On Thursday night, every potential status update came out wrong:
“I have always loved Keira Knightley’s breasts, but now that she’s exposed them, I love them even more.” Nope.
“Seeing Keira Knightley’s un-photoshopped boobs confirms my early adoration of them.” True, but still nope.
“Hey, I look like Keira Knightley!” Uhhhhh… no.
I didn’t want to make it sound like I loved seeing Keira Knightly’s breasts simply because they actually are spectacular, but after seeing the picture of her and her un-retouched boobs, I desperately wanted to share it.
In the moment, I couldn’t have explained why I wanted to do it. Even now, a couple of days later, I still don’t know if I can articulate it.
But the photo was more than poignant for me.
It was powerful, and I was moved but not exactly inspired. Deep down, I felt something akin to relief but stronger than validation.
Ultimately, I think it was the feeling of reclamation.
I’m not about to post my own topless photos, but I did want to show what reclaiming my own chest looks like. Apparently, it looks like a no make-up selfie in an American Apparel bra because I’m not a professional photographer, it seems like making nudity a political statement is a special move reserved for celebrities and artists this month, and I’m not Keira Knightley or Chelsea Handler.
If this all seems a bit melodramatic, don’t worry, I know how it sounds. And I’ve been waiting for the feminist critiques of Knightley’s so-called “brave protest” to start rolling in (read more about this online trend here).
After all, Keira Knightley is a stunning woman who, like so many famous celebrities, is a thin white woman with great bone structure who naturally fits nearly all of the beauty norms and standards of American culture. (Also, perhaps especially because she is a famous actress, Knightley’s intentions are completely irrelevant to the swaths of wide-eyed, sexually-exploitative, BroBible-thumping straight dudes who are thinking, “BOOBS? SCORE! And I don’t even have to hack, creep, or coerce to get a look?!?!”)
Finally, maybe the whole thing really is just an ingeniously-timed publicity stunt to help promote her next movie.
We could raise many a skeptical eyebrow to Keira Knightley’s boobs and the effectiveness of this particular anti-photoshop protest, but I just don’t care.
For me, this is personal.
When I was thirteen, during that time of middle-school hell when everyone is made to feel insecure about their bodies, I hung out with a group of girls who all had enough boob mass to smoosh their young breasts together and make weird tween-cleavage in pictures.
I didn’t, and I was hyper-aware of this fact.
One of those friends was the “other girl” that my then childhood-love-since-fourth-grade would date whenever he and I were in one of our “off” periods. I don’t remember if it was when we were getting back together during seventh grade, eighth grade, tenth grade, or our senior year before going to prom, but I do remember that he said, “Her boobs are better than yours because they’re bigger.”
Fortunately, by the time we left for college and before we ultimately broke up for good, that same boyfriend managed to make it up to me by saying one of the best things ever that I’ve also never forgotten: “There’s a shortage of perfect breasts in the world; it would be a pity to damage yours.” The fact that it is a Princess Bride quote only makes it better.
Just before leaving for college, though, my psychic-friendly parents invited a bunch of people over for a party consisting in their very own psychic readings. When it was my turn, one of the first things the psychic said to me was, “I see you in a lab coat or something. Oh, and don’t ever get a boob job. You don’t need it.” He clearly lacked in any psychic abilities and was obviously taking cues from the Harvard t-shirt I got from Goodwill and just happened to be wearing that night.
In reality, I was nearly eighteen years old, already vocal with my feminist values, and totally pissed that he would even suggest I would consider a boob job or study the natural sciences. Perhaps he was inferring that I was “too smart” for a boob job. The only other alternative I could think of was a laboratory-set porn scene. Whatever he was trying to do, I didn’t appreciate what he was “seeing” about me. Nor did I appreciate that my parents were giving him money to say it.
It gets better.
In college I went full-throttle hippie-feminist and finally gave gendered beauty norms the big “fuck you” that I had been waiting for while growing up in Idaho.
I shaved my head, stopped shaving my legs and armpits, let my eyebrows grow in thick, and was just one tempeh-fueled night away from literally burning my bras.
I even completed an entire ropes course in a helmet but no bra. (Years later, I learned that this stunt, which was really just a by-product of being happily, unapologetically me, created a reputation that preceded me in the small Fort Collins lesbian community and eventually caught up to me while I was living in Pennsylvania).
Throughout the decade of going to college and grad school, I dated many different types of people and consistently, fluidly, changed how I related to gender norms and lived out my feminist ideals.
Somehow, I also stopped being hyper-conscious about my breasts.
Over the past ten years, between going braless and buying new bras of all types, dating women and finding myself spending half of my nights in a beer-infused fraternity house with a younger guy, I learned to love my body and all that it can do.
I especially fell in love with my own little boobs.
