A great deal of feminist scholarship has focused on why women have cosmetic surgery, given that it’s costly and frequently painful, and that it doesn’t always produce the precise appearance its consumers want to obtain. My research deals with the last of these points in the context of breast augmentation. I’m curious about how women who have their breasts enlarged hope to look after their operation and how they explain their desires to others.
Breast augmentation is the most common type of cosmetic surgery in the US today. The table below represents only those procedures performed by members of one large professional association for aesthetic/plastic surgeons and so likely underestimates national totals. Despite that limitation, though, the figures represented suggest that rates of breast augmentation surpass those of other aesthetic surgeries and that they have risen dramatically between 1997 and 2012.
The popularity of breast enlargement has to be understood in relation to how important women’s breasts are to notions of femininity. In many ways, breasts define women as women. They are therefore fundamentally ‘ours’ at the same time that they’re objectified by cultural representations and the masculine gaze.
The objectification of female breasts is particularly obvious in the popular terminology used to describe them (for example, as ‘bazookas’, ‘pancakes’, ‘twin peaks’, ‘golf balls’, ‘cymbals’ and so on). As various authors have explained, the language used to refer to female breasts marks out the boundaries of ‘appropriately’ breasted femininity. It also tends to present them as something other than human; they’re instead characterized as weapons, foods, natural formations, musical instruments, sports equipment and other objects – i.e., as ‘things’ to be employed, consumed, conquered, played with and played on. Such objectification lends itself to the notion that women’s breasts (even more than other female body parts for which no similar slang lexicons exist) are not only available for intervention but actually need remodelling to more closely approximate cultural ideals.
How such notions are played out in women’s accounts of their own breast augmentation has changed significantly during the years I’ve researched this topic. I’ve spoken with a total of 65 American women during two rounds of interviews: 25 between 1995 and 1997 and another 40 in 2007, with just over half of my respondents in each round having had their breasts enlarged. Among the many interesting things I learned from them, one of the most striking is that ‘fake-looking’ breasts have increasingly become the goal of augmentation surgery.
This finding surprised me because most research to date shows that women have aesthetic procedures to look ‘better’ (i.e., younger, slimmer and more feminine) but still ‘natural’. In contrast, just over one-quarter of those I interviewed in 2007 told me that their aim in having breast augmentation was to look ‘too good to be real’ and, as part of that goal, to defy common knowledge about female bodies – namely, that large breasts inevitably sag. These respondents were in fact insulted if their augmented breasts were ‘read’ as ‘natural’. They interpreted such readings as insufficient recognition of their ability to purchase the technological means to producing bodies whose obvious augmentation both links them to the world of celebrity and represents a form of control over the body and its changes (like those of aging and pregnancy) which devalue female appearance.
Such attitudes are informed by the increasing normalization of cosmetic surgery, which frames practices like breast augmentation as not merely ‘mundane’ but also necessary for achieving an acceptable body. They also draw attention to the ever more constraining nature of beauty ideals and those ideals’ increasing – and problematic – reliance upon (obvious) surgical alteration.
By Debra L. Gimlin, on her article, “‘Too good to be real’: The obviously augmented breast in women’s narratives of cosmetic surgery,” published in the December 2013 issue of Gender & Society.