great that it was a genuine relief to finish the book. Still, I heartily recommend buying a second-hand copy at least, even for Korea-based readers that would have to pay $16.95 delivery.

Sadly, Anne Hollander died just a few months after I’d discovered her.

The Politics of Women's Bodies#2) The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior ed. by Rose Weitz (1998)

This was worth it just for Eugenia Kaw’s chapter, “Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian-American Women and Cosmetic Surgery“ (originally in Medical Anthropology Quarterly 7(1), pp. 74-89, March 1993), which led to the revelation I explained in my post “Those Damned Double Eyelids: How can a society still have Caucasian beauty ideals if its members explicitly don’t want to look White?“.

Of course, there’s still 19 more chapters on a very wide range of topics, albeit of widely varying quality, and although many are quite dated (I didn’t even bother with the final chapter on fetal rights), there’s still plenty to interest everyone. Personally, my three other favorites were:

Which has just reminded me that, many years ago, a (necessarily anonymous) reader emailed me on how to overcome that:

“…with Foucault, some people (like me) fall in love with him whereas others just wave him away. To answer your question [of which book is more appropriate for a beginner], his book, Discipline and Punish may be a better pick for you, indeed. It is difficult to understand (or appreciate) The History of Sexuality series truly without systematically following Foucault’s development of thoughts from his earlier books, just because Foucault himself was experimenting his ideas and didn’t really know where things were heading. I think Foucault finally clarified his thoughts, his plans, and his interests in Discipline and Punish and he completed them in History of Sexuality books. Besides, Discipline and Punish is more fun to read than History of Sexuality.”

  • Next, Chapter 5, “From the ‘Muscle Moll’ to the ‘Butch’ Ballplayer: Mannishness, Lesbianism, and Homophobia in U.S. Women’s Sports” by Susan K. Chen, which unfortunately is just as valid today as it was when it was written in 1993. For a good book on similar themes in a Korean context, I highly recommend Transnational Sport: Gender, Media, and Global Korea by (the awesome) Rachel Miyung Joo (2012), whom I’ve been fortunate to meet.
  • Finally, Chapter 8, “Selling Hot Pussy: Representations of Black Female Sexuality in the Cultural Marketplace” by Bell Hooks, who will already be familiar to many of you.* And I can see why: her writing style is very forceful and galvinizing, and I especially liked her brief examination of Tina Turner’s career, which she convincingly argues “has been based on the construction of an image of black female sexuality that is made synonymous with wild animalistic lust.” Then again, forceful writing doesn’t leave much room for nuance, so some of her arguments here are much too categorical for my taste.

(*By coincidence, as I type this I’m busy tweeting “15 Books That Changed Women Forever” open in another tab, where her 1981 book Ain’t I a Woman? is described as “a foundational text of intersectional feminism, explaining how the feminist movement failed to speak to women of color and the working class. Hooks continues to be instrumental in calling out mainstream feminism for its racism and classism.”)

My only, minor complaint with Women’s Bodies as a whole is that it exclusively looks at the US, which doesn’t become apparent until you’re already well into it.

#3) The Symptom of Beauty by Francette Pacteau (1994)The Symptom of Beauty thumbnail

From the introduction (p.13; emphasis in original):

The issue of beauty, as such, played little part in the initial feminist debates about ‘images of women’. Nevertheless, it formed the background against which the debates were staged. The anger directed towards advertising, for example, was basically in protest against a world of representations—in particular, the representation of a world in which a women was young, and ‘beautiful’ or she was nothing. The close-cropped heads, the burned bras, the functional overalls and the eschewal of make-up which characterized the appearance of feminism in the 1970s, represented the will to eject ‘beauty’ (seen as an oppressive male cliche) from the world of women.

Who among you wouldn’t want to buy it after reading that? Yet what followed was one of the most impenetrable volumes I’ve ever read, full of some of the worst excesses of postmodernist and poststructuralist waffle. Occasional semi-readable sections, for example Chapter 4—”The Girl of the Golden Mean”—which added slightly to my knowledge of 1950s narratives about female body shape, were scant compensation for the 19,000 won I’d wasted on a book I could barely comprehend.