I’m not trying to make the case that my breasts are the greatest ever, but I do appreciate that they don’t ever get in the way. I can run and jump and dance and they don’t cause me pain. Precisely for those reasons, I even appreciate how I become more aware of them when they swell and get a little sore after I ovulate each month.
I absolutely hate wearing padded bras with underwires and, practically speaking, I’m grateful that I don’t have to wear them since I don’t need the support. And if we weren’t such idiots about women’s nipples in this society, I would go braless way more often. By the way, speaking of nipples, I fucking love mine. They’re super sensitive and a goldmine for sexual pleasure.
Despite the past decade of really growing into and truly loving my own body, of having all the big love of feminism to empower and support me even more, I’m still not immune to the pressures to have larger breasts. I don’t even mean the pressure to have huge tatas to fulfill other people’s fantasies. I mean the pressure to have just a little bit more, enough to actually fill an A-cup bra, enough to smoosh together and produce more than a “cleavage” of skin wrinkles.
For me, right now, I’m not in a place of owning my body and my breasts like I have before.
For example, I’m grateful that my un-bra-bound chest enables me to wear this slinky, backless dress. That’s why I bought it and rocked the shit out of it in Vegas. But when the hired photographer at the anniversary party of our favorite bar in town asked to take a picture of my boyfriend and me, I didn’t know where the photo would end up and I instinctively covered up my chest lest my flatness or my nipples be seen in contexts that I didn’t walk into myself.
It’s one of my favorite pictures of my boyfriend and me together and it makes for a great headshot, but this, dear friends, is what “self-conscious about my breasts” looks like.
For the sake of my own well-being, I recently joined a gym. I do yoga once or twice a week to manage my stress and help alleviate some carpal tunnel-esque syndromes. I also try to find one day to get my dance on with an elliptical machine and the Missy Elliot Pandora station. I don’t have a fitness goal in mind regarding things to build, sculpt, or define, but the worry did cross my mind that if I lost weight my already tiny boobs would get even smaller.
Last month I read an account of a woman who got into lifting at the gym and eventually decided to get breast implants. As she was working to “perfect” her physique with disciplined exercises and a good diet, she worried that she would look “deformed” as her body fat melted away and her breasts started to shrink. Ultimately, she decided to get breast implants because, according to her, she had already been living with “fake boobs” by wearing padded bras all along.
I couldn’t believe that she would consider small breasts a deformity.
I know plenty of women who have had breast implants and I don’t criticize or judge their decision to do so, especially if that choice helped them feel better about themselves and/or made them more confident in how they look. I do, however, wish to aggressively criticize those people whose preferences, attitudes, comments, and behaviors contribute to a social climate where women feel insecure about their breasts such that a painful and costly surgery would be considered a viable means to the end of feeling more beautiful.
In other words, I don’t have a problem with breasts of any sort – big, small, saggy, pointy, fake, or whatever. I do, however, have a major problem with all of the ways women are told that we aren’t good enough, including the message that we could be more beautiful and desirable if we just had bigger, more perfect boobs.
Even if you’re KEIRA fucking KNIGHTLEY.
So that’s why I loved seeing Knightley’s breasts. The image and the intentionality behind having it be openly seen by the public took all of the times that I, as a young girl, noticed the flat chests of actresses with awe, respect, and hope to a whole new level.
I loved Julie Stiles’ tiny titties in her spaghetti strapped tank tops in 10 Things I Hate About You. I appreciated how you could see Kate Hudson’s little boobs underneath her white tank in How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days and hoped to one day have a reason to look as breathtaking as she did in that silky yellow dress. Who remembers Debra Messing? By name, probably no one. But I remember her flat chest and big red curls from episodes of Will & Grace. And I remember the first time I saw Keira Knightley in that wet, white dress in Pirates of the Caribbean. I totally checked out her boobs and they made me happy.
None of these memories are sexualized celebrity fantasies. They’re testaments of a young girl who was growing into a young woman and needed to see other women who looked like herself.
These are testaments about the importance of role models, and just how much it can mean to be vulnerable, to boldly accept and share yourself with the world, even if, at times, doubt sneaks in and other people think you could be better. Despite those little moments of self-consciousness and insecurity, it may help to know that someone else could be noticing what you do and, as a result, loving you more for all the times that you love yourself.
*UPDATE: For any readers who wonder, “If you loved your body so much before, how and why did it so suddenly shift?” Well, I was stuck in an emotionally abusive relationship with someone who consistently put me down and tried to make me feel terrible about myself. My chest was a frequent topic. I didn’t explicitly state this about my relationship when I first published this post (and I certainly got “in trouble” for posting it at all), but writing this was extremely cathartic for me at the time, it posting it was itself an act of defiance against his abuse. And a reclamation of my body and my well-being. Things are much better now. Once I got out of that relationship, I quickly returned to loving my body and my small boobs, through and through.