Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Fake Breasts: An Inquiry

There's been good news: although I have no car and am trapped in this house for three straight days, the Internet connection has not only been fixed, but it's been improved! I can get online with my very own computer, which will make it much easier to post photos and such. So expect more of those.

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.

6 Comments:

Anonymous jbp said...

Head-underwear, penis-foreheads... women (though certainly we do check out guys) are generally not as visually stimulated. Generally. So I'm not sure that forehead-penises is an apt analogy, also because that would be displaying a primary sex characteristic, whereas breasts are not reproductive organs in and of themselves. That having been said, I think women have a different relationship with their breasts than men do with any of their body parts --breasts are there a display of sexual desirability, sure, but their absence (ask any mastectomy patient)is worse than the loss of a limb to many women. It's not just the sex-appeal, it's the maternal, youth, health, fertility trait that makes women ... women.

6/03/2008 11:25 AM  
Blogger Laura Toepfer said...

OK, I've actually been thinking about this, damn you. What a strange factoid!

To go back to your forehead penis analogy (I can't even believe I'm writing this): suppose men started off life with just, say, a clitoris and labia on their head, which at puberty developed into penis and testicles. If you did not develop much, even if what did develop was sufficient in every practical sense, I could imagine that there might be a feeling of not quite being a full man.

Breasts are weird, you know, how they erupt like that. And as a hypothesis, I wonder if there is some way that breast enhancement surgery can make women feel more like women.

And then there's the wonderful comment from a young Malaysian friend of mine who, when told about breast implants, asked, "Why would anyone want more than two?"

6/04/2008 3:42 PM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Actually, part of my argument is that women aren't as visually stimulated at least in part because men aren't actually showing that much that's stimulating or stimulatable. Which I realize comes close to saying that sexism and sexual differences are in our genes, so let me just add that I'm curious about this BECAUSE sexism is wrong, and understanding where it comes from is part of the strategy for undoing it. (In the same way, I suspect that we're instinctively tribal, and we may be hard-wired to be prejudiced based on people having different skin colors. But we can overcome it; it just takes extra training and awareness.)

And Laura, that quote is so wonderful, I think you've made my entire week. Thanks so much!

By the way, the more I think about it, the more I think that the factoid must be wrong somehow. For it to work the way the happiness research allegedly says it does, breasts would have to be the ultimate supremo-supremo be-all and end-all of happiness, and I know plenty of women who simply think of their breasts as nothing special and even a little boring. It seems far more likely that prurient male scientists asked breast-only questions and got skewed results. So I'm holding my belief a little skeptically now.

6/04/2008 7:18 PM  
Anonymous SydB. said...

I must thank you for posting such an insightful blog about breast augmentation. I recently had breast augmentation surgery and went from an AA to a C...and I'm not a brainless twit. I decided to get them because all of my life I have had nothing in that department. It is true that society sells sex and the biggest seller of that which can be openly advertised seems to be Breasts! Very rarely do you see someone being noted as sexy that has breasts that look like nothing more than pectoral muscles. Padded bras were created to help the woman with insufficient breasts look better under clothing, but when the bra comes off...the insufficiency returns. I didn't have the surgery to become the sexiest woman alive or increase the amount of attention I might receive from men. I had the surgery to balance out my body in a more proportionate way, and admittedly to be able to wear the clothes that I want to without feeling like an idiot who has to scientifically figure out a way to make a bra fit under the outfits that were not made to be worn with them to begin with. And also, to make myself feel more womanly when the bra comes off. Society has in a way led women to concentrate on the looks of their bodies and it starts at a young age. Not just with their breasts, but also with their aging looks, tv and magazines promote anti aging products because wrinkles have become horrible, pale skin is apparently not as great as tan skin, and grey hair is unacceptable. Very rarely do you see commercials for men that have to do with wrinkles or tanning. So the pressure for women to be an ageless and ideal beauty is ever increasing. So who are the real half wits? The women who are trying to reach the ideal or the people who are pushing that ideal as the best?

7/15/2008 3:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much... Everything I have read has been so interesting. All of you are very intelligent and thoughtful.
I have never blogg'd before except on Myspace and I'm lying in bed watching Sienfeld...

Ahywhoo after reading this I got inspired. No thanks to spell check on this I have to actually pay attention with this tiny keyboard (sorry if I sp). Okay well here I go...

