Peggy and Joan, the two main female characters in AMC’s Mad Men, have used different strategies to advance in the male-dominated world of 1960s advertising. You don’t need to have followed the arc of the show—whose final half-season starts April 5—to guess what those strategies are.
Just look at them: Peggy, portrayed by Elisabeth Moss, has a small chest, frumpy outfits and a genius for copywriting. Joan, portrayed by Christina Hendricks, has enormous breasts and tight-fitting dresses. She also has a genius for managing people and appearances. But if that is one of the twin engines propelling her trajectory, female physicality is the other. Early on we learn that Joan, head secretary at the ad agency Sterling Cooper, is having an affair with Roger Sterling, a named partner in thrall to her sexuality. Eventually Joan secures her own partnership stake by sleeping with a sought-after client.
Peggy’s success, by contrast, is inextricably linked to the suppression of her femaleness. The most literal example of this suppression occurs after an early fling with a coworker: she seems to hide the resulting pregnancy even from herself and then gives the baby away. Acknowledging her motherhood would have been totally incompatible with her professional ambitions. (Joan keeps the son who eventually results from her affair with Roger, stage managing the situation with her usual skill by attributing the baby to her husband.) Even when Peggy’s colleagues seek her woman’s perspective, they do so in terms that deny her gender. In an episode from Season 2 about a campaign the agency is writing for Playtex bras, Peggy stands around a desk with several men in suits, one of whom tells her she’s “just the man to do it.”
Later in that episode, one of the male characters comes up with a concept for the campaign. They’ll promote the bras as coming in two “flavors”: Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, “a line and a curve.” “Every single woman is one of them,” he says, divvying up the office secretaries. “Well, Marilyn’s really a Joan, not the other way around.”
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Mad Men both comments on and self-consciously continues the long narrative tradition of using a woman’s breasts to convey her character and shape her story. In her 1997 book A History of the Breast, Marilyn Yalom observes that in the 1959 Marilyn Monroe vehicle Some Like It Hot, “as in many other American films, big breasts were identified with [the] lower class, the busty woman using every ounce of mammary flesh to attract an affluent husband and move up the socioeconomic ladder. On the other hand, “actresses like Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn, whose chests were hardly their defining features, represented something quite different. They were not symbols of sex, but of upper-class elegance. It was as if they were above the exigencies of the body. Even when they starred in love stories, as they almost always did, their absence of flesh signaled sophistication and wit.” Peggy takes that absence of flesh one step further. Ultimately, her accompanying wit serves not to punctuate men’s conversations or earn their admiration, but to help her infiltrate their world.
While Peggy can pass among her male colleagues—even if they often resent her for it—Joan would become grotesque if she were to attempt the same. Stripped of their sex appeal, big boobs in fictional narratives tend to be depicted not only as low class but also as disgusting and unnatural. The scholar Nina Prytula observes, for example, that the eighteenth-century English novelist Henry Fielding gives each of his heroines “a beauty of bosom that emblematizes her unparalleled womanly virtue, while the oversized or elongated breasts with which he frequently endows his antiheroines graphically caricature their Amazonian qualities of mind.” Laszlo K. Géfin, writing about Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, notes that her desexualized big breasts make her “unnatural” and consign her to “serve as the proper target of satire.”
Real women’s bodies and lives do not, of course, conform to these stereotypes. And the stereotypes themselves are becoming less dominant. Curvy actresses have all sorts of roles: Jayne Mansfield’s daughter, Mariska Hargitay, plays a tough cop on TV; Salma Hayek earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the surrealist artist Frida Kahlo. Writers occasionally give a well-developed character big boobs: Kiki’s, in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, are “giant” and known as “the girls.”
In this respect, though, Smith is unusual among her contemporaries. If you’re reading a novel that features an intelligent, willful or otherwise compelling female character, you’re more likely to learn at some point that her breasts are small enough to necessitate a bra “padded with oil and water pouches” (Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs) or that she’s “never had what you’d call Big Tits” (Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge). Consider, in contrast, Donna Tartt’s fleeting sketch of a stock character, the “tired-looking woman with big boobs and ratty hair” who shows up partway through The Goldfinch, “standing barefoot out in front of her house in the late afternoon, clutching a pack of cigarettes and talking on her cell phone.”
Sometimes, like Mad Men, a single novel intertwines both sides of the big-boob/small-boob narrative. In Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, for example, the gracefully bookish Madeleine has “pale, quiet, Episcopalian” breasts, while her less intelligent, less classy sister feeds a new baby from “engorged” tits. At one point, we find the sister “dabbing her nipple with a handful of toilet paper, her lowered head giving her a double chin.” In Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Patty’s desire for implants goes hand in hand with her mental breakdown and work in the service industry.
This paradigm extends beyond fiction. In one chapter of her 2012 book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, journalist Florence Williams channels her “inner Houston housewife” during a mock consultation with a Texas surgeon who specializes in breast augmentation. (Houston, she notes, is the home of the boob job, and women there get bigger implants than women in the Midwest and East.) At the surgeon’s office, she is greeted by Katye, who “like many of the curvy and silken-haired assistants” has “been either a swimsuit model or a professional cheerleader.” The stage Williams sets makes clear what she means when she writes that implants promise “a certain kind of kind of confidence” to the women who seek them. It’s safe to say she doesn’t mean the intellectual assurance or sophistication we expect of Hepburn characters or top journalists.
