Breasts and American History

Breasts have been the topic of men’s poker nights and women’s slumber parties for as long as anyone can remember. But taking a look back at some female American icons from the last century, it seems tastes and dream bodies change faster than Christina Aguilera’s hair color.

Before the 1920s, corsets and crazy masses of fabric filled every woman’s armoire. Getting dressed was an assisted event and getting undressed could not have been a very sexy process. After World War I, some women were not interested in being housewives. They wanted to dance and smoke and chop off their hair. In short, the flapper was born. The flapper girl wore pants and special bandeau-style bras that flattened their chests. The ideal woman of the 20s was Greta Garbo, with her two-dimensional body and bad-ass deep voice. Her mysterious presence captivated audiences in films such as “Anna Karenina,” “As You Desire Me,” “The Mysterious Lady” and “Flesh and the Devil.”

By the 1930s the flapper girl was out. Curves came bouncing back with the introduction of cup sizes and elastic straps on bras. Actresses owned their sensuality, devouring men with just a look. Actress Mae West was known for her sexy glances and innuendo-filled dialogue. In 1934, the censors of the American film industry banned bare breasts and shots of women in their underclothes. Even necklines were measured. Admirers of West found a way around this, however, when perfume manufacturer Schiaparelli modeled its perfume bottles after West’s figure, according to Beatrice Fontanel’s 1992 book “Support and Seduction.” Women could mist themselves with perfume under the actress’s sultry, watchful eyes. West was known for her “assets,” to the point that sailors named their lifejackets after her ample chest, according to Web site That is one powerful figure.

In 1946 a bomb went off. No, not that bomb, but the sound of the bikini swimsuit being worn. Frenchman Reard created the tiny wonder, named after the Bikini Atoll nuclear testing site. An explosion indeed. According to “Support and Seduction,” there was a minimum on the amount of fabric used to make a swimsuit. The bikini used the bare minimum. The bikini would not gain widespread popularity until about 20 years later.

You only have to hear the word “Marilyn” and images of platinum hair, bedroom eyes and voluptuous curves smack you upside the head. In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe defined the sexy bombshell. Starring in films such as “Niagara,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “Seven Year Itch” and “All About Eve,” Monroe solidified herself as a fascinating beauty and talented actress with a knack for comedy.

Actor Jack Lemmon captured her relentlessly seductive quality best in “Some Like it Hot” when he exclaimed, “Look at that! Look how she moves. Like Jell-O on springs. She must have some sort of built-in motor. I tell you, it’s a whole different sex.”

It is no wonder, then, that her relationships with President John F. Kennedy, baseball player Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller were just as captivating as her film career.

“She still is the woman Americans think about when they think of “sexy” from a previous generation,” said GW student Zachary Frankle, 19, of East Hampton, N.Y., “I saw a movie of hers once. It seems like today, still, it’s very hard for women to get anywhere without having to be very good looking, or extremely intelligent. Women are constantly objectified. But I’m more of a leg man myself.”

Enter 1961, when one hot little lady, very little lady, graced our presence with her black and white striped swimsuit and golden blond ponytail. Barbie made her debut and captured the hearts of teenage girls everywhere. This was no ordinary girl. Mattel Toys created a doll so sophisticated that Barbie became a fashion and beauty icon that could be carried around in every girl’s backpack. Barbie was lifelike, trendy and very pretty. This doll even had a boyfriend, Ken. She had mass appeal because she took on so many different roles with outfits for each occasion. There was even a “fraternity dance” Barbie introduced in 1965, although a tiny Natty Light can was not included. Barbie was the doll every young girl wanted to be friends with, and she remains a timeless, ageless – and collectible – female icon.

By the 1970s it seems America had become more sex-crazed than ever before. Playboy magazine was in full swing, the invention of the birth control pill had free love grooving away and even advertising was getting pretty hot. You can’t even think about toothpaste ads and shampoo ads from the 70s without thinking of one angelic beauty – Farrah Fawcett. Her real claim to fame, however, would be after the commercials when she starred as feather-haired Jill Monroe on “Charlie’s Angels.” The slightly controversial show was nicknamed “Jiggle TV.” This may explain why her famous red swimsuit poster has outsold any other poster ever made, and her Playboy issue became the most popular issue in the magazine’s history. Plus, she was 48 when she posed for the magazine. Now that is a body that won’t quit.

The 1980s brought back the busty woman. Thanks to the introduction of everyone’s favorite fabric – spandex – women of all sizes could do their aerobics and flashdances in comfort. Advances in every aspect of intimate apparel made women want to show it all off. Corsets and garters made daytime appearances. Everyone remembers Madonna’s Jean Paul Gaultier pink cone bra number she wore during her European tour. Perhaps she was finally giving props to the people who do lingerie best? Madonna’s trend-setting underwear-turned-outerwear is also interesting when you take a look at her “Material Girl” video that mimics Marilyn Monroe’s role in “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” One icon imitating another, but both remain pioneers of sexual power.

Cayo Gamber, a professor of women’s studies and a member of the University writing faculty, has done much of her research on the cultural implications of the breast. Gamber said American culture needs to adapt so that the female body is surrounded by less taboos.

“Madonna took what we hide, and she sexualized it but she was given the agency to do it,” she said.

The 90s should perhaps be called “The Decade of Big and Expensive.” Cars, engagement rings, concert tours and breasts grew to new obscene measurements. One slow-motion jogging lifeguard with beach blond hair comes to mind – Pamela Anderson. Ms. “Baywatch” got her big break in Canada when attending a football game and appeared on the jumbo-tron wearing a Labatt Blue T-shirt. She soon became Blue’s beer girl, starring in ads and television commercials. Her fame quickly escalated and she has since posed for Playboy more than any other woman in the history of the magazine. Anderson speaks openly about her breast implants and the procedure itself. Anderson’s candid lifestyle may explain why breast implants have become one of the most popular cosmetic surgery procedures today.

“There was an episode of “Baywatch” in which a contest was being held on the beach, and about 80 women were lying face-up on the sand, the majority of the bust lines stood straight up – they were obvious implants. Real breasts would sag slightly,” Gamber said.

Although no one can ignore her figure, some GW students think Pam took it a little far.

“Pamela’s back must hurt,” said Alexis Seidel, 19, of Springfield, N.J., “I think her implants are a little large, a little unnecessary. If you want to pay for boobs, go ahead. But hers are a bit much.”

Gamber mused on the implications of breast augmentation surgery. In a culture that wants to be bigger and better, people tend to forget the actual process of the surgery.

“Some plastic surgery industries are capitalizing on implants by advertising them as a spa experience,” Gamber said. “One in particular in which a tummy tuck is performed and fat is pushed up into the breast cavity, like a two-in-one deal. But in reality, the procedure is very long, invasive and includes very large, open cuts.”

Now we are three years into the new millennium and it is hard to say what female chest will make the most headlines. Some may say Britney Spears’ curvaceous physique is the ideal, and others might say Cameron Diaz’s athletic build rocks their world. It is certain that the ideal bust line has constantly evolved, from the A cup to implants, and will continue to change along with American society’s fickle tastes.

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