Alan Brien

It is worthwhile to note, first of all, that this book is American, though you don’t have to read far to discover that. To the British eye, interview questions such as ‘How do you relate to the term “flat-chested”?’ or ‘How have men related to your breasts?’ seem slightly comical, and even unnatural, as normal speech. And you would have to travel far in this country, and be rather unlucky, to come across a woman who dropped into conversation, as one does here, the sentence: ‘I’m still not entirely deculturated in terms of my aesthetic values.’ But then it is also American to have, alongside this half-educated, pseudo-scientific academe-speech – with the two languages often used in alternate sentences by the same speaker – a parallel tradition of tough, direct, demotic bar-talk: ‘All I need is some asshole to make a comment like “Geez, you don’t have any tits at all!” and I promise you, they would carry the bastard off on a stretcher!!’

But the most American thing about Breasts is that it is produced in a country which seems, at least by comparison with Britain, obsessionally bosom-conscious. There, the evidence suggests, breasts are no longer correctly identified as secondary sexual characteristics. They have become almost the only sexual characteristic – the primary target of male attention, aggression, fantasy and gratification, as of female preoccupation, defensiveness, embarrassment and self-awareness. Not only does the real North American man show himself as a tit-man but the real woman is a tit-woman. In the pop annals of the transatlantic sex war, we have often heard the male denounce the archetypal woman as a ‘ball-breaker’. It now appears from this book that the American female has good reason to regard her archetypal man as what can be dubbed a ‘tit-puncturer’.

Quite why the Atlantic should divide masculine womanisers into those on that side who generally prefer the female body above the navel, and those on this side who incline largely to the area below, is a conundrum worthy of a book in itself. I suspect the domination of a Southern European image of womanhood there, with its emphasis on the faithful, early-maturing earth mother, the home-bound suckler of broods of children, and here a continuing élitist, aristocratic preference for the elegant, decorative mumsy, with her undemanding two offspring, who keeps her figure, and her opportunities for discreet adultery, into middle age. I also see the American imprisonment in the Fifties, the age of the busty pin-up and the Jane Russell bra, and the British nostalgia for the Twenties, the age of the flat-fronted flapper and bob-haired pal, which made ‘boyish’ a compliment exclusively applied to girls, as divergent, twin reactions to a fear of homosexuality. To prove that men do not really yearn to spend all night, as well as all day, with other men, women have had to be moulded into impossible, idealised dolls, either with endless, decorative, impractical legs stretching up to the armpits, or boundless, decorative, impractical breasts sticking out to here.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in