Boobs. There are big ones, small ones, fake ones, and some women who don’t have boobs at all. So, how do you really feel about yours?
This is the question filmmaker Elizabeth Sankey asks of a wide range of women in Boobs: The Story Of Breasts, a new Channel 4 documentary which – before you ask – features more breasts on show than a teenage boy’s hard drive.
And that’s kind of the point. Discussing everything from the sexualisation of nipples to the experiences of breast cancer survivors, Sankey’s film addresses the ever present male gaze head on. What else but boobs, as she says in her introduction, are a source of both titillation and nourishment?
Only by exploring this, ahem, touchy subject can we reclaim what is ours. Sankey’s film is well worth the watch – here’s what we learned along the way.
Boobs on film have a lot to answer for
“Growing up in the 90s I was exposed to the stereotypical ideals of perfect breasts before I’d even gone through puberty,” says Sankey, who recalls how many cultural touchstones made it feel like breasts really belonged to men.
We’re talking American Pie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Weird Science – and that’s just for starters. Sure they were all funny movies, but who were the boobs in them actually for?
“Back then, you could get boobs whenever you wanted,” says Sankey – as long as they belonged to thin, white women and were thoroughly objectified. You couldn’t escape breasts on screen: even if you didn’t watch Baywatch, you probably watched Joey and Chandler watching Baywatch on Friends...
There’s no such thing as perfect (boobs)
Surveys show British women are more dissatisfied with their boobs than any other nation, Sankey reveals, before reflecting this could be because we don’t see other people’s that much. She then chats to someone who does.
“I have seen so few perfect breasts and I’ve seen in excess of 25,000 in my career,” says a female plastic surgeon, who suggests her clients fill a stocking with couscous to test out whether they really want breast implants.
Women change their boobs for all sorts of reasons, she says – from fixing the deflation that can occur after breastfeeding to older women wanting an uplift. And women of all ages ask for reductions (she says she regularly fixes boob jobs performed by male surgeons who’ve gone too ‘Pammy’ first time round).
Later, Sankey asks what life would be like if we no longer held up an ideal of the perfect breast. “It would put me out of business but it would also make people feel better about themselves,” says the surgeon truthfully.
Real or fake, our boobs are our own
Megan Barton-Hanson, best known as a contestant on season four of Love Island, has spoken openly about getting her first boob job (of three) at 19. Here she likens it to a blow dry – if women have the money and do their research, why shouldn’t they be free to change their looks?
Like all Sankey’s talking heads, Barton-Hanson is asked if she’d be okay doing the interview topless and replies: “I’m definitely comfortable being topless on camera, but I feel like unless I’m getting being paid I’m not going to do it.”
She goes on to speak about her current Only Fans career and the positives of sex work, which allows her to live the life she wants. “I’ve never felt this free and financially stable,” says Barton Hanson. “Men have made money off women for so long, so why wouldn’t I take the power back?”
Black boobs are often hypersexualised
Sankey visits an event hosted by artist Sophie Tea, where the artist paints 50 women’s bodies before they walk a catwalk naked in front of their friends and family. The process looks hugely liberating for all involved.
“I’ve got really big boobs so I’ve always struggled with body shame,” says one participant, Jackie Adedeji.
“There is definitely a lot of hypersexualisation around Black women’s bodies. Growing up, that was definitely projected on to me... You’re already seen as animalistic, so [it’s] ‘Don’t give anyone any bait. Just hide yourself.’ Then I realised that’s not my problem. I’m not trying to be sexual, I’m just being me.”
By the end of the show, Adedeji is celebrating her “sag”, while another participant speaks of the positive impact of the day on her poor body image, which she blames on the fact that “we don’t know what normal looks like” when it comes to our boobs.
Bras are like friends, they support us
As Sankey sees it, depictions of bras in TV and movies (often directed by men) fall into three main categories:
A sign of sex through the male gaze
Utilitarian garments that leave us sexless
The marker of a girl becoming a woman
She chats to Soozie Jenkinson, head of lingerie design at Marks and Spencer (where so many of us got our first bra!) about the history of them. Interestingly, the first M&S bra in 1926 was a soft-cup one, not unlike the bralettes that are now back in fashion after decades of underwiring.
Bras, first and foremost, are about support, Jenkinson says. “The older I get the more I want bras that give me nothing but comfort,” agrees Sankey. Is it any wonder more of us are opting for this over “Hello Boys!” style corsetry?
“Who needs tits?”
A discussion of breasts can’t not touch on breast cancer, “the most common cancer in the UK population,” Sankey tells us – and her film features the stories of two separate breast cancer survivors.
One women, Jo, is taking part in Sophie Tea’s catwalk show after undergoing chemotherapy, radiotherapy, a hysterectomy and a double mastectomy (even though doctors only found cancer in one of her breasts). “When you get diagnosed with cancer you don’t think you’re going to be here. But I’m here,” she says. “Who needs hair? Who need tits? Who needs a womb?”
As she later elaborates: “Society says women should have boobs, I’ve decided to live flat. I’m still a woman, boobs or no boobs.” Another interviewee, Elaine, has also opted against reconstruction, and has two birds tattooed on her chest instead. “A little pair of tits,” she giggles.
Boobs have a purpose, too
Sankey reveals that after she gave birth to her son, her breasts went up several cup sizes and she hated them. But not as much as society seems to have a problem with a breastfeeding woman.
One woman recalls the telling off she received from a male security guard for daring to breastfeed her daughter in a shopping centre; another recounts, second-hand, a woman who sat down on a park bench to feed her baby, only for a man to sit down next to them to make sexually suggestive comments.
Once again, the media can take some of the blame for this. Let’s not get started on that breastfeeding scene in Game of Thrones, shall we?
Getting to the nip of it
As the film draws to a close, it floats that age-old conundrum: why the hell men’s nipples aren’t sexualised when women’s are.
Visible nipples are the catnip of catcalling, suggests Sankey, who cites a survey that found 97% of women have been sexually harassed in this way. This “dictatorship of the male gaze” (as it’s referred to by another interviewee) controls our clothes, our behaviour, and our safety. Women are on “high alert”.
But they’re also fighting back – by reclaiming their breasts and protesting topless. Since Free The Nipple was released in 2014, the film has grown into a global campaign and Sankey hears from its Brighton chapter leader.
“We aren’t saying breasts aren’t sexual,” the campaigner tells her. “It’s down to women to choose the context in which they are sexual.” We say amen to that.
Boobs is on Channel 4 on February 7 at 10pm, and available to stream on All4.