The blog Jezebel semi-recently ran a piece, “When Your Breast Shape Goes Out of Style,” in response to Playboy’s article, “Evolution of the Boob,” in which the sexually explicit magazine memorialized the past few decades and the breast styles that defined them (note: the Playboy article is NSFW). Playboy, in its exact words, purports to explain “how and why women’s breasts have changed over the years,” as if all women’s breasts magically morphed over time to conveniently reflect changing socio-political moods. Maybe what Playboy really meant to say was that as shown by the models exposed in the mag, the public’s concept of the “ideal” pair of breasts has changed over the years: “wholesome” in the 50’s, “torpedo-like” in the 60’s (think: Cuban missile crisis), hard and plastic in the 80’s, and so on. Jezebel points out how ridiculous it is to assign a fashion era to a body part, as if the shape of one’s anatomy could be “out” this year, “in” the next. Granted, Playboy is Playboy, and let us let it serve its purpose as purveyors of fine bodily visuals (oh, and apparently, great articles!). I admit I found it interesting to try to boil down the zeitgeist of a certain era to the sexual imagery most appealing at that time. But let’s face it, isn’t it punishing to women to treat their breasts as fashion items, and in some abstract sense, to expect them to be changeable every decade? Are men’s body parts subject to this level of scrutiny? I don’t think so. A decently toned man’s body seems to be a solid classic across all decades.
This got me to thinking about breasts in Senegal. The Playboy article inadvertently highlights the naivete that many Americans have around breasts. Since Americans rarely get to see them in person, we delude ourselves into thinking that breasts are perfectly shaped and sexy, or even more fictitiously, that they fit a particular mold. As many of my male volunteer friends in Senegal have joked, breasts, and the mystique that surrounds them, are nearly ruined for them. Why? Because we see them all the time. Days into our training in Senegal, I was plunged into my homestay family, squished around a communal bowl for dinner next to a topless woman whose one-year-old son was draped in her lap while she simultaneously offered him her bag of a breast and hand-scooped rice into her own mouth.
Breasts here are not considered a private body part the way they are in most of the Western world. Once a woman is pregnant or has given birth, her breasts can be exposed at any time, to no one’s shock or discomfort. At the child-bearing stage of a woman’s life, her breasts have achieved their functional, neutral, udder-like status. Women here cover them up to go to the market and in more formal settings. A man’s presence has little if any bearing on whether it is appropriate to have one’s breasts exposed.
For cultural comparison’s sake, breasts might be to Senegalese people what women’s thighs are to Americans. In the United States, a woman could expose her thighs around the house or when exercising, but would probably cover them up for more formal occasions. At the same time, if in the U.S. a woman were in public and her thighs became exposed, it would not be scandalous. Whether a woman’s thighs would be considered sexual would rely heavily on context. The opposite is true here. A woman will generally never show her thighs in Senegal; most of the time it is best to cover the entire leg. The knee-to-waist area is especially private.
To a certain extent among volunteers, breasts have lost their romance. No longer enhanced by a bra and hidden behind a T-shirt, breasts here are open for viewing and they are often disappointing. So that’s what they really look like. Did we really think that a woman who has breast-fed a few kids still has large, perky ones? Or that the round shape of a bra cup serves as an identical cradle, rather than something to fold a breast into? Where did we get this idea that breasts always had a sexual allure, that seeing them exposed would necessarily be forbidden and exciting?
Porn, media, Puritanical American culture. Blame what you wish. The point is, Americans have a complex about breasts that Senegalese do not. I would argue that even in a place like France, where you can see bare-chested women on television, breasts are still sexualized; their presence on television is precisely because they are erotic. It was striking as an American volunteer to be thrown into a domestic Senegalese setting with unconcealed breast-feeding and brassiere-optional style. It was even more shocking for my male volunteer friends who would normally have thought that a locker-room style parade of naked breasts would be thrilling. Now, they are desensitized to the sight of anonymous boobs.
Which is not to say that certain breasts are not still considered sexually attractive, although the line in Senegalese culture is blurrier than in American culture. In doing research for this piece, I spoke with several male PCVs, who in turn have had man-to-man talks with their male Senegalese friends, which is a rite of passage of sorts (I conjure up images of arm-jabbing, laughter, and raunchy jokes being sloppily communicated in local languages). The unadultered opinions of Senegalese men (when it comes to sexuality) is something as a woman I have little access to. What I found is that for some Senegalese men, breasts have absolutely no sexual charm. Others might concede that breasts may have their allure, but only among young women, which is partly why a young woman who has not had children yet does not expose hers. I have heard that some men here actually prefer barely pubescent breasts, as in that of a budding 12-year-old nymphet. Humbert Humbert lurks even in Africa.
The funny thing about the Playboy article is, it unknowingly communicates a sense of its author(s) being sheltered (the article is anonymous). I imagine the 30-something Playboy writer, huddled under his bed sheet, his boyhood flashlight replaced by the glow of a laptop. Hurrying to meet his deadline, he pulls images from the internet and his memory of the only real breasts he’s had real-life access to, of maybe ten different women, as if that’s a representative sample. And now he’s married and foolishly clinging to the idea that breasts fall into categories, and more pitifully, that he knows what he’s talking about. Maybe he should come to Senegal and live a little.
More so than with any other blog post, I pondered a great deal over what kind of image, if any, I should publish here. Needless to say, I was not going to show a picture of Senegalese breasts despite their ubiquity in real life; in my opinion it would still be disrespectful especially given the Senegalese hesitance have around cameras. And why replicate the photos already published in Playboy? So I chose the pacifier. After all, it is a replacement for the real thing, similar to the way we allow Playboy images to stand in for what is available in real life (and much like my oft-mentioned food porn obsession).
And I just want to say, I’m not deliberately trying to be provocative in this post. Discussion of breasts (along with gastrointestinal troubles, gnarly infections, and romantic gossip) is like water cooler talk among Peace Corps volunteers, akin to “did you see the Padres game on T.V. last night?” Breasts are just everywhere, and it’s good to have a sense of humor about them. A dear friend of mine frequently recites his summary of his Peace Corps experience with a simple phrase: “Beers. Boobs. Bismillah.”