Politics of Breasts

Breasts are arguably the most visible aspect of a woman’s physiology. The sprouting of breasts at puberty signals the onset of sexual maturity. Breasts are also the most judged part of a woman’s body, constantly evaluated on parameters like size, shape, colour and firmness. Given how sex and politics are rarely mutually exclusive, the politics of breasts is real.

“While breast are primarily mammary glands, they are also the most sensuous part of a woman’s body. But we have been socially conditioned to feel ashamed of our bodies and sexuality,” says Capt (Retd) Sumisha Shankar a Dance Meditation Coach who helps women discover their feminine energy to lead healthier and stress free lives. Most of Capt. Shankar’s clients are highly educated, empowered and financially independent women, and yet many of them don’t feel that they have complete agency over their breasts. “During my workshops, I try to get them to open up and truly appreciate their feminine form, but most women maintain a diminutive body language as if they feel the need to hide their breasts,” she says. And the politics of breasts becomes even more complicated when we get into caste and class dynamics.

In the early 19th century, there lived an Ezhava woman named Nangeli in the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore. At the time, only upper caste women were allowed to cover their breasts in public; lower caste women had to pay a special tax for the same privilege. The tax was based on the size of the breasts.

Nangeli refused to pay this tax and as an act of defiance chopped off her breasts and offered them to the tax man when he came knocking on her door. Shortly afterwards, she bled to death. Her grieving husband committed suicide by jumping into her funeral pyre. This led to the breasts tax system being annulled in Travancore. The bravery of one Dalit woman called out the hypocrisy of the caste system and also brought into focus the politics of breasts in India.

“Feminists cannot ignore the voice of the Dalit woman. Nor can we shy away from recognizing how political it is even today to even acknowledge breasts,” says feminist Smita Sahay, founder and CEO of Accio Health. Social media regularly censors images of naked female breasts. It is difficult to breastfeed in public in countries across the world and the Free The Nipple Campaign is demanding the de-sexualization of breast to grant them greater parity with topless male torsos.

“Real empowerment comes with dismantling the element of shame and granting a woman greater agency over her own body,” explains Sahay. As far as the raging debate on Emma Watson’s under-boob magazine cover, Sahay feels the real story lies elsewhere. “I remember that Watson once endorsed a skin lightening cream from Lancome, but discontinued association with the product later. That is an empowered and responsible decision. So I don’t care if she even walks around naked.

A real feminist will always acknowledge that a woman’s worth is not linked to the amount of skin she shows willingly, but to the amount of social responsibility she shows while taking vital decisions that have the potential to impact or inspire others,” she says.

“Instead of debating Emma Watson’s sincerity as a feminist, we need to focus on creating an environment where a woman can decide whether to expose or cover her breasts without fear of patriarchal retaliation,” says equal rights activist Harish Iyer. “I have never seen a boy being asked to wear tight underwear to prevent his family jewels from wiggling but we expect our women to wear proper bras. That inequality can only be mitigated by proper sex and sexuality education,” he elaborates.

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