What does the rapid increase in breast augmentation say about all of us?
A few weeks ago we ran into a relative who had been going through a difficult patch in her life. What I saw made my heart sink. Our relative had gotten breast augmentation surgery since the last time I had seen her. For whatever reason it just smacked me in the face because I had thought she was such an attractive woman -- she carried herself with the kind of grace that makes a person look even more beautiful, not less, with age. So it really upset me that she had felt the need to change herself and, in my view, look less real and frankly to my eye less attractive.
While some experiments with breast augmentation date back to the 19 century, the first widespread use was during the 1940s, when Japanese prostitutes began to have their breasts injected with substances such as paraffin in the hope that American servicemen stationed there after the war would favor them with larger breasts.
Fast-forward to today. Over 300,000 women and teenage girls underwent surgery last year to have their breasts enlarged with silicone or saline implants, and more than 80,000 more had reconstruction after being treated for cancer. According to Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women & Families, the number of cosmetic implants has tripled over the last decade. And 40,000 with implants underwent removal last year.
The CEO of a chain of strip clubs told me that 90 percent of his dancers have breast enhancements. But, he said, "It is more about the stripper building her self-confidence and feeling good about herself, and less about the demand from the customer. Usually if the girl is unhappy with the size or shape of her breasts, she will opt to have implant surgery to be better able to compete with the other entertainers in the industry to make more money."
I asked a bunch of guys what they thought about breast implants in order to get a random sampling of what men really think.
John is a 46-year-old business owner who has lived in Las Vegas for 21 years, and a self-admitted "breast snob." He has watched the dramatic increase of breast implants in Vegas and, from talking to other guys, believes he is in the minority -- but he is a strong proponent of natural breasts. "To me it's all about the way real breasts look, move, and especially how they feel," he told me. "I mean, with my girl on top, real boobs swaying and bouncing, life is good! While fakes may look great to fill out clothing, they just don't look right naked."
Of the guys I talked to, in fact, a majority asserted that they found natural breasts more attractive than breasts that had been surgically augmented. Men who spent a lot of time in strip clubs or watching porn more often admitted to liking enhanced breasts. Like a 26-year-old acquaintance in New York said of fake breasts, "They look better, feel better, and you can have more fun with 'em!" His theory, beyond just finding the larger, artificially enhanced breasts sexy, is that a woman who has surgery actually has more confidence in herself, opinions be damned. In his mind, breast enhancement shows a woman cares about her appearance.
Dave, 52 and from St. Louis, has spent plenty of time in strip clubs. He disagrees; he has always looked for women with natural breasts. "Even if they were petite," he tells me, "I sought their attention and gave them mine over some gal with big, hard, stretched-out fake tits. Those are the worst. Why did I go? I love looking at women and enjoyed receiving their attention. The feeling of a naked or near-naked woman in your lap is never a bad thing in my book. My taste in porn is the same as in a club -- I am consistent. I hate bad, big boob jobs. I also do not get turned on by big, hanging, natural udders."
Jenna T. is a 25-year-old senior account executive at a public relations firm. She has always had a tall and lean body type which, she told me, "is wonderful, but I unfortunately was not blessed with breasts, so I have always felt disproportional and self-conscious about having nothing there."
After extensive consultation with her mom, who she calls her best friend, and her sister-in-law, Jenna decided to have sub-glandular silicone breast augmentation last month. "I am unbelievably happy. I feel more confident, and finally fit into my clothes," she reported afterwards.
Jenna spoke eloquently about how important it is to feel good in your own skin and how she thinks that if there is anything holding you back from being confident and happy, there's nothing wrong with changing it--with or without plastic surgery. She admitted that some male perceptions of the perfect female body include big boobs, but she maintains that she got her surgery for herself and only herself.
Pablo Solomon is a 63-year-old sculptor of some note who has been studying women's bodies now for four decades, in his studio just north of Austin, Texas. He is internationally known for his drawings and sculptures of dancers, many of whom are nude.
"I prefer available," he jokes when I ask him about his preference in breasts. But he goes on to tell me that he is finding it harder and harder to find women with real breasts who do figure work, which is his strong preference.
