Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Review: A Boob's Life by Leslie Lehr

When my daughter was younger, she told me that she didn't ever want breasts. Given her genetics, that was not going to be an option. We, on both sides of her family, have been given more than our fair share and in the end, she has too. But other than bemoaning the ways shirts don't fit properly when you're so over-endowed, or how your back hurts from the extra weight up front, or the inability to go braless, none of us has really given much consideration to these things stuck on our fronts, at least not until my mom got breast cancer. Sure, I breast fed my kids and I know that breasts are both sexual and functional but I never really considered them in the way that Leslie Lehr does in her fascinating book A Boob's Life: How America's Obsession Shaped Me...And You.

Opening with the realization that her reconstructed breasts are not even, and the shame this affords her despite her husband's assertion that, like pizza, there are no bad breasts, Lehr gives us an intriguing mix of history, memoir, and feminism told through the lens of the female body, and specifically breasts. She skillfully blends her growing childhood understanding of "pretty" and women's bodies with the reality of American culture from the 50s, 60s, and onward. She talks of the sexualization of breasts using things like lists of movies that feature women topless, including many Oscar winning films you might never suspect. She tracks her own desire for needing a bra to auditioning (as a flat-chested woman) for Playboy. She even chooses her college based in part on her perception of women's worth, as modelled by her father. She looks at the beauty standards for women that played into her own life, her parents' divorce (her father then married a younger woman), her sense of belonging, and the way that the cultural stance on beauty and breasts added to her fears as she was diagnosed with breast cancer not many years into her second marriage.

Lehr does a good job integrating the very personal and the larger general cultural realities, pointing out that while she never relinquished her identity as "the smart one," she was, nonetheless, negatively impacted by society's view of women, their bodies, and their place in the world. Short, dated, and bullet-pointed inserts of the history of bras, the history of Victoria's Secret, nicknames for breasts, first females in huge political positions, and the progression of women's legal rights, among others, add cultural touchpoints throughout her story of growing from a child through adulthood to fully aware womanhood, a woman formed, outraged, and still, amazingly, hopeful for the future.

This is one of the Women's National Book Association's Great Group Reads for 2023.

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