In fairness, the back cover did promise “an intriguing psychoanalytic study of beauty that looks into the eye of the beholder and to the mind conjuring behind it”, and pointed out that the author is less interested “in the contingent object of desire than the fantasy that frames it”, and instead “considers the staging of the aesthetic emotion”—not necessarily a flaw of course, but certainly a red flag for those of us more used to focusing on those objects of desire (let alone us plebs not quite used to using the word “contingent” like that). Unspoken is that she also clearly assumes the reader is intimately familiar with the work of Jacques Lacan, although again I imagine that every undergraduate psychoanalysis student would be.

Still, most English speaking undergrads—and I’d venture even their French counterparts—would surely struggle to follow along as she applies her psychoanalytic lens to some extremely obscure figures and cultural works, the very first two discussed being the Sarrasine and The Unknown Masterpiece novellas by Honoré de Balzac (1830 & 1831), followed by the 5th century BC philosopher Hippias of Elis. Again, that’s not necessarily a flaw. But it is heavy going for the very first page of a book about a subject you expected to be much simpler.

Or am I just going to the wrong cocktail parties?

The Cult of Thinness Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber, Body Image Sarah Grogan#4) The Cult of Thinness by Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber (2007, 2nd ed.), & #5) Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children by Sarah Grogan (2007, 2nd ed.)

Both excellent, comprehensive discussions of the subject of body image, but both written before the rise of social media (an issue I’ll address in a moment). So, I would encourage you to keep both names in mind, but to holdout for third editions.

When those do come out though, my preference would easily be for Sarah Grogan’s. Primarily, because this edition’s clear chapter structure means that information is easy to find (and hence a much better quick reference guide when I was asked for a quick contribution to an article on “Korean Primetime’s ‘Lookism’ Problem” for the Korea Times), whereas the vague, overlapping ones of The Cult (e.g., Chapter 5 “Becoming a Certain Body”, Chapter 6 “Joining the Cult of Thinness”) makes navigation difficult, and the content somewhat repetitive; this meant finishing the book became more of a chore than a learning experience. Also, because of personal preferences: first, because The Cult overwhelmingly discusses the US, whereas Body Image throws a much wider net, but with a focus on the UK; and second, because The Cult often breaks the text with random collages and so on, in contrast to the more spartan use of images in Body Image. I can hardly critique that on a blog of course, but when it’s in an academic book it does give the impression of catering to a much younger, less-informed readership.

In Body Image, the most interesting and eye-opening section for me was Chapter 5 on media effects, which raised my understanding of the subject to a new level by outlining the major theories of media influence—social comparison theory, self-schema theory, and self-discrepancy theory—and how these can and have been incorporated in strategies to overcome media effects. Students have asked me about the latter sometimes, but frankly I haven’t really known what to say; now though, they’ll be a core part of my presentations.

Also, the concluding paragraph from that section sounds quite prescient in light of recent shifts in model types and messages in advertising, although catering to attractiveness is also not without its critics (p. 132, my emphasis):

“Clearly, media portrayals of the slender (and muscular, for men) body reflect current cultural ideology of the body as well as promoting these ideals. However, since the portrayal of such imagery has been shown to reduce body satisfaction and create body concerns, this is surely sufficient reason for advertisers to opt for the use of models in a range of sizes. Although advertisers may argue that only thin models sell products, recent British evidence from a study by Emma Halliwell and Helga Dittmar [downloadable here] demonstrates that it is attractiveness, rather than size of models, that is crucial in making associated products attractive to consumers.

Originally, this post had 500 more words of breathless praise for Grogan’s book, and of what I learned from it. Wisely, I’ll race ahead to my conclusion instead, which I’d planned to be a lament on how dated both books were, the research I did for my article on the thigh gap teaching me that social media has had a radical effect on the ways and especially speed in which body image trends are formed and disseminated. And, as if to rub that in, theBellybutton Challengewas going viral as I began this post, followed by the “Collarbone Coin Test“(?) that’s emerged as I’m ended it.