Do larger breasts signify a woman's most beauty and catch all the eyes. Speaking from experience I went from a B to a ... YES. Do I think the D is large, no, because I'm 5'll and toned. Would I go larger perhaps a little. That's just a personal choice but do I think it's changed my life on a personal and professional level "yes"

I have the same job but people look at me differently but not in a way that's demeaning. I have always been confident but I think it has added a great deal of confidence. I had been wearing padded bra's almost all my life. I guess I got caught in the loop of thinking larger breasts were more appealing... I can assure you that's a personal preferance. I had many men tell me my B boobs were great... Yes, I like style and I challenge myself to look good by taking care of myself, working out, and eating healthy.. You don't see my medicine cabinet filled with endless dead-end products instead you find herbs and Coco-Butter. I don't get stucked into that crap because I do my homework. Therefore what breast implants have done for me is helped my clothes look better and I'm not talking about tank tops or boob shirts. I'm talking about nice shirts and suits. I don't have to push my boobs up to the hights of heaven or buy endless padded bras that makes my boob feel like foam. Oh then the male thought of the foam bra when you actually get together is even better because it can take you down almost a bra size. I recall a time, long ago, when I started dating this guy and finally in the heat of the moment he tooked off my bra. After wrestling for quite sometime I felt the release of the straps and as he pulled it down and toss it on the floor it sounded like a tidal wave rushed through my room. Alarmed he asked "what was that". I responded with "there must have been soemthing on the floor that was hit". Knowing that sounded WEIRD and so embarrassed that my WATER-BRA almost busted on the floor I wanted to absorb into myself and hide. If you go to a good doctor he will not let you go too big that's going to make you look gross. My implants fit my size and look natural. Now that I have breasts I wear thin bras that feel comfy and its way more natural feeling. Yes, I do get a lot more eyes on me but if you are a real person you are going to be able to weed through those guys who are just after your breasts. There are plenty of men out there, my phone does ring a lot more than it did before, but I'm grounded and real and can read between the lines. Has it made me more social I would have to say that I was social before but it has bumped it up a notch. Was I happy before, yes, but I wanted to do this like the previous blogger because I never had them and wanted to look better in clothing. I'm 32 and I have been working hard and I just wanted them... You know you only live once and if your like me when you think of something you just get inspired to go out and get it. Was this something shallow people do, perhaps....I'm not shallow but I'm sure the Barie Kardashian / Jolie lipped woman have a tint of that. I can see some of you thinking why wouldd you risk your health by going under the knife. Well I put some thought in it, of course, because I love myself, my family, and friends would be heart-broken and I was confident that nothing was going to go wrong. The way breast feel are a sign of womanhood, fertility, and attractiveness. It is too bad that some men look at it as only sexual. I realize men are visual and I think if woman were too then the majority would have unstable eyes. I know I would try not too but you can't tell me that if you saw a handsome man or pretty woman walk in that you would not look... Our society revolves around sex and beauty. If it didn't revolve around this would we have implants, porbably not.. there would also be no rich fashion designers making clothing that showed certain areas. We would not be reading Cosmo or Vogue and Calvin Klien or Ambercrombie nodels with bulging abs would not be all over billboards Okay they are not on billboards that alcohol but which one is better? I guess they both could be considered an addiction... Before I get lost in this and lose you attention I will say good bye and hope my blog enlightens all.

Dot

Men with penis' on their heads, good luck there are penis enlargements as there is so what makes you think that would not be as prevalent as breast implants. I would have to say that most doctors perform that now and there are endless pills and pumps that have been on the markets for years. You men have it made, no birthing childen, and the only thing you have to worry about is that great smile (be careful not to Crest Strip too much) and the blue eyes. well yeah most of you wish it were that easy but you guys have to have the muscles as well as the nice legs, tanned, body, and decent sized package. So we all have it ruff but the only way to keep it in check is to say grounded. I'm not thinking the cavemen were worried about breast size but who knows most men and I'm sue woman (since we are all diverse) find them entertaining so it would not be surprising.

Thanks...

8/07/2008 2:52 AM  
Blogger Hadewisa said...

Maybe you are interested in this site.

Small Breasts, does size really matter?

I wish you´ll like it and it´ll be useful for you. Regards.

10/02/2008 4:49 AM  

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