"As an artist," he says, "I look for models who exhibit a variety of looks. Some of my favorite models have small breasts. The look that I want is for the model to be fit and balanced with that something special, which is often hard to define."
Pablo has been married to the same woman for 35 years, a model and then account executive for Diane Von Furstenberg, Revlon, and Ralph Lauren. She did a lot of swimwear and lingerie modeling and had always had "great legs, an hourglass figure and perfect butt" according to Pablo. Her breasts are real. She not only has hired many models as an executive but also has always gotten the models for Pablo. "She will tell you that even the women who are born absolutely beautiful often have poor self-images. I have had art models who were virtually perfect but ruined their balance by over doing the breast size," Pablo says.
Pablo does commissions for elite clientele, often men with mistresses. Almost all of these women have fake breasts. One major big shot for whom Pablo created sculptures sent all his mistresses to the same plastic surgeon to be molded into identical clones, with outrageous breasts for their slim figures. This always makes him sad.
"To me," he says, "attractiveness stems from the woman being fit, with poise, good posture, a balanced look and yes -- a fun personality."
Grace Gold, 28, author of a book titled The Boob Job Bible, is a journalist covering the beauty industry. Jene' Luciani, 33, is a well-known style correspondent and author of The Bra Book. Both have had breast augmentation. They are both experts in female beauty and style in general but have faced the issue of breast surgery in their own lives for different reasons.
Grace was a competitive figure skater throughout her childhood and teenage years. She had a strong sense of self and healthy relationships with boyfriends, but from a young age she was inspired by the glamour and femininity of old Hollywood. "I've always surrounded myself with images of beauties from that golden era, from Marilyn Monroe to Jane Russell to Sophia Loren," she told me.
Even though she felt like there was nothing wrong with her 34B cup, she dreamed of something different for ten years before she had 310 cc of volume added when she was 25. "I said to myself, 'You only have one life to live. Why not just do it?'"
Jene' always had a "dirty little secret" she hid below her shirt. As a teen she developed tubular breast syndrome, "something that you don't often hear about but that's quite common in women," she told me. "One of my breasts was over a cup size smaller than the other and took on a cone-like shape." This medical issue caused Jene' to be insecure and have profound body image problems.
Finally, when she was 21 and working full-time for NBC News, she decided to have surgery to lift one breast and insert saline implants into both. "I don't think I could have lived my entire life feeling the way I did as a teen -- I always felt like a mutant because of the way my breasts were. It was liberating to 'fix' them," she says now.
Jene' used to be embarrassed to show her breasts to boys, but with a bit of science she is more comfortable now. She ignores the snide remarks she would hear made by men who didn't understand the emotional duress that caused her to go ahead with the surgery. "Women as sexual beings," she says, "feel a lot of pressure to have perfect bodies and perfect breasts. This unattainable idea of perfection is dangerous, especially to young girls."
In all of this I had to re-evaluate my preconceived notions of breast implants as the source of evil on Planet Earth. I do find the acceleration of the procedures alarming and get pretty sick to my stomach when I see more and more women with plastic surgery that, at least to my eyes, is grotesque.
My view on the aggregate level has not changed that much. Kind of like with the prevalence of porn in our country, I still firmly believe that we should all take the obsession with fake over real when it comes to gender relations as a red flag. It shows that we aren't really willing or able to deal with each other directly -- unfiltered, middle-aged body to middle-aged body. We would prefer the fantasy, whether on the Web or in the breast (or, when it comes to strippers, both at the same time).
But when it comes to each individual woman's decision as to what to do with her own body, my judgments really have no bearing whatsoever. Who the hell am I to pass judgment on Jenna the 25-year-old PR executive, or anyone else for that matter?
In the end, I think what scared me the most when I saw our relative and her new breasts was the impact of seeing so many women getting augmentation might have on my daughter, my sister, my wife and the other women who I hold dear. But having thought about it more, I now realize that a woman's body is her own. No man can tell her what to do with it. Not even her father or her husband or her brother.
Originally published on The Good Men Project. All images used with permission of Pablo Solomon.