Belly Button Challenge(Source: Mashable)

Skimming through Grogan’s book again a year later though, from which I realize I still have a lot to learn, I’m no longer convinced that things are that different to when I was young, and that insights gained about the effects of other, slower media are no longer relevant. Moreover, the rise of social media is hardly a uniform negative either, as a recent interview of young adult fiction writer Louise O’Neill recently taught me:

…Her books are equally unflinching about life in the social media age. “Social media is a double-edged sword,” says O’Neill, herself an enthusiastic user of Twitter. “There are extremely positive elements to it, particularly the way in which it makes it easier for us to connect and build our own communities. Even selfies can be positive – I think there’s something brave and amazing about teenage girls posting pictures of themselves saying, ‘This is how I look and I am beautiful’ but it’s also true that it can exacerbate feelings of not being good enough. There’s so much toxic competitiveness when you’re a teenage girl, so much are my thighs smaller than hers? Am I prettier? Do boys like me more? Social media adds to the pressure and then society tells young women that they must look sexy and act sexy but that they can’t be sexual beings.”

Comments such as this help explain why O’Neill’s books are read as much by the anxious mothers of teenage girls as by the girls themselves. “The key is to be honest,” she says when asked what advice she would give those parents. “I would hope mothers who read my books understand the pressures their daughters are under and why they are acting or behaving the way they are. Try to encourage honest communication, be open and interested, try to understand.”

So by all means, read “old” books on body image if you can get a hold of them, especially these ones. But also keep up with developments, these dozens of journal articles on gender and body image, freely available from Routledge until the end of September, being an excellent place to start (and one of the first ones is about Korean women!). And please feel free to discuss those in the comments too!

Book Giveaway: Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei (2014)

Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei(Source: Tuttle)

Sorry that I haven’t posted for so long everyone. I was very busy with offline work for two weeks, then I caught a terrible cold which lasted another two weeks…which means now I’m busier than ever. But, I would like to get writing here again, and I can think of no better way to start than by offering a book giveaway!

For this first one, I’ve selected Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei. It’s a good book, but frankly it was a frustrating read for me personally, because the publisher’s website gave me the wrong impression of what to expect. Know what it’s really about though, and you’ll enjoy it from the get-go.

Here’s the offending description, which has two big problems:

Labyrinth of the Past is a collection of short stories that explore the lives of young women raised by single mothers in China, a country that is unforgiving to unmarried women and their children.

A dark, yet engrossing look at the lives of these girls, each story examines their personal struggles with family and the greater world around them. Coping with the stigma of being the daughter of a single mother, most of these women can’t seem to form anything but dysfunctional relationships, from mothers to friends to lovers.

While often frank and terribly bleak, these stories provide a vivid and real view of the women who struggle against a history they can’t change, in a culture that has difficulty accepting them.

That stigma surrounding unwed mothers is very real in Korea, so I partially chose the book to gain some insights into what it was like living with it. You can imagine my surprise and disappointment then, when it never even came up. Primarily, because none of the mothers are “unmarried” in the sense of never having married, but are all divorcees or widows instead. Which, given China’s skyrocketing divorce rates since Deng’s reforms, probably doesn’t carry any stigma at all:

The number of divorces has risen steadily in the new millennium, with one in five marriages now ending in separation. In 2006, the divorce rate was about 1.4 per one thousand people—twice what it was in 1990, and more than three times what it was in 1982….The number of divorces in the first three months of 2011 increased 17.1% year-on-year….Beijing leads the country with nearly 40 per cent of marriages ending in divorce, followed closely by Shanghai.

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Richard Burger (2012), p. 59

I’m happy to be corrected by any readers raised by female divorcees or widows, and/or with more knowledge of China, who may be able to read between the lines and see the influence of a stigma on the characters where I can’t. But if so, it’s still a very peripheral theme at best, and should really be removed from the description on the website (fortunately, it’s not mentioned on the back cover, which I wish I’d read instead).

Chinese Woman in Shanghai(Source: Matthijs Koster. CC BY 2.0)

The second problem is that the book is about the lives of young women, yet two of the seven stories—”Scab Addiction” and “No Choosing Today”—are entirely about the characters’ childhoods. In particular, in the former the character-narrator is revealed to be still in high school, making it a terrible choice for an opening story. Had I picked up the book in a store, expecting it to delve straight into the lives of adult Chinese women, I would have rejected it on the spot.

