The Next Breast Thing

They are known by many names, some of which are endearing, silly or downright demeaning, none of which adequately describes our cultural obsession with them. We call them boobs (too whimsical), mammaries (too medical), teats (too Shakespearean), honkers (too Man Show), jugs (too Pamela Anderson), melons (too horticultural), ta tas (too aristocratic), bosoms (too PC) and breasts (too KFC).

Not every culture is as enamored of the big bust (too grandmotherly) as we are. For West African men, the thigh is the object of desire; the Japanese fixate on the back of a woman's neck, while Chinese men had an ages-old love affair with feet, the smaller the better. Our particular cultural titillation with large chests (too gender-neutral) traces its roots to the waning days of World War II when fighting men longed for home and hearth. Certainly there was something nurturing and safe at the thought of being cradled in the bosoms of the women who kept the home fires burning--not to mention the sight of Betty Grable in a tight sweater or, later, Marilyn Monroe in just about anything, particularly Playboy, which elevated the breast to celebrity status, bringing it into the modern visual age.

All of which illustrates our cultural conflict with big knockers (too Home Improvement). On the one hand, they offer mother's milk. On the other, they have been totally sexualized by our culture, seen as the first thing that walks into a room, a rack that needs to be checked out, a partially clad Victoria's secret that teases with coyness and arouses with curiosity.

And for many men, the bigger the better. "So many bottle-fed babies in the '50s and '60s having been denied access to mother's breast as children may make adult men more interested in women's breasts," says Texas A&M anthropology professor Katherine Dettwyler, who co-edited Beauty and the Breast: The Cultural Context of Breastfeeding in the United States.

Of course, it's not just men doing the ogling. Breasts also hold great psychological significance for women. They mark life's passage from childhood to womanhood to motherhood. They are decorative ornaments, sexual attractants, weapons of power and, sadly, a way to get ahead in the workplace--breasts for success. Women judge women on how they look, how big their hair, how close their cleavage. Breasts can take on a physical and emotional life all their own: They are perky and buoyant; they can excite and delight; they sag and disappoint.

If they are a source of smallness or anguish, they can be enhanced surgically--subjected to the cutthroat world of cosmetic surgery (a subspecialty of plastic surgery), which has staged a comeback from the hit it took when the Food and Drug Administration restricted silicone gel-filled implants in 1992. In 2000, board-certified plastic surgeons of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported that they performed more than 212,000 breast augmentations, up from 167,000 in 1999. Of course, few towns are more cutthroat than Dallas, a place where the confluence of image, money and climate cause women to flock to self-promoting physicians who tout state-of-the-art boob jobs at competitive prices. Dallas is also the city where two plastic surgeons and one lawsuit are waging a somewhat ironic battle over what constitutes the most natural fake breast.

"Angie Jameson" is a plaintiff in that lawsuit, though she refuses to allow her true name to be used in this story. A divorced business executive, she had never longed to have her breasts augmented. She fashioned herself more the athletic type, a smallish, petite blonde who stayed shapely by staying in shape. Yet after nursing a child for nine months, she had lost some of the "naturalness" in her breasts, and she wanted it back, "plus a little more," she frankly admits. In 1999, as a 40th birthday present to herself, she decided to investigate the possibilities. "I really wanted to fight the aging process," she says. "If I was going to do it, I didn't want that buxom Dallas look."

A close friend who had her breasts augmented by Dr. John Tebbetts said it changed her life. Jameson went to see him and found him confident, countrified and cool. His head was shaven; his ear pierced--not the brainy, lab-coat countenance many doctors tend to reflect. He assuaged her fears about the risks involved, though pointing out the many complications that were still a possibility. Then he told her about his latest invention, a shaped saline-filled implant. Jameson says he claimed that it "was more anatomically correct than the round saline implant, more natural." He held both implants in his hands: his anatomic, with its teardrop shape, and the round, which would come up rounder and higher on the chest--or so he said. "I didn't want a big cleavage," she says. "I knew it was more expensive, but what difference does $500 make when you are paying $6,000?"