The sex appeal of large breasts—and many women’s understandable desire to achieve that appeal via surgery—can overshadow the narrative these works perpetuate. Once your boobs reach a certain size, that story goes, they are your only way to advance, whether you use them to attract a rich Texas husband or sleep your way into a business partnership. Whatever you do, you’d better do it fast. Soon your big exciting boobs—if they were ever appealing to begin with—will start to drip milk or droop toward your bare feet, blunting even your sexual power and leaving you grotesque.
Women who write about having large breasts tend to tell a story of conflict between this constricting narrative and their own supposed advantage.
“I thought that with cleavage came power,” Chloe Pantazi recalls in a piece that appeared last year in the Weeklings. “But as my cleavage amassed, I found the opposite to be true. My ample cups seemed to hint at certain unpleasant possibilities. Like, maybe I was dumb. Maybe I was slutty. Maybe I liked it when people gawked at my breasts.”
“I had always gotten a lot of attention for my breasts,” Lindsay King-Miller writes in a 2011 essay for the Hairpin. “But as I got older I became more and more aware of its disturbing undertone, and my own negative reaction to it.”
Pantazi’s and King-Miller’s stories are just two of several recent essays that have explored this problem. These narratives tend to have a predictable arc: The writer is embarrassed about her breasts; they generate unwanted attention; she has trouble finding clothes, especially bras, that fit; she thinks about getting a reduction and sometimes even visits a surgeon; in the end, she comes to peace with her predicament or even embraces it. A less redemptive version is “I’m Not a Fucking D,” a chapter from the compendium Women in Clothes that recounts a conversation between Sheila Heti and the musician Helen King in a store where they’ve come for a bra fitting. An excerpt:
Helen: I’m not a fucking D! You’re a D!
Sheila: I’m a B, maximum.
Helen: I am not a D!
Sheila: Do you feel excited that you’re a D?
Helen: No, I feel ashamed.
Boob shame is sometimes part of another shame—having a fat body, a mother’s body, a surgically altered body—but it also exists on its own. When we were teenagers, my sister told me that if hers were as big as mine she’d kill herself. Her threat was hyperbolic, but I knew what she meant.
Lots of people have unpleasant feelings about their bodies, for all sorts of reasons. Feelings about breasts, though, seem particularly likely to occupy our minds, or at least our pens. One reason for that is sex: “When I developed my external sex parts they were public displays of my most intimate self, the part of me I didn’t want to share with anyone,” writes Halina Newberry Grant in another Hairpin essay. “I felt shameful and exposed. My scarlet letter was two D cups. Public exercise was live soft porn.” Another reason is that few other discrete body parts have served so reliably in Anglo-American culture as shorthand for specific character traits. Boobs may have no actual bearing on a person’s intelligence, personality, social class or sexual behavior, but they convey such qualities in countless narratives. Having breasts of a certain size usually comes with an awareness of sending the same old signals, often without wanting to. Some women write, then, to correct the record.
But correcting our self-perception might be the greater challenge. In “A Few Words About Breasts,” Nora Ephron’s 1972 lament about having small ones, she writes that she has been “reassured that my figure is a good one” and is “grown-up enough to understand that most of my feelings have very little to do with the reality of my shape,” but she remains “obsessed by breasts”:
I cannot help it. I grew up in the terrible fifties—with rigid stereotypical sex roles, the insistence that men be men and dress like men and women be women and dress like women, the intolerance of androgyny—and I cannot shake it, cannot shake my feelings of inadequacy. Well, that time is gone, right? All those exaggerated examples of breast worship are gone, right? Those women were freaks, right? I know all that. And yet here I am, stuck with the psychological remains of it all, stuck with my own peculiar version of breast worship. … Well, what can I tell you? If I had had them, I would have been a completely different person. I honestly believe that.
The belief that breasts can shape a person, and not just a body, unites not only fictional ad men and writers of fiction but also Ephron and some of the larger-breasted essayists of recent years. King-Miller concludes that hers are “this awesome visual metaphor for my personality: too big, too sexual, taking up too much space.” But not all of us achieve that kind of admirable pride, especially if we possess both large breasts and an “insistent desire to take up less space, to degenderize the space I do take up,” as Miranda Popkey put it in a recent essay about her affinity with a Norman Rush character who “work[s her] tits down to nubs.” Even as we continue to chip away at the cultural imperative that women be women and dress like women, it can feel like our bodies are sabotaging the effort. And even if we recognize that this feeling might sometimes result from a lack of imagination—a failure to shed the “psychological remains” of the stories we’ve absorbed—it’s still a hard feeling to shake.
If we can believe admittedly unscientific research conducted by a lingerie manufacturer, the average American woman’s bra size is now 34DD. And as Heti and King’s conversation suggests, even a single D can feel embarrassingly big (even if “average” and “big,” relative terms, should in theory be mutually exclusive).
The same year that Esquire published Ephron’s essay, Philip Roth came out with The Breast, a novella featuring perhaps the biggest one in all of literature. At the beginning of this homage to The Metamorphosis, a professor wakes up having transformed into a 155-pound boob. “I experienced myself,” he reflects, “as speaking to others like one buried within.”
This is one of the better descriptions I have read of what having enormous breasts can, at its worst, feel like. It’s a feeling liable to lure you into the narrative from which it arises. I am, like Peggy, a relatively frumpy office worker who writes copy for a living, albeit in a less glamorous environment. But I often catch myself identifying with Joan, among whose prominent traits I share only one.