Again, this is not a criticism of the book per se, and of course all the remaining stories are indeed from women’s perspectives, with “A Good Year”, “Love,” and “Summer Days” all covering dating, marriage, and/or sex. “I Really Don’t Want to Come” too, covering the narrator’s increasing disdain for kowtowing to ancestors as she grows older, and frustration with what the ceremony means for her split family, is something many Koreans (and their foreign partners) will surely relate to. (“Memory is the Slowest” though, I just found confusing—I’m still not really sure what it’s about). But it’s also a real pity, because, once I got over the disappointment of reading something very different to what I’d been sold, and was able to take a fresh look at the book, ironically I came to find Zhang Yiwei’s depictions of childhood to be one of its biggest strengths. Her ability to evoke its timelessness, the sense of children’s whole worlds confined to just a few streets and fields, and our fuzzy, malleable memories of that phase of our lives is really quite remarkable (frankly, it immediately reminded me of the magic realism of 100 Years of Solitude), and that should be highlighted in its marketing.

Another strong point is showing how profoundly the issue of housing impacts ordinary Chinese citizens’ lives. That may sound rather boring at first, but it looms large in a country with such breakneck development, huge internal migration, and consequent vast urban/rural and home-owning/renting divides, and accordingly it’s a constant concern for many of the characters in the book, some of whom are stuck in limbo because their property is in an absentee husband or father’s name. Indeed, as if to rub that in, recently the government manipulated the ownership laws in a bid to thwart the divorce rate, taking a great leap backward for women’s rights in the process:

…the Chinese government has expressed alarm at the soaring number of divorces and its threat to the traditional Chinese family. In 2011, China took controversial steps to discourage divorce, reinterpreting the marriage law so that residential property is no longer regarded as jointly owned and divided equally after a divorce. Instead, it will belong exclusively to the spouse who bought it or whose name is on the deed, which is usually the husband, even if the wife helped pay for the property. This means that upon divorce many women might find themselves homeless.

At a time of soaring property prices, real estate is often a couple’s most valuable possession, and the revised law has caused many women to consider more carefully whether they really want to get married. Chinese media reported that marriage registrants plummeted as much as 30 percent in some cities weeks after the revised law was announced in 2011.

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Richard Burger (2012), p. 61

Update, August 2015: For more details, I highly recommend listening to this Office Hours podcast interview of journalist Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (2014).

Chinese Housing(Source: Anita. CC BY 2.0)

The verdict? I can’t lie—despite its strengths, the cover price of $13.95 is a little steep for such a slim book (160 pages), especially with some of the stories being so frustratingly short. But it’s definitely worth the $10-ish or even cheaper on various websites it’s selling for at the moment, especially if you know what you’re in for.

But first, remember I have two free copies to give away! Please just leave a comment below, and a week from now I’ll pretend to select two of you at random to receive them (make sure your email address is correct!). Really though, if you’d like to get to the head of the queue, please do bribe me with interesting comments about single mothers and/or something China-related!

What are you waiting for? ;)

I Read a Book: Susan Blumberg-Kason’s Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (2014)

Good Chinese Wife CoverLet me be honest: Good Chinese Wife is not something I would normally read.

Susan’s ex-husband was Chinese; my wife is Korean. Susan’s relationship goes from friends to engaged in less than two minutes; we lived together for years, and had lots of wild sex before I proposed. Their marriage rapidly turned sour; we just celebrated our tenth anniversary. They married, had a child, and divorced way back in the 1990s; I’m really only interested in Chinese attitudes towards dating, sex, and marriage in the 2010s. And so on.

I’m still grateful for receiving a reviewer’s copy, organized by Jocelyn Eikenburg of the Speaking of China blog (see here for many more bloggers’ reviews). But first impressions? I expected it to be very outdated, and that it would have little to offer readers with Korean partners.

I was dead wrong, on both counts.

Good Chinese Wife begins in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, where Susan is doing a graduate degree (she previously spent a year there as an exchange student in 1990). Then in her early-twenties, she soon becomes smitten with Cai, an older mainlander from Wuhan. She starts tutoring him English in her dorm room; unbeknownst to her, other students consider them already dating. This prompts him to open up and explain he’s already been married and has a child, revealing all as a prelude to showing he is now interested in dating Susan. Because in China, Cai explains, “couples traditionally only date if they plan to marry.”

