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I was checking out a commenter’s blog, as I usually do, when I came across a post called “A Respectful Breast-Man”. (Snipped version with comments here, full version without comments here). It’s writer Thomas’ meditations on staring at women’s breasts. In the course of the post, he asks ‘I was wondering what women thought about this. What’s it like for them growing up with this, and do they have an appreciation for the male perspective (so to speak)?’ Here’s the answer I gave him.

I’m a woman with two of those! Perhaps I can answer.

The short answer is, it’s not at all pleasant.

Imagine being a girl, maybe about twelve. One day, these things start growing on your chest. You’re pretty happy, because that’s what TV and the magazines and your peers tell you to want, right? The bigger the better. (Or maybe you’re uncomfortable, because you don’t want all your school friends to make fun of you if they get too big, and anyway, you’ve got a 16-year-old sister. You see how all those boys and men see her. They almost let the saliva drip down her shirt. How can she let them do that to her? (Oh, sweetheart, you do not yet know.))

So, your developing sexuality is getting interfered with because all these weird men, much older than you, are suddenly seeing you as sexually available. And now it’s boys your age, too. At school, on the bus, the kid across the street. Because those older men, the media, the whole of patriarchal society is whispering to those boys that women are not as good, not like us, and you can stare at their breasts all you like. But you’re just trying to head to the movies with your friends, or pick up some bread and milk. Just going about your life. It doesn’t make much of a difference if you cover up, because they’re still there, like flashing lights drawing people to your chest. You begin to feel a bit dehumanised.

Later, you’ve grown up a bit. You’re at a party in high school, and it’s all very exciting. There’s this guy you kind of like. So eventually your paths collide and you say, ‘hi, how’re you?’ And he glances briefly at your face, then his eyes are drawn, seemingly inexorably, to your breasts. Well, at least he thinks I’m hot, you think. And you try asking him about a mutual friend, and a class you share, but he’s giving you monosyllabic answers. And at first you think, all right, teenage hormones. It’s just biology. But surely this dude could tear his eyes away… but no. Eventually you scurry off, humiliated. But shouldn’t you like the attention? And what did you expect for going out in public, especially in a low-cut top? You come to realize: no matter what you wear, or how you behave – all the things we’re told good girls can do to protect themselves – some dude will always think it’s okay. And it’s not just biology, you can’t separate that from social conditioning. (And over the years, you see guys justifying their behaviour as a biological imperative, but you know it’s just an excuse. They could stop if they wanted to. But they don’t respect you enough to stop.)

And in your twenties, you’re in a meeting. You’ve got some financial matters to discuss, but you’re not getting far because the man you need to help you is instead trying to get an angle down your shirt. So are you going to object and make this hard for yourself? Or do you let yourself be this man’s sex object for a while in the hopes of getting a successful outcome for your meeting? Another day. Another chip off your pride and self-esteem and sense of personhood.

And in your thirties, you have a kid. You decide to breastfeed. You get a bunch of new men who like to look at your breasts, sometimes a little slack-jawed, because they’ve gotten bigger with milk. You just can’t win. Sometimes, when your baby starts crying and your breasts are just aching with all the milk, you’ve got to feed your baby right then and there. So you sit and take your breast out and your baby latches on. But now – ewwwwww. People tell you that’s disgusting. You’re not a cow, you’re a woman. Can’t you hide that under a blanket? Because people are startled to see a breast fulfill its biological function. People are used to thinking of breasts as sexy. But yours work hard to feed your baby, and you’re proud of them, and why can’t people just shut up and let you feed your kid? At least everyone is turning away from your breasts, for once.

And in your forties, the kid has been weaned, and now your breasts are saggy. The world is bombarding you with the message that your saggy breasts are disgusting. Kind of an object of fascination. But that doesn’t stop men, men, yet more men, trying to look down your shirt.

You can never win. And the years go on…

All these men, ogling your poor breasts over the years. They just sort of glaze over while looking at your breasts. It’s clear that if they were thinking about you as a person in that moment, just like them, with regular wants and worries, they would not look at your breasts like that. You grow intimately acquainted with their perspective. These guys think that staring at your breasts is their due. They’re nice guys, they think to themselves, where’s the harm in looking? Someone who thinks that? Is not a nice guy.

In this scenario, I’ve given you the life of a white, heterosexual, middle-class, able, thin, cis woman. You probably didn’t pick up on most of those things, but you may if you go back and have another read. (Nobody was saying that you, as a disabled woman, shouldn’t have children or saw you as unsexual or took advantage of your disability and tried to assault you. Nobody said that your breasts were the only good thing about your fat body. Just a couple of examples.) So imagine how complicated having one’s breasts stared at can get when you’re dealing with multiple oppressions. And on top of all that, imagine constantly factoring the possibility of men staring at your breasts when you’re planning what to wear today, or when you sit down in a low-cut top, or when you’re in a situation in which you want to be taken seriously. You might look at a woman’s breasts for a few seconds. She’s got to put up with the same thing for decades.

I suppose you’re wondering why a lot of women don’t generally speak up. Women are taught to be submissive, subsume our own needs to get others’ met. Yes, even in this day and age. That kind of training lingers on. We’re taught not to rock the boat, because people will think we’re nasty bitches. So we put up with it – maybe he’ll stop soon, maybe he’ll look at my face, how can he do that while he’s talking to me? And it feels awful. To this day, I’ve never told a man to move his eyes to my face, because I’m frozen with shock, after all this time, that someone out there really thinks it’s acceptable to ogle my breasts; also because I do not want to make the situation awkward.

Because when women do speak up about ogling? Sometimes the dude looks embarrassed, apologises and turns away. But often, the situation just gets awkward. So maybe the guy goes away – if he doesn’t snatch a few more seconds to look (oh wow, does he think I can’t see what he’s doing?). But then your friend might say, ‘gee, that was a bit harsh. Him looking wasn’t doing any harm.’ And you’re just that bitch who had to go make things all weird. But this gaze does do harm. You cannot separate the breasts from the person who has them. (I would refer you to Karen Healey’s poem More About Them.)

So, what is a woman to do? There’ll always be some other guy who thinks it’s okay.

Breasts are wonderful things. There’s something more important than that though. At the end of the day, they are a part of a living person. Your respect for the women around you ought to govern your next move.

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