Fake Breasts: An Inquiry
In the meantime, I thought I'd open for discussion a fact--or possibly a factoid--that's been diverting me lately. In The Geography of Desire, Eric Weiner talks a lot about the things he's learned about happiness research in the years he's spent studying up for the book. Among these is a fact that I'd read before elsewhere: that a study of recent lottery winners and recent amputees showed that, although their happiness changed temporarily (lottery = up; amputation = down), within a year, both groups of people had reverted to their normal level of happiness. The obvious lesson--and the reason this stat gets quoted a lot--is that happiness is inside you, and your external circumstances won't actually improve your lot in the long term.
So far, so simple. But Weiner adds an additional note: the research, he says, shows only two exceptions to this rule. The first is noise: people who live in, or work in, an oppressively noisy environment NEVER report high happiness until the noise is removed, whether it takes a year or ten. The second--are you sitting down?--is fake breasts. Women who have had breast augmentation really do report increased happiness that doesn't go down even years later. What's more, he notes, this same effect has not been observed for any other kind of plastic surgery: not lipo, not Botox, nothing. Just fake breasts.
I'm trying to wrap my head around this and I haven't quite succeeded. The easiest thing to do would be to simply dismiss the study. It's quite possible that Mr. Weiner made a mistake, or possibly cited as fact a study that's been discredited since. But assuming that he's being honest (which seems the only charitable assumption in the face of his wonderful book), what else might account for this?
Another obvious way to think of it--and the reaction I've often gotten when I've mentioned this at parties--is "those women must be really shallow, and it's such a shame." But I resist this interpretation for the exact same reason I'm assuming the best of Mr. Weiner: it doesn't seem charitable. A LOT of women get boob jobs; it would really be amazing if they were ALL shallow idiots, wouldn't it? I'd like to think better of women in general, no matter what sort of surgery they choose. Any explanation that says "Everyone's stupid except me" smells extremely fishy.
So this leaves the question still open, and I thought I'd ask if anyone has a theory. Not only am I not a woman, but I really don't much like fake breasts (bad ones look like airbags that went off; it's as sexy as fondling a Mylar balloon), and I have, in fact, a historic fondness for incredibly small breasts, as a look at a few of my ex girlfriends would verify. (If I ever date a woman with fake breasts, I'm sure I'll learn to love those too.) So I don't really have a dog in this fight. My hope is that this gives me a helpfully dispassionate perspective, at the cost of some measure of ground-level understanding.
Anyway, my suspicion is that women really are judged by their breasts every single day of their lives, in a way that they're not judged by their faces, their butts, their hair...and in a way that men never get judged at all. And unlike the face and hair, which really can be significantly altered with makeup and styling, breasts are either there or they're not -- at least, when things get to the bedroom. And they contribute to a woman's overall shape at what is basically eye level. And so I suspect--suspect, mind you, and I'm willing to learn differently -- that the breasts a woman develops is sort of like a more extreme version of a man's height: whatever size your genetics endow you with also, in a way, foretells your future. Tall men are generally more successful with women, are generally assumed to be smarter, richer, and endowed with every other positive manly quality. And a woman with larger breasts will (our culture assumes) get the guys, get the jobs with the money, and seem to be more womanly all around.
(I should add, of course, that this is true only up to a point--say, right around a D cup. When you get into double-letter bras, I presume peoples' estimation of your intelligence drops, which is one reason why large-breasted actresses only rarely win Academy Awards. I know at least two women who got breast reduction surgery for this same reason, and they, too, were thrilled with the results even years later.)
The other possibility that occurs to me is that maybe this isn't true of all breasts--maybe it's just something that women with smaller breasts are constantly made acutely aware of. It's impossible to find clothes that fit; you never feel comfortable at the beach, et cetera. One operation would, at a single stroke, remove a dozen daily irritations at once; the breasts that were a barrier to the rest of the world have become instead a helpfully-sized bridge. If this is the case, then it would make sense if the women who got breast enhancement would be unusually happy with the results. If you didn't care, you wouldn't get the surgery in the first place.
Which leads me to another thought: For years now, I've wondered what human culture would have been like if evolution had done something silly like make men's penises grow from their foreheads. Obviously, men would have to cope with their unmentionables being in constant public display, and you'd see men engaging in all the behaviors that women do: stuffing their head-underwear (I've always imagined head-underwear in this fictional scenario, since a world with everyone wearing turbans would be too easy and would spoil the point of the thought experiment), covering their accidental erections with books or hands (just like today!)...and being ready to pay any price for a surgery that would make them at least average, to get that first unfavorable comparison out of the way. (And by the way, surely women in this world would be expected to learn to maintain polite eye contact and not treat guys' foreheads like pieces of meat.)
I guess what I'm suggesting is that perhaps women who get breast implants aren't shallow so much as they are incredibly frustrated: that their opting for surgery says less about them and more about our culture, which has always tended to demand that women be sexy first and whatever else they are second. But I also suspect that our culture itself does this, not necessarily because it's trying to be sexist, but a little more unconsciously, a little more helplessly, because of the evolution that has a.) made breasts sexually desirable, and b.) placed breasts where they are, in plain view of everyone. Men with penis-foreheads would, I imagine, face much the same pressure to conform to beauty standards, and for much the same reason: because although we tell ourselves, and even know for sure from experience, that looks don't matter, our eons-bred instincts leap to judgment anyway if we don't determinedly hold the reins, and it's one of the first things anyone can't help but notice, much like skin color. If we weren't mammals who fed live young from milk, this issue would never even have arisen.
I realize I'm walking into a minefield here, and it's tempting to list my own feminist bonafides in self-defense. But I won't do that, trusting in my optimistic way that I'm just thinking out loud here and don't mean any harm. I've just got this data point that seems quite evocative, and I refuse to believe that women who get implants are all twits; if they really are happier for years afterward, the cost-benefit ratio must be quite intense. I'm just curious to know in what non-shallow place this happiness lives, and what, if anything, we can do to make everyone happier without surgery. Because if lasting happiness is one surgery away, then lasting happiness is only for the wealthy, and I don't want to believe that life itself actually works that way.
As a final note, I just want to say that thinking about this topic has made me think about how exposed women are, by virtue of having breasts, to the world as a whole. Their breasts, which are sexually sensitive and therefore must carry some portion of private sexual identity with them, are compromised in hundreds of little ways: in hugging someone, in getting jostled on the subway, in occasionally being visible due to bad bra design, or a poorly chosen blouse, or the vagaries of cold weather. Small wonder that women really do seem more comfortable, on the whole, with the airing of emotions and the sharing of intimacies. (Women buy 80% of the greeting cards all over the world.) You've got no choice; you have to get brave and comfortable or you'd never go out at all. (Or, god forbid, go around in burqas.) In this sense, at least, a surgical procedure makes all the sense in the world. That way, at least some part of your identity, and the way you get interpreted, can be under your control. I'm not sure that explains all of the happiness, but it definitely feels like a start.