This sounded very antiquated. But as it turns out, dating in China is still not at all like in the West, nor even Korea. In Behind the Red Door: Sex in China (2012), Richard Burger explains that even in the big cities, “serial dating” is frowned upon as immoral or promiscuous. Instead, “most Chinese women still believe it is best to date only man and to marry him. Once the man invites her on a second or third date, he is indicating that he’s serious, that he is hoping for an exclusive Behind the Red Door Sex in Chinarelationship, and that marriage might be on the cards.” Whereas for women, inviting her to meet her parents “means she expects to marry him, and Chinese men understand this arrangement.” What’s more, the average age of marriage for Chinese men was only 24 in 2010; for women, 22 (in Korea, 31.8 and 28.9 respectively).

So, I understood Cai. And, being head-over-heels ever since they’d met, why Susan quickly accepted his proposal, before so much as a kiss—it sounded sweet. Her frankness about her feelings and mistakes is also a definite charm, especially for someone who likewise fell very easily in love at that age.

But that’s only 36 pages into the book. For the remaining 300, sympathy turns to constant frustration and exasperation with Susan’s rushing into marriage, then her frequent acquiescence towards her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. These feelings are only amplified by knowing that she’s doomed to fail.

In an interview, Susan says her problems were more because “He told me from the get-go that he had certain conditions for our marriage. Those are things I ignored or thought I could eventually get him to change. That should have been my red flag, not the [6 months] in which we became engaged and married.” (Likewise many happily-married Koreans, for whom such whirlwind courtships are also common, would surely bristle at the suggestion that they should have taken things slower.)

I disagree. From Cai’s belief that women are especially “dirty” in the summer, once all but physically forcing an exhausted Susan to bathe in a rat-infested bathroom, to his bizarre, surprisingly submissive relationship with eccentric professor friend ‘Japanese Father’ (“He thinks it’s not good [for us] to have sex relations more than once a week”), most of Susan’s later issues with Cai could have been discovered if they’d spent (much) more time together before the wedding day—and/or resolved if an expensive wedding wasn’t already looming over them.

Still, it does make for a good page turner. There is also merit in studying a bad relationship to learn what to avoid, and much about this one that will already be familiar to those with Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese partners. New and expecting parents in Korea, for example, will sympathize with Susan’s expectations to conform to man yue, the belief that mothers shouldn’t bathe or go outdoors in their first month—it mirrors the Korean one of sanhoojori. Also, for those couples planning to move to a Western country, her discussion of Cai’s difficulties with adjusting to life in San Francisco will be very beneficial. Her avoidance of tiresome Orientalist stereotypes is especially welcome, with her ex-parents-in-law coming across as old-fashioned but lovely, and Chinese men portrayed no better or worse than Western ones.

That said, I am reminded of a book for couples I once flicked through, which encouraged them to discuss their expectations of marriage in great detail before committing. With checklists ranging from beliefs about circumcision and determining which cities were best for both partners’ careers, to dividing the housework and setting dating policies for potential teenage children, that approach would be much too calculating for most couples. Marriage, after all, is ultimately about making a scary but exciting leap of faith with someone. But when partners come from such wildly different backgrounds, and bring such different expectations into marriage? Susan’s experience teaches readers that for international couples in particular, perhaps they really should learn the answers to those questions sooner rather than later.

Good Chinese Wife back cover

One minor quibble was all the hyperbole. Not to diminish Susan’s genuine fears for herself and her son at times, but did it lead me to expect a story involving forged passports and bribed border guards(!). Also, I disliked the format of numerous short chapters, with so little happening in some that they felt like diary entries. But that is just a personal preference.

The verdict? Good Chinese Wife is well worth the US$14.99 cover price (16,410 won at What the Book), and a definite eye-opener about the value of reading more about relationships in this part of the world, especially with such limited options for reading about Korean ones specifically. Please do leave your suggestions (and reviewer copies!) for more like it, and/or for blogs.