It is a special night at the Portland Landing strip club in downtown Dartmouth, N.S. Inside the barn-like room, men play pool with off-duty dancers while strippers gyrate to rock music on a low stage backed by mirrors and underlit with red lights. But the bar is more crowded than usual in anticipation of the evening’s star attraction: a woman advertised as “Miss Nude Sweden Penthouse Pet ’89.” Bar regulars Scott Hillocks and Bill Howell, both 21, sit at a table to the side of the stage and talk about what distinguishes Miss Nude Sweden from the other dancers. “Most of the local strippers here are small,” said Howell, referring to the dancers’ breasts. “She’s a lot bigger. You never see this many people here on a normal night.” Added Hillocks, summing up the ethic of a breast-obsessed society: “If you see two girls go by on the street—one flat and one built—which one are you going to look at?”
Sexuality: Now more than ever, breasts— and particularly large ones—are prominent not only in the adult-entertainment industry. They are used to sell everything from beer and chewing gum to clothes and cars. They have become so central to the clothing designer’s craft that pictures in women’s fashion magazines are sometimes hard to differentiate from those in so-called men’s magazines. In the popular perception at least, breasts have become increasingly divorced from motherhood and, instead, are associated entirely with sexuality, youthfulness, femininity and self-confidence. North American culture has enshrined a new ideal, one very much like the ubiquitous Barbie doll—a flat stomach, slim hips and a big bust. Louise Whitney, 42, a Vancouver writer and actor who had silicone implants following a mastectomy, recalled seeing a fashion magazine editor on television who said that women should not feel self-conscious about being small-breasted. “That’s so hypocritical,” she declared. “It’s those same editors who are responsible for filling the covers of magazines with great busty wenches.”
Breasts have nearly always been an integral part of feminine allure. And in the past, as now, many women took steps to accentuate their attributes—often at great personal expense. In the 19th century, a girl might start a process called tight-lacing by the time she was 8—and could still be wearing the binding corsets up to the seventh month of pregnancy. The result, according to Donna Andrew, a social historian at Ontario’s Guelph University, was that often an adult woman was unable to stand up without a corset because the muscles in the centre of the body had atrophied. With the increased
popularity of high-heeled shoes in the 1950s, women’s problems shifted to painful leg and lower-back muscles.
But the shoes appealed—and still do—to both sexes by making the legs look longer and slimmer and by changing a woman’s posture so that both the breasts and the buttocks were accentuated.
While the voluptuous look of American actresses Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield gave way briefly in the 1960s to the boyish
figure of British model Twiggy, the full-figured ideal has returned with a vengeance— although the fullness is confined to the bust line. Many models have breast augmentation to conform to that ideal. Actress Mariel Hemingway underwent the surgery to play the part of a Playboy centrefold in the movie Star 80. But breast implantation is not just the surgical procedure of the stars. Sometimes, a woman may choose implants because her shape has
changed after childbirth. Others, like Jeanne, a 43-year-old Moncton, N.B., woman who asked not to be fully identified, just want their clothes to fit properly. Before she got implants 11 years ago, Jeanne says, “all I had was nipples”—a problem when she shopped. “When you’re going to buy a $600 dress and it’s a perfect fit except for the breasts, that’s where you feel confronted with it—this dress would be perfect if I had normal breasts.”
But there are also more complicated factors behind the quest for larger breasts. Marcella Tardif, 47, runs a support group in Montreal called Le Réseau Je Sais/I Know Network for women who have had implants. She maintains—based on her own experience with implants and those of the more than 300 women in the group—that one of the main factors is low self-esteem. “Women have told me they do it for their husbands, for their boyfriends,” she said. “You turn on the TV and your husband says, ‘Oh, look at the shape on her.’ So what do I do?” That may help to weaken a woman’s sense of her worth. “Women are socialized to believe that you have to be romantically loved, be in a relationship,” said Greta Hofmann Nemiroff, joint chair of women’s studies at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University. “I think that most people’s notions of beauty are created by the media. And beauty in women is associated with getting love.”
Anguish: Plastic surgeons acknowledge the pervasive influence of popular culture. “Society creates its own image of what is beautiful, is desirable, and everyone, in their heart of hearts, tries to live up to it,” said Ian Curry, a plastic surgeon in Moncton. “And if you don’t, it’s a problem.” Added Dale Birdsell, a Calgary plastic surgeon: “Our culture has put a value on this sort of ideal shape. It is a physical peculiarity to have a slim woman with large breasts, but that particular shape has become, from the movies and advertising, the desirable one.”
Rhonda D’Amour, a 28-year-old Toronto model, deliberated for years about whether to get implants. Said D’Amour: “When I was younger, I was flat-chested and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have boobs, to have a chest.’ ” She had already decided to have her
breasts augmented in 1988, when she was picked to appear on the TV show Star Search. She recalls thinking, “All these girls on videos have a chest and I don’t”—and she arranged to have the operation in advance of her appearance. In “A Few Words About Breasts,” a 1972 article for Esquire magazine, Nora
Ephron wrote about the anguish of growing up flat-chested. Now, 20 years later, the 50-yearold Ephron, a novelist and movie director, says that women may have become even more obsessed with breast size. “Women all over the world wish they had bigger breasts—except those who have bigger breasts who wish they had smaller ones,” Ephron told Maclean’s. “I have rarely found a woman who is satisfied with the size of her breasts.”
Pressure: At the same time, mass culture pointedly discourages women from going gently into middle age. “Our society has not had a very valued place for older women,” said Gail Robinson, a psychiatrist and director of the women’s mental health program at the Toronto Hospital. “Older men can be wise, they can be senior executives, they can have grey hair and still be handsome and date. But women’s options seem to narrow as they get older.” And the pressure to remain young-looking is increasing, even as the average age of the population grows. “There’s even more the sense that as you age, you shouldn’t age,” added Robinson. “We have as our models Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Lauren Hutton—in their 40s and 50s, but still gorgeous. The image is, you really don’t change.”
Eventually, says Moncton’s Curry, aging men and women may stop searching for the fountain of youth and accept a more relaxed model of beauty. In a perfect world, of course, even such optimistic predictions would be unnecessary: people would simply value themselves for who they are, not for what shape they are. But until society broadens its definition of female beauty beyond bra size, the bigger-is-better ethic will remain a plastic surgeon’s dream.
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