Shannon Horace writes about the journey to body liberation in a society that wants to define and control the ideal female body type.
I understood the significance of the female breasts far before I ever had a pair of my own. As a child, somehow there was this collective understanding that having large breasts was something desirable or ‘preferred’ – how we knew this, I have no idea. My primary school girl friends and I would pretend we had big boobs, bras and boyfriends in our imaginary roleplay games at each other’s houses. I came from a long line of large-breasted women, and when I hit puberty at the age of 10, I learned very quickly all that came with having them.
At age 12, I was a B cup, already frustrated with how they looked. My clothes didn’t look right with boobs, and my boobs didn’t look right with clothes. They didn’t have the teardrop shape I was expecting from the anatomy diagrams we were shown in our first sex-ed talk. I was curious about pornography because the boys I knew had been openly talking about it since Year 6. One night past my bedtime, I turned my phone’s volume down, my Bluetooth off, and typed “porn” into Google. Immediately I was inundated with videos of sex. Men in the comments were lusting over the women with their perky, often surgically-enhanced breasts. Naturally, I thought I was supposed to look the same as if there were a standard breast shape that all women had. This ideal was quickly cemented into my underdeveloped, easily-influenced brain, and my self-worth was being constructed by all of the expectations around me.
At 14, I realised that my breasts grew larger than a lot of the other girls in my year group, and it wasn’t just me who noticed this. The boys at school were becoming increasingly more open about pornography and masturbation, leading to all kinds of sexual comments about their preferences and what they deemed ‘sexy’ or ‘ugly’. They’d amplify what was said in crude memes on social media, carelessly hurling insults to the girls whose bodies weren’t yet developed. There was more than one Shannon in my year, so I was “The skinny one with the tits” to them. I started to use my boobs to my advantage because I had what the boys were lusting over. I was excited to be desired so I’d wear push-up bras and crop tops, I’d purposely tease boys and I eventually started sexting. After all, my hormones were raging too.
To my dismay at 16, I discovered that my breasts didn’t have this innate ability to defy gravity like the male gaze wanted them to. It hadn’t occurred to me that the expected by-product of having heavy F cups was larger areola and sagging. No longer did I fit into the already narrow parameters of what was deemed attractive by society, and by extension, myself. I scoured the internet for the costs of breast reductions, for exercises and even foods to improve their perkiness. My breast type was underrepresented, to be had in secret, to be on internet forums seeking solutions, to be lifted by special supportive bras. I couldn’t find my breast shape anywhere around me and to my knowledge, nobody had boobs like mine.
It was around this time that I found myself secretly loving the show Naked Attraction (the dating show where contestants choose their date based on their naked body). I was exposed to bodies and breasts of all different types, shapes and sizes. I saw boobs that were different sizes to each other, boobs that grew outward, boobs with nipples pointing to the floor, boobs with really dark areola, boobs with really pale areola, boobs with stretch marks, boobs with hairy nipples, boobs with inverted nipples. I loved seeing breasts of all types, and as a queer person I felt attracted to quite a lot of them. But despite this, the social expectation for the ‘perfect’ size and shape was so deeply ingrained, that my mind hadn’t changed at all. I still wanted the ‘perfect’ pair.
My experience isn’t unique, and I’m one of millions who’ve grown up this way. One of the most pertinent, loud and proud advocators for the representation of all boobs is Chidera Eggerue. It was only two years ago in 2019 that I came across her Instagram which, retrospectively, was timed perfectly with my starting university and figuring out who I was in this new chapter of my life. Chidera is the best-selling author, feminist and creator of the #SaggyBoobsMatter movement. She asserts that there’s a significant lack of representation of saggy boobs in the media, particularly those belonging to “fat, dark-skinned black women”. The issue with underrepresentation of course is that we often fail to see the existence of what we’re not being exposed to, leading to feelings of alienation. The #SaggyBoobsMatter movement ensured that different body types were showcased and admired, alongside challenging the narrow passageway of desirability that society urges women to squeeze into.
Women of colour like Chidera undeniably experience more alienation than I do as a white British woman. When we’re taught about female puberty we’re shown simplistic diagrams of a white woman with ample breasts, small nipples and small areola. When we buy bras the models wearing them are thin, toned, often white and have perky breasts. When we watch pornography we often view it through the male gaze, which lusts after surgically-enhanced, perky boobs. Similarly, the ‘unattractive’ features of women are fetishized as guilty sexual pleasures and given their own porn category. When we scroll through social media, we see women with their perky breasts in dripping wet bikinis, posing to keep up with the ideal image they portray. These bodies are placed on pedestals, while the rest are left marginalised.
Society idealises and sexualises large breasts, but as soon as they err beyond the boundary of sexual value, they’re cast aside, thrown into in the dump heap labelled ‘unattractive’. The patriarchy’s allocation of desirable female traits has varied over time, our bodies coming in and out of trend. Growing up, women with large breasts and tiny frames like Katie Price were glamorised, sparking a demand for large implants. More recently, the trend leans toward having naturally perky breasts, slightly smaller but still with tall, skinny frames, as illustrated by supermodels like Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski. Furthermore, now we’re also seeing the recent popularisation of the Kardashian/Jenner ‘look’: large perky breasts, curves for days and a butt that the media speculates is the surgical redistribution of fat. This time around, our battle is with winning the genetic lottery and having gravity-defying breasts, or the ability to pay for what’s currently on-trend. Women are stuck on a stage and society controls who stands in the spotlight, who gets to be this season’s projection of perfection.
Discovering Chidera’s #SaggyBoobsMatter movement marked the turning point in my journey of body acceptance. She was the first woman I’d encountered to break through the oppressive patriarchy in refusing to pander the male gaze, in not just accepting but liberating the body she was born in. In her refusal to be ashamed of her natural sag, Chidera has sparked a flame in my heart to truly love what essentially is just skin which houses an array of glands, fat cells and tissue. I wish I had a role model like Chidera growing up. I wish that my sex education showcased the diversity of human bodies in all cultures, with the assurance that each and every one of them was beautiful. Perhaps I’d have been kinder to myself. Perhaps I’d have loved my breasts.
We can’t travel back in time, but we can carve out our futures. Moving forward, body positivity should be taught to us as early as possible, and sex education should feature all of the forms that bodies of every age and gender can take. It should deconstruct the association between sagging breasts and old age. It should be repaired and reconstructed to prevent the silent inner turmoil that many of us experienced during puberty. Girls needn’t go through the laborious process as adults of learning to love themselves, unlearning the fatphobia they absorbed in early life. I’m working on demolishing my internalised desire for the ‘perfect’ breasts according to the male gaze. I’m nurturing myself by following people with breasts like mine on social media. I’m wearing whatever I want and disregarding any opinion other than my own. In learning that beauty standards are a product of the patriarchy, I am liberating the breasts that were passed onto me by the beautiful